John (Hoyer) Updike 1932–
American novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, and essayist.
Updike is an acute observer of the human condition and an extraordinary stylist. His major subject is the domestic life of the American middle-class and its attendant rituals: marriage, sex, child-rearing, and divorce. Against the placid setting of suburban America and in concurrence with his interpretation of the thought of philosopher Sören Kierkegaard and theologian Karl Barth, Updike presents people—usually men—searching for meaning in the painful awareness of their mortality and basic powerlessness. The tension in Updike's work is often the result of his characters' struggles to determine what is right, to know how to behave as changing individuals in a constantly changing world.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 5; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)
The variety of subjects [in Assorted Prose] is impressive; Russia's first moon shot, a dinosaur egg, style in sports writing, the quiz show scandal, the assassination of President Kennedy. There are also obituary notes on John P. Marquand, Grandma Moses, and T. S. Eliot. Two longer pieces, one on pigeons and one on Antarctica, show how well Updike could handle a New Yorker research job.
Among his other apprentice works were several parodies…. Whether or not Updike is, or someday may be, a great writer, he is not a great parodist. Although the parodies were pleasant enough to read as they appeared in [The New Yorker], most of them—the principal exception is the parody of Harry Truman—scarcely seem worth republication.
Of greater interest are several longer pieces, especially "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," an account of Ted Williams's final game in Boston. Updike, a true enthusiast, wrote about the great day con amore. Although I am sure that the article would delight any baseball fan, it is interesting to me as a piece of writing….
Of the more or less autobiographical pieces, the most interesting is "The Dogwood Tree," which was written for a volume called Five Boyhoods. Updike speaks of it disparagingly, but I find it fascinating, not merely as a vivid reminiscence but also as a commentary on his fiction. Here are the settings of The Poorhouse Fair, Rabbit, Run, The Centaur, and many of the short stories. The youthful John Updike, as he presents himself here, is readily identified with boys we have met in his fiction.
Then there are the book reviews. Updike is not, and does not pretend to be, a great critic, but he is a consistently interesting literary journalist. He has reviewed a variety of books for The New Yorker and other magazines, and he appears to have approached each of them with the liveliest kind of curiosity. (p. 25)
The reviews are also interesting because they suggest some of Updike's values as a writer of fiction. Sillitoe's stories, he remarks, show "enviable assurance and abundance in the writer"—qualities that Updike surely possesses. He says that Sillitoe is "well-armed with intelligence, humor, and (my guess is) stamina." He describes Muriel Spark as "one of the few writers of the langauge on either side of the Atlantic with enough resources, daring, and stamina to be altering, as well as feeding, the fiction machine."
Updike's versatility is as obvious as his mastery of the language. But, some people ask, isn't he spreading himself too thin? Has he written anything that is worthy of his talents? Isn't it time he wrote a Great Book?
Updike himself has something to say on this general theme in his review of Salinger's Franny and Zooey: "When all reservations have been entered, in the correctly unctuous and apprehensive tone,...
(The entire section is 17,682 words.)