John Updike Biography

John Updike is always caught in the middle. Fortunately, that’s how he likes it. By his own admission, Updike has dedicated his career to depicting middle-class people in small-town America. A New England native, Updike’s dissection of Yankee WASPs earned him early success and numerous literary awards. Later in life, Updike experimented outside that comfort zone, yielding mixed results and responses. These later works often take well-known stories and reinvent them or retell them from a new perspective. At its best, Updike’s writing celebrates America, even as it depicts the complexities of human relationships. In lesser efforts, Updike has been criticized as indulgent and simplistically self-satisfied. Still, his impressive body of work contains fiction and nonfiction, prose and poetry, short and long form, and children’s stories as well as grown-up sagas.

Facts and Trivia

  • Updike’s depiction of small-town America took a whimsical turn in his novel The Witches of Eastwick, later adapted as a film, a short-lived TV show, and a stage musical.
  • One of Updike’s best-beloved pieces of writing is an essay about legendary Boston Red Sox player Ted Williams called “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”
  • A departure from his usual work, Updike’s 2000 novel Gertrude and Claudius is a prequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
  • Updike, the critic, is not afraid of taking on fellow novelists, regardless of their reputation. He has traded words with the likes of Gore Vidal and Tom Wolfe.
  • Updike died on January 27, 2009, at the age of 76.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1214

John Updike was born on March 18, 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania, the only child of Wesley and Linda Grace (Hoyer) Updike. His early years were spent in the Shillington home of his mother’s parents, John and Katherine Hoyer. When John was thirteen, they moved to the old family farm in Plowville, ten miles outside Shillington, where John’s mother had been born. These were lean years for the family, which was supported only by his father’s meager salary as a mathematics teacher at Shillington High School. Though poor, his parents were well educated and had high aspirations for their son, who showed an early aptitude for art and writing.

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Influenced by The New Yorker, the youthful Updike was determined to become a cartoonist and writer for that magazine. His mother, who had literary aspirations of her own, became determined that John should go to Harvard University. Because of his good grades, Updike won a full scholarship in 1950 to Harvard, where he majored in English and was editor of the Harvard Lampoon. He graduated with highest honors in 1954. He met his future wife, Mary Pennington, a Radcliffe student and daughter of a Unitarian minister, while he was a sophomore. They married in 1953, when Updike was a junior. In 1954, Updike published his first story in The New Yorker.

The Updikes spent a year during 1954-1955 at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England, financed partly by a Knox Fellowship. Their first child, Elizabeth, was born during this time. After publishing four stories and ten poems in The New Yorker during that year, Updike was offered a position as The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” reporter. The Updikes settled in New York City; Updike wrote for The New Yorker until 1957, when he felt the need to leave the city to devote his full time to writing. In April, 1957, they moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, where they lived for the following seventeen years. In 1958, his first book, a collection of poems called The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, was published. In 1959, Updike published The Poorhouse Fair, his first novel, and a collection of stories, The Same Door. His second child, David, was born in 1957. In 1959, Updike’s second son, Michael, was born; in 1960, his last child, Miranda, was born. The Ipswich years saw Updike not only as a prolific writer but also active in community affairs. He was a member of the Congregational Church and the Democratic Town Committee.

It was during that same period—the late 1950’s and early 1960’s—that Updike faced a crisis of faith prompted by his consciousness of the inevitability of death. His reading of the works of Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard and, especially, the Swiss neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth helped him overcome this crisis and find a basis for faith. A preoccupation with the sense of death runs throughout Updike’s fiction, as does an exploration of theological and religious issues.

Updike’s work published in the 1960’s established him as one of the United States’ important writers. In 1960, he published Rabbit, Run, the first in a series of works about a middle-class man and his family set in a small city in Pennsylvania. Updike returned to this character at intervals of a decade, with Rabbit Redux appearing in 1971, Rabbit Is Rich in 1981 (winning the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and the National Book Award), and Rabbit at Rest in 1990 (again winning the National Book Critics Award and Pulitzer Prize). This tetralogy was brought together in 1995 as Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels, and in paperback in 2003 simply as The Rabbit Novels.

In 1962, Updike’s second short-story collection, Pigeon Feathers, and Other Stories, appeared, and in 1963, another collection of verse, Telephone Poles, and Other Poems, was published. His novel The Centaur, also published in 1963, earned for Updike the National Book Award and election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters; he was the youngest man ever to be elected. In 1966, The Music School, another collection of stories, appeared, and he has continued to publish stories (often in The New Yorker) and to collect them, in such volumes as The Afterlife, and Other Stories (1994) and Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel, “Rabbit Remembered” (2000). In 2003, he brought together The Early Stories, 1953-1975 to much praise, including the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Likewise, he published his Collected Poems in 1993, and Americana, and Other Poems in 2001. In 2000, he edited The Best American Short Stories of the Century, with Katrina Kenison.

In 1964-1965, Updike traveled to Eastern Europe as part of a cultural exchange program. A number of his works reflect that experience, in particular Bech: A Book (1970), Bech Is Back (1982), Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel (1998), and The Complete Henry Bech: Twenty Stories (2001). In 1973, Updike traveled, under State Department auspices, to Africa; his novel The Coup (1978) draws upon that experience. His 1968 novel, Couples, caused quite a stir because of its explicit treatment of adultery in a Northeastern suburb and became a best seller. It gained for its author a cover story in Time and favorable treatment in Life as well as a large sum for the film rights.

Over the years, Updike has also published collections of his essays and reviews—Assorted Prose (1965), Picked-Up Pieces (1975), Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism (1983)—that show Updike as a fine critic and cultural commentator. As in his fiction, his range is vast, from Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism (1991) to Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf (1996). He is also a distinguished reviewer of art and has collected his essays in Just Looking: Essays on Art (1989) and Still Looking: Essays on American Art (2005).

In addition to the Rabbit quartet and Couples, a number of Updike’s novels focus upon love and marriage and its discontents. His own marriage ended in divorce in 1974. In 1977, Updike married Martha Bernhard. Such story collections as Museums and Women, and Other Stories (1972), Problems, and Other Stories (1979), Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories (1979), and Trust Me (1987) reflect Updike’s concern for marriage in various stages of decline and difficulty. The novel Marry Me, published in 1976 but mostly written before 1968, also focuses upon a flawed marriage. The novels A Month of Sundays (1975), Roger’s Version (1986), and S. (1988) make up a kind of updating of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). The Witches of Eastwick (1984) attempts to explore love and marriage from a woman’s perspective.

Memories of the Ford Administration (1992) continued Updike’s exploration of contemporary sexual mores, against a background of American history. In Brazil (1994), Updike ventured into Latin American Magical Realism, In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996) returned to a spiritual history of four generations of Americans, Toward the End of Time (1997) traveled into a postnuclear future, while Gertrude and Claudius (2000) explored the lives of Hamlet’s parents. Seek My Face (2002) reflected Updike’s continuing interest in American art, while Villages (2004) returned to the Northeast in a story of suburban marriage from a male perspective. By 2005, Updike had produced more than twenty novels and an almost equal number of short-story collections. In addition to his numerous awards for individual works, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1989, the National Book Foundation Medal for distinguished contribution to American letters in 1998, and the National Medal for the Humanities in 2003. Updike died in 2009 at the age of 76.

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