John Updike

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Discussion Topics

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What is the initiation process like for John Updike’s protagonists? What do they learn while growing up? What epiphanies do they experience?

How does the family function as a unit in an Updike work? Do individuals find support in their families, conflict, or both?

What are the characteristics of Updike’s use of language? Is his style poetic? Metaphorical? Lyrical? Dense? Abstract?

How does Updike characterize contemporary American society in his stories and novels? What is the American Dream like in his fiction, and how easy is it to reach?

What is the state of marriage in Updike’s works? Are couples happy and fulfilled, or constrained andunsatisfied?

Updike has been called the foremost chronicler of the mores of Middle America. What is the portrait that emerges from his accounts?

Other Literary Forms

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A prolific and versatile writer, John Updike was an accomplished novelist, perhaps best known for his “Rabbit” tetralogy, but he was also the author of The Centaur (1963), which fuses myth and realism in middle-class America; Couples (1968), which examines the social and sexual mores of a modern American town; The Coup (1978), in which the narrator is writing, in memoirs, the history of an imaginary African nation; and Roger’s Version (1986) and S (1988), which are creative reworkings of the situation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). His later novels include Brazil (1994), Toward the End of Time (1997), and Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel (1998). Updike also published many books of verse and a play (Buchanan Dying, 1974), and he wrote reviews and critical essays on literature, music, and painting for a few decades. His nonfiction works include Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf (1996) and More Matter: Essays and Criticism (1999).


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The Centaur won for John Updike the National Book Award in 1964. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the youngest man to receive the honor at that time. “The Bulgarian Poetess” won an O. Henry Award in 1966.

Rabbit Is Rich (1981) won an American Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, while Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism (1983), a nine-hundred-page volume, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1991, Rabbit at Rest won a Pulitzer Prize, and in 1995, it received the Howells Medal. In 1996, Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996) won the Ambassador Book Award, and the next year Updike received the Campion Award. In 1998, he earned the Harvard Arts First Medal and the National Book Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Other literary forms

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From the time he published his first story in The New Yorker in 1954, John Updike truly became a man of letters, publishing in virtually every literary genre—poetry, short fiction, novel, essay, drama, art criticism, and autobiography. His first short-story collection, The Same Door, appeared in 1959; many more followed, including The Afterlife, and Other Stories in 1994. Updike’s play Buchanan Dying was published in 1974. His poetry has appeared in many volumes of his own, beginning with The Carpentered Hen, and Other Tame Creatures (1958), as well as in anthologies. Updike published his first nonfiction prose collection in 1965; most of his nonfiction works are collections of essays and criticism, but the autobiographical Self-Consciousness: Memoirs appeared in 1989 and the single-themed Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf was published in 1996.


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One of the major figures to emerge in American fiction after World War II, John Updike is widely acclaimed as one of the most accomplished stylists and prolific writers of his generation. Showing remarkable versatility and range, his fiction represents a penetrating chronicle in the realist mode of the changing morals and manners of American society. Updike’s work has met with both critical and popular success. His first novel, The Poorhouse Fair ,...

(This entire section contains 299 words.)

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received the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1960. In 1964, Updike received the National Book Award forThe Centaur, and he was elected the same year to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. A number of his short stories have won the O. Henry Prize for best short story of the year and have been included in the yearly volumes of The Best American Short Stories. In 1977, Updike was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1981, his novel Rabbit Is Rich won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the American Book Award. That same year, he was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal for literature. Along with an honorary doctoral degree from alma mater Harvard University, Updike received numerous honors throughout his career, including another Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the National Arts Club Medal of Honor, the National Book Foundation Medal, and the National Medal for the Humanities.

While Updike’s novels have continued the long national debate on the American civilization and its discontents, perhaps more significant is their depiction of restless and aspiring spirits struggling within the constraints of flesh, of time and gravity—lovers and battlers all. As Updike wrote about the novel in an essay, “Not to be in love, the capital N novel whispers to capital W western man, is to be dying.”

Other literary forms

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A prolific writer in all genres, John Updike was known chiefly as a novelist. His major works were best sellers and won significant critical acclaim both from reviewers for highbrow publications and from academics. Among his most noted novels are The Centaur (1963), Couples (1968), and the four novels depicting the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom: Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990). He was also an accomplished and respected writer of short stories, of which he published numerous volumes, and a first-rate critic and essayist, as well as an accomplished poet.


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John Updike was the recipient of numerous honors during his illustrious career. He received Pulitzer Prizes for Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, in 1982 and 1991, respectively. Other awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship (1959), a Rosenthal Award (1960), National Book Awards (1964, 1982), O. Henry Awards (1966, 1991), France’s Foreign Book Prize (1966), a New England Poetry Club Golden Rose (1979), a MacDowell Medal (1981), National Book Critics Circle Awards for both fiction (1981, 1990) and criticism (1983), the Union League Club’s Abraham Lincoln Award (1982), a National Arts Club Medal of Honor (1984), a National Medal of the Arts (1989), a William Dean Howells Award (1995), the Campion Award (1997), a Harvard Arts Medal (1998), a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation (1998), a National Medal for the Humanities (2003), a PEN/Faulkner Award (2004), a Rea Award for the Short Story (2006), and a Gold Medal for Fiction (2007) from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Updike achieved his fame largely through his novels. These works, and his growing collection of prose essays and reviews, earned for him a reputation as one of America’s leading literary voices. His poetry, on the other hand, brought only modest acclaim. Many critics considered him only a dilettante in this genre, a show-off who was clearly skilled in handling poetic forms both traditional and modern. Since much of his work is gentle satire and light verse, he was often accused of lacking substance. Updike’s record of publication for individual poems, however, belies that judgment to some degree. His poems appeared in such journals as The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and even in Scientific American. As with much of his prose, Updike showed an ability to deal in verse with a wide variety of experiences, making both the commonplace and the abstruse immediately accessible to his readers.


