John Updike

The celebrated author who captured the inner life of Middle America

The celebrated author who captured the inner life of Middle America

John Updike


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“I would write ads for deodorants or labels for ketchup bottles, if I had to,” John Updike once said. “The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink never palls for me.” Updike, who died of lung cancer this week at 76, wasn’t exaggerating. He published some 60 volumes—novels, short stories, poems, criticism, and journalism—that won him two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, and established him for many as America’s premier man of letters. Above all, Updike was a glittering stylist whose “beautiful sentences,” one critic said, “bop around in your head after you read them, like show tunes.”

As an only child in Shillington, Pa., Updike would hole up for hours in the local library, said the Associated Press. His father was a junior high school math teacher, his mother an aspiring writer herself. Updike went to Harvard on a scholarship and began his literary career as an editor of the Harvard Lampoon. In 1954, when he graduated, he sold a poem and short story to The New Yorker, a magazine that would continue to publish his work virtually until his death. “By the end of the 1950s, Updike had published a story collection, a book of poetry, and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair.” In his second novel, Rabbit, Run (1960), he created his most enduring character, ex–high school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Over 30 years, Updike would publish three more critically acclaimed novels about Rabbit, whose “restless adjustment to adulthood and the constraints of work and family” mirrored the pleasures and discontents of postwar America.

As Updike churned out, on average, a book a year, “his imagination frequently ranged far afield,” said The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Coup (1978) was set in a mythical African nation; Gertrude and Claudius (2000) was a prequel to Hamlet. He wrote scores of essays about everything from art to Ted Williams’ last baseball game at Fenway Park to his own psoriasis. But he was primarily “the great chronicler of the modest yet complicated” life of the suburban and small-town middle classes. “I like middles,” he reflected. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.” In novels such as Marry Me (1976) and story collections such as Too Far to Go (1979), Updike explored ordinary dramas like marriage and divorce—and, especially, sex, which he plumbed most controversially and graphically in Couples (1968).

“Updike didn’t have merely an eye for detail,” said The Washington Post. “He let the detail drive the narrative,” often favoring sensation and impression over such conventional narrative devices as plot and conflict. “The payoff in Updike was never a plot twist or a dramatic resolution; rather it was a telling insight, usually a pithy sentence.” In Rabbit at Rest (1990), he likened angina to “that singeing sensation he gets as if a child inside him is playing with lighted matches.” The narrator of his 1966 short story “Harv Is Plowing Now” looks skyward to find that “the universe is perfectly transparent; we exist as flaws in ancient glass.”

Though widely lauded, Updike had his detractors, said The New York Times. Tom Wolfe once called him “insular, effete, and irrelevant,” and sometimes he simply overreached. His 1994 novel Brazil was stuffed “with undigested research and bad dialogue.” Such assessments didn’t faze the author, who for 40 years contentedly wrote away in rural Massachusetts, whose attractions included, as he put it, “free parking for my car, public education for my children, a beach to tan my skin on, a church to attend without seeming too strange.” Indeed, Updike spoofed the New York literary scene in three novels about a character who was everything Updike wasn’t: the “unmarried, urban, blocked Jewish writer Henry Bech.” Bech underwent experiences that Updike generally avoided—“attending literary dinners, tsk-tsking over a younger generation’s minimalist prose, working off grudges, and murdering critics.” Bech even won the Nobel Prize in literature, the one major award that eluded his creator.

Updike is survived by his second wife and four children. His final volume, My Father’s Tears and Other Stories, will be released in June. “Maybe each novel might be the last,” he said less than a month before he died. “But no, I’m not quite ready yet.”

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