John Updike Updike, John (Vol. 139)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Updike 1932–-

(Full name John Hoyer Updike) American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, critic, and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Updike's career through 1998. See also John Updike Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13.

One of the most critically respected and popular contemporary American authors, Updike is recognized as a brilliant prose stylist and keen social observer. Though best known for his award-winning quartet of Rabbit novels, Updike has amassed a large and ever-growing body of best-selling novels, acclaimed volumes of short stories, essays, and poetry since his arrival on the literary scene in the late 1950s. An incessant chronicler of post-war American mores and morals, Updike alternately finds humor, tragedy, and pathos in the small crises and quandaries of middle-class existence, particularly its sexual and religious hang-ups. His trademark fiction, largely informed by Christian theology, classical mythology, and popular culture, is distinguished for its broad erudition, wit, and descriptive opulence.

Biographical Information

Born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, Updike was the only child of Wesley R. Updike, a high school mathematics teacher, and Linda G. Hoyer. At age thirteen he moved with his parents to a farmhouse outside of town where the newfound isolation encouraged him to convey his creative fantasies to paper in the form of stories and cartoons. Updike received a scholarship to attend Harvard University in 1950. There he majored in English, studied art, and served as editor of the Harvard Lampoon, to which he contributed writings and illustrations. At Harvard, Updike also met Radcliffe undergraduate Mary Entwistle Pennington, whom he married in 1953; they divorced in 1977 and Updike married Martha Bernhard the same year. After graduating summa cum laude in 1954, Updike received a one-year Knox Fellowship to study art at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in Oxford, England. The next year he resettled in Manhattan and took a staff position with the New Yorker, which published his first professional story, “Friends from Philadelphia,” in 1954. Updike maintained a lifelong association with the New Yorker, within which his fiction, verse, and reviews have regularly appeared throughout his career. In 1957 he left the magazine and moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, to devote himself to full-time writing. He quickly established himself with his first three books—poetry in The Carpenter Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958), short stories in The Same Door (1959), and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959), winner of the Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1959 and numerous major awards followed, including the National Book Award for The Centaur (1963), O. Henry awards for his short fiction, a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for both Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), and a National Book Critics Circle Award for Hugging the Shore (1983). Updike was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964 and the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977, and was honored with the National Medal of the Arts in 1989.

Major Works

Updike's distinct prose style, an essential feature of his fiction and discursive writings, is characterized by its vividly descriptive passages, carefully wrought in a striking, allusive, and often esoteric vocabulary that reveals the author's infatuation with language itself. Often placed within the realist tradition—a literary mode that favors precise, objective description of the real world over imaginative or idealized representations—much of Updike's fiction is presided over by a wry, intelligent authorial voice that conscientiously portrays the physical world and everyday life in lucid detail. Philosophically aligned with Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich, Updike's fiction revolves primarily around the problem of faith and...

(The entire section is 71,873 words.)