(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

By the time he reached the age of seventy in 2002, John Updike had built a secure reputation as novelist, poet, and critic, rivaled perhaps only by his close contemporary Philip Roth as a chronicler of American society and politics in the second half of the twentieth century. As Updike suggests in his foreword toThe Early Stories: 1953-1975, however, his career—if not his reputation—was built upon the short stories, many of them very short indeed, published here together for the first time. Like two other famous Johns before him—O’Hara in the 1930’s and Cheever in the 1940’s—Updike formed and honed his talent as a contributor of short fiction to The New Yorker. During the years covered here, his contributions to that magazine provided his main source of income, allowing for the purchase of his first automobile and a move to the town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, thinly disguised in his fiction under the name of Tarbox. The time frame of the stories, Updike says, coincides roughly with the duration of his first marriage and its immediate aftermath. Rather obliquely, he credits his first wife with making his career possible.

In the opening sentence of his foreword, Updike is careful to label the volume a “collection,” adding, “A selection, surely, is best left to others, when the writer is no longer alive to obstruct the process.” Reviewing his early production with the present volume in mind, Updike deleted only four stories and made only minor changes to the others. The collection totals 103 tales; an index shows when each story was submitted for publication in essentially final form. For those already familiar with Updike’s published fiction, the organization is at first somewhat bewildering, arbitrary if not idiosyncratic. There is no chronological order, and stories previously published together, such as those involving the archetypal Updike couple, Joan and Richard Maple, are scattered through the volume according to thematic classifications assigned by the author-as-editor in preparing the current retrospective.

The first grouping, “Olinger Stories,” parallels but does not duplicate a paperback collection of the same title. Many of the tales, moreover, appeared previously in the hardback volume Pigeon Feathers, and Other Stories (1962), and the town of Olinger is featured in Updike’s novel The Centaur (1963). Later groupings include “Out in the World,” “Married Life,” “Family Life,” “The Two Iseults,” and “Tarbox Tales.” Some of the tales in “The Two Iseults” are, in fact, set in Tarbox, as are some of those in “Married Life” and “Family Life.” Two final sections complete the volume: “Far Out,” consisting mostly of very short, experimental pieces, and “The Single Life,” with single, divorced, or separated protagonists including Richard Maple and the writer Henry Bech in his very first appearance. In Updike’s subsequent fiction, Bech would assume an increasingly dominant role, featured in three story collections followed by The Complete Henry Bech (1992).

Only Updike can explain his choice of classifications, and in the main he prefers not to, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions as to why some stories belong together and others do not. In the absence of chronological order, it is hard to trace the author’s evolution as a storyteller or to place the stories in time without consulting the index. Arguably, though, as several reviewers have noted, Updike’s talent as a storyteller sprang full-blown into maturity; there are no juvenilia here, no painful steps in search of surer footing. Perhaps, indeed, the credit belongs to Updike’s editors at The New Yorker, initially Katharine White and later William Maxwell. (William Shawn was editor in chief at the time, founder Harold Ross having died in 1951.) By Updike’s own admission, White initially rejected more tales than she accepted, and it is likely that such juvenilia as may have existed were consigned to early oblivion. If there is a pattern to Updike’s classifications in the present volume, it may well be a kind of “meta-chronology” concerning the age of the characters featured, regardless of the date of composition: As the volume progresses, Updike’s focus gradually shifts from early adolescence toward the cusp of middle age.

Significantly, the story Updike identifies as his first submission, dated 1953, did not appear in the magazine’s pages until 1955, after the editors had already accepted and printed a subsequent submission in 1954. That first story, “Ace in the Hole,” not only shows Updike in full control of his potential but also...

(The entire section is 1908 words.)