John Hoyer Updike is widely acclaimed as one of the most accomplished stylists and prolific writers of his generation; his fiction represents a penetrating chronicle of the changing morals and manners of American society. He was born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, on March 18, 1932, the only child of Wesley and Linda Grace Hoyer Updike. His father was a mathematics teacher at the high school and supported the family in lean times, first in the old parental home in Shillington, and later on a farm in Plowville, ten miles outside Shillington. A number of short stories, such as “Flight,” and the novels The Centaur and Of the Farm draw upon this experience. After attending schools in Shillington, Updike went to Harvard University in 1950 on a full scholarship, majoring in English. He was editor of the Harvard Lampoon and graduated in 1954 with highest honors. In 1953 he married Radcliffe student Mary Pennington, the daughter of a Unitarian minister; they were to have four children.
In 1954 Updike sold the first of many stories to The New Yorker. After a year in Oxford, England, where Updike studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, he returned to the United States to a job as a staff writer with The New Yorker, for which he wrote the “Talk of the Town” column. In April of 1957, fearing the city scene would inhibit his writing. Updike and his family left New York for Ipswich, Massachusetts. He continued to sell stories to The New Yorker while working on longer fiction. His first book was a collection of verse, The Carpentered Hen, and Other Tame Creatures, published in 1958. The next year he published his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, set in a retirement home. The novel received favorable reviews and won the Rosenthal Award. His first collection of short stories, The Same Door, also appeared in 1959. During this time Updike was active in Ipswich community life and attended the Congregational church–a setting depicted in a number of works. In 1974 the Updikes were divorced. In 1977 Updike remarried to Martha Bernhard. He and Martha remained married until his death in 2009.
During this same period–the late 1950’s and early 1960’s–Updike faced a crisis of faith prompted by his consciousness of death’s inevitability. The works of such writers as Søren Kierkegaard and, especially, Karl Barth, the Swiss neoorthodox theologian, helped Updike come to grips with this fear and to find a basis for faith. Many of Updike’s works explore theological and religious issues. In a real sense, Updike has become a kind of late twentieth century Nathaniel Hawthorne; his works, like Hawthorne’s, are saturated with religious and theological concerns. In fact, three of his novels, A Month of Sundays, Roger’s Version, and S., form an updated version of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850).
Updike’s work published during the 1960’s established him as one of America’s important serious writers. In 1960 he published Rabbit, Run, the first in a series of novels about a middle-class man and his family set in a small city in Pennsylvania. He returned to this character at intervals of a decade with Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich (which won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1981), Rabbit at Rest, and the novella Rabbit Remembered. Each of these novels deals seriously with a man interacting with his changing culture, adapting but not fully capitulating to it, seeking always for something certain, if not transcendent. In 1962 Updike’s second story collection, Pigeon Feathers, and Other Stories, appeared, and in 1963, another collection of verse, Telephone Poles, and Other Poems, was published. His novel The Centaur, also published in 1963, earned for Updike the National Book Award and election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, making Updike the youngest writer ever to be so elected. In 1966 the collection of stories The Music School appeared.
In 1964-1965 Updike traveled to Eastern Europe as part of a cultural exchange program. A number of works reflect that experience, in particular his collection Bech. In 1973 Updike traveled, under State Department auspices, to Africa; his novel The Coup reflects that journey. With three collections of essays and reviews–Assorted Prose, Picked-Up Pieces, and Hugging the Shore–Updike has shown himself to be an excellent literary critic and cultural commentator as well as a gifted writer of fiction.
Updike’s mature fiction has been concerned with the fate of eros in the upper-middle-class suburbs of the eastern United States. His fiction provides a vivid chronicle of the sexual mores and strained and broken marriages of contemporary America. Most of his protagonists are enmeshed in the compromises of modern life, in the horizontal, while yet yearning for the transcendent, the recovery of the vertical dimension. For many of his characters, sexual ecstasy, even with its attendant disappointments, replaces the passions of faith. In such works as Couples–a best-seller that received favorable treatment in Time and Life magazines and garnered Updike a large sum for the film rights–the Rabbit books, Marry Me, and the story collections Museums and Women and Problems, and Other Stories, Updike focuses on marriage and its discontents, especially the various stages of marital disintegration. If innocence, real or imagined, is irrecoverable in Updike’s fiction, if his characters often seem engulfed by moral squalor, they yet possess a lively and admirable energy, a spiritual striving, and a vital resistance to entropy that points to something quite other than defeat. Inseparable from the energy of his characters’ striving is the astonishing variety and richness of Updike’s narratives, reflecting a conviction that the vocation of writing, as with Henry James, constitutes a necessary assault upon the precincts of death. Thus, in both thematic seriousness and narrative range, Updike produced a body of writings of the highest order.