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Boswell, Marshall. John Updike’s Rabbit Tetralogy: Mastered Irony in Motion. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. A study of Harry Angstrom’s literary journey through life.

Broer, Lawrence R., ed. Rabbit Tales: Poetry and Politics in John Updike’s Rabbit Novels. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998. Twelve essays that demonstrate that Updike’s Rabbit novels are a carefully crafted fabric of changing hues and textures, of social realism and something of grandeur. Includes bibliographical references and index.

De Bellis, Jack, ed. John Updike: The Critical Responses to the “Rabbit” Saga. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005. A collection of thirty-four scholarly essays examining Updike’s “Rabbit” novels.

Detweiler, Robert. John Updike. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1984. An excellent introductory survey of Updike’s work through 1983. Contains a chronology, a biographical sketch, analysis of the fiction and its sources, a select bibliography, and an index.

Donahue, Peter. “Pouring Drinks and Getting Drunk: The Social and Personal Implications of Drinking in John Updike’s ‘Too Far to Go.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Summer, 1996): 361-367. Argues that drinking in the stories moves from a conventional social pastime to an extension of the couple’s private discord, significantly changing how they view and interact with each other; their drinking habits expose the degree to which alcohol use is connected to the specific gender roles and family dynamics of the middle-class suburban world the Maples occupy.

Greiner, Donald J. The Other John Updike: Poems, Short Stories, Prose, Play. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981. While devoting a considerable amount of space to other critics, Greiner, who has written three books about Updike, here traces Updike’s artistic development in his writing that both parallels and extends the themes of the novels.

Hunt, George W. John Updike and the Three Secret Things: Sex, Religion, and Art. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980. An accurate and perceptive (if a bit scholarly in style) examination of the evolution of Updike’s thematic focus. Hunt combines psychoanalytical (Jungian), New Critical, and theological approaches in his thesis that Updike’s primary concern changed in emphasis during his career.

Luscher, Robert M. John Updike: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. An introduction to Updike’s short fiction, dealing with his lyrical technique, his experimentation with narrative structure, his use of the short-story cycle convention, and the relationship between his short fiction and his novels. Includes Updike’s comments on his short fiction and previously published critical essays representing a variety of critical approaches.

Macnaughton, William R., ed. Critical Essays on John Updike. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. A comprehensive, eclectic collection, including essays by writers such as Alfred Kazin, Anthony Burgess, and Joyce Carol Oates, who provide reviews, and various Updike experts who have written original essays. Contains a survey of bibliographies and an assessment of criticism and scholarship.

Miller, D. Quentin. John Updike and the Cold War: Drawing the Iron Curtain. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. Studies the influence of Cold War society and politics in forming Updike’s worldview.

Newman, Judie. John Updike. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. A part of the Modern Novelists series, Newman covers the long fiction with facility and insight and offers a solid foundation for understanding Updike’s primary concerns throughout his writing. Contains a good, comprehensive introduction and a judicious bibliography.

O’Connell, Mary. Updike and the Patriarchal Dilemma: Masculinity in the Rabbit Novels. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. Examines the themes of men, masculinity, and patriarchy in Updike’s Rabbit series. Includes an index and bibliography.

Pinsker, Sanford. “The Art of Fiction: A Conversation with John Updike.” The Sewanee Review 104 (Summer, 1996): 423-433. Updike discusses the visual artists who have inspired him, how his academic experiences helped to shape his writing, and how he regards criticism of his work.

Pritchard, William H. Updike: America’s Man of Letters. South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press, 2000. A biography of the novelist, who Pritchard sees as the heir to such American storytellers as William Dean Howells and Henry James, alone in a sea of metafiction.

Rogers, Michael. “The Gospel of the Book: LJ Talks to John Updike.” Library Journal 124, no. 3 (February 15, 1999): 114-116. Updike expounds on books, contemporary writers, and the state of publishing at the end of the twentieth century.

Schiff, James A. John Updike Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998. A general introduction surveying all of Updike’s work but focusing on his fiction in the late 1990’s. The chapter on the short story is relatively brief, with short analyses of such stories as “A & P” and “Separating.”

Schiff, James A. Updike’s Version: Rewriting “The Scarlet Letter.” Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. Schiff explores the influence of Hawthorne’s novel on Updike’s oeuvre. Contains an index and bibliography.

Tallent, Elizabeth. Married Men and Magic Tricks: John Updike’s Erotic Heroes. Berkeley, Calif.: Creative Arts, 1982. Offers, in Judie Newman’s words, “a ground-breaking exploration of the erotic dimensions of selected works.” A long-needed analysis that includes a feminist perspective missing from much previous Updike criticism.

Trachtenberg, Stanley, ed. New Essays on “Rabbit, Run.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Essays in this collection address Updike’s notable novel and such themes as middle-class men in literature. With bibliographical references.


Critical Essays