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.
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.
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 morality in the modern, post-Christian world, pointing toward the necessity of transcendental belief. In addition, many of his novels, short stories, and personal essays are largely autobiographical, drawing heavily upon his formative experiences in small-town, rural Pennsylvania. The author's hometown of Shillington serves as the model for the fictional town of Olinger, a recurring setting in the short stories of The Same Door, Pigeon Feathers (1962), and Olinger Stories (1964), as well as The Poorhouse Fair, a novel describing the circumstances of the elderly in a future welfare state. Updike's adolescence and relationship with his father forms the basis of The Centaur, a semi-autobiographic novel that parallels the mythological father-son relationship of Chirion and Prometheus. Likewise, his corresponding relationship with his mother is characterized in the novel Of the Farm (1965) and in the nostalgic short stories of The Afterlife and Other Stories (1994).
Rabbit, Run (1960), the first of Updike's Rabbit novels, introduces protagonist Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a former high school basketball star and quintessential average American man who wallows in ignominy and marital doldrums after graduation. His quasi-spiritual quest for self-fulfillment and meaning is acted out in his flight from wife, Janice, and his adulterous exploits, a futile gesture of resistance that ends with his return and the accidental drowning of their infant daughter. In Rabbit Redux (1971), a sequel set against events of the turbulent 1960s, Rabbit reappears ten years older and resigned to his marriage to Janice, with whom he now shares a son, Nelson. Incorporating Homeric themes, the novel centers upon their respective infidelities and Rabbit's involvement with a teenaged hippie girl and black Vietnam vet. Rabbit Is Rich, the third volume of the series, is set amid the energy crisis and consumer excesses of the 1970s. Finding himself middle-aged and undeservedly prosperous as the head of a Toyota car dealership he inherited from his father-in-law, Rabbit reflects upon his suburban contentment with Janice, though struggles to understand his simpering, college-aged son. In Rabbit at Rest, the final installment of the series, Rabbit golfs, ruins his heart with junk food and inactivity, and contemplates his imminent death while in semi-retirement during the Reagan-era 1980s. Together the Rabbit tetralogy documents four decades of post-war American social history during which, as Rabbit's experiences suggest, the nation has lost its moral direction and languishes in cynicism, indifference, and futility.
The domestic reality of suburban, middle-class American life is the focus of Problems and Other Stories (1979), the short stories of Trust Me (1987), and many Updike novels, including Couples (1968), A Month of Sundays (1975), Marry Me (1976), Roger's Version (1986), and S. (1988), a reinterpretation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Each of these novels detail the marital tensions, sexual escapades, personal betrayals, professional disappointments, and spiritual crises that reflect changing attitudes about sexual behavior, relationships between men and women, and, most importantly, religious belief in contemporary society. The Witches of Eastwick (1984) addresses similar themes, but also incorporates elements of magic realism in its portrayal of three divorced New England witches who vie for the affections of a demonic dilettante. Updike has also taken up international settings and themes in several novels, such as The Coup (1978), which satirizes American and Third-World ideology through the perspective of an ousted leader of a fictitious African country, and Brazil (1994), a reinterpretation of the medieval Tristan and Isolde legend, in which an interracial pair of Brazilian lovers struggle against social prejudice in their native land. During the 1990s, Updike produced several additional novels: Memories of the Ford Administration (1992) involves a history professor whose ruminations on Ford-era politics revolve around recollection of his extramarital romps and research for a never-completed monograph about President James Buchanan; In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996) chronicles four generations of the Wilmot family, from their turn-of-the-century New Jersey origins through their successive bouts with religious doubt, mediocrity, fame, and fanaticism; Toward the End of Time (1997), set in the early twenty-first century after a devastating nuclear war with China, involves a retired investment consultant who reflects upon his perverse pleasures, mortality, and nature in rural Massachusetts.
Updike has also chronicled the literary life of alter-ego Henry Bech, a fictitious Jewish-American author, in the short story collections Bech (1970), Bech Is Back (1982), and Bech at Bay (1998). These largely satirical stories describe Bech's perpetual battle against writer's block, hostile reviewers, the demands of celebrity, and changing currents in literary theory. The central themes of Updike's fiction also permeate his numerous volumes of poetry, including The Carpenter Hen and Other Tame Creatures, Telephone Poles and Other Poems (1963), Midpoint and Other Poems (1969), Tossing and Turning (1977), Facing Nature (1985), and his Collected Poems (1993). In the tradition of light verse, much of his poetry sparkles with humor, clever linguistic turns, and sophisticated witticisms. Updike's critical reviews and essays on a variety of personal, literary, and artistic topics are contained in Assorted Prose (1965), Picked-Up Pieces (1975), Hugging the Shore, Just Looking (1989), Odd Jobs (1991), and his memoir Self-Consciousness (1989).
Updike is widely regarded as one of the dominant American literary figures of the post-war era. The high quality and diversity of his formidable oeuvre is frequently cited as evidence of his superior literary gifts and intellect. As Margaret Atwood notes, “Surely no American writer has written so much, for so long, so consistently well.” Though recognized as a master of the short story, Updike's popular and critical reputation rests largely upon his accomplishment as a novelist. His Rabbit tetralogy is generally regarded as the centerpiece of his literary career, though the majority of his novels have won favorable reviews and a large readership. Critical evaluation of Updike's work often focuses on his inimitable prose style. While most commentators praise his rich description and language, drawing comparisons to the prose of Marcel Proust and Vladimir Nabokov, others negatively view this characteristic of his writing as a symptom of self-indulgence and superficiality. “The famous Updike style,” Jay Parini writes, is “fluent to a fault, rich in metaphor, rising to exquisite heights in places, toppling elsewhere into preciousness and affectation.” According to Joseph Epstein, “Updike simply cannot pass up any opportunity to tap dance in prose.” Though Updike's affinity for descriptive language has prompted some critics to question the depth and seriousness of his concerns, others, such as John F. Fleischauer, suggest that Updike's employment of a dense vocabulary and syntax functions as a distancing technique to mediate the intellectual and emotional involvement of the reader. Many critics have also expressed objection to Updike's portrayal of women, viewed by some as specious and misogynistic; his graphic depictions of sexual activity, which have been faulted as gratuitous; and the grand historical and social backdrops of his fiction, considered by some an exploitative façade for the author's solipsistic concerns. Despite such criticism, Updike remains highly esteemed as a foremost man of letters whose prodigious intelligence, verbal prowess, and shrewd insight into the sorrows, frustrations, and banality of American life separate him from the ranks of his contemporaries.