Authors: John Updike

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist, short-story writer, and poet


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.{$I[AN]9810000724}{$I[A]Updike, John}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Updike, John}{$I[tim]1932;Updike, John}

John Updike

(Davis Freeman)

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.

BibliographyBoswell, 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.
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