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.
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...
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Updike is rightfully acclaimed as one of the most accomplished stylists and prolific writers of his generation. In both thematic seriousness and narrative range, he produced a body of writing of the highest order.
His fiction constitutes a serious exploration and probing of the spiritual conditions of American culture in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first, and it reflects a vision of life informed by his protestant Christian convictions. Like the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, in whose steps Updike ably follows, Updike’s fiction continues the long conversation concerning the plight of innocence and its loss that has been so central to the American tradition. In a world no longer supported by traditional...
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