At a Glance
John Updike is always caught in the middle. Fortunately, that’s how he likes it. By his own admission, Updike has dedicated his career to depicting middle-class people in small-town America. A New England native, Updike’s dissection of Yankee WASPs earned him early success and numerous literary awards. Later in life, Updike experimented outside that comfort zone, yielding mixed results and responses. These later works often take well-known stories and reinvent them or retell them from a new perspective. At its best, Updike’s writing celebrates America, even as it depicts the complexities of human relationships. In lesser efforts, Updike has been criticized as indulgent and simplistically self-satisfied. Still, his impressive body of work contains fiction and nonfiction, prose and poetry, short and long form, and children’s stories as well as grown-up sagas.
Facts and Trivia
- Updike’s depiction of small-town America took a whimsical turn in his novel The Witches of Eastwick, later adapted as a film, a short-lived TV show, and a stage musical.
- One of Updike’s best-beloved pieces of writing is an essay about legendary Boston Red Sox player Ted Williams called “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”
- A departure from his usual work, Updike’s 2000 novel Gertrude and Claudius is a prequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
- Updike, the critic, is not afraid of taking on fellow novelists, regardless of their reputation. He has traded words with the likes of Gore Vidal and Tom Wolfe.
- Updike died on January 27, 2009, at the age of 76.
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...
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