Updike, John 1932–
Updike, John 1932–
(John Hoyer Updike)
PERSONAL: Born March 18, 1932, in Shillington, PA; son of Wesley Russell (a teacher) and Linda Grace (an author; maiden name, Hoyer) Updike; married Mary Entwistle Pennington, June 26, 1953 (divorced, 1977); married Martha Ruggles Bernhard, September 30, 1977; children: (first marriage) Elizabeth Pennington, David Hoyer, Michael John, Miranda Margaret; (second marriage) three stepchildren. Education: Harvard University, A.B. (summa cum laude), 1954; attended Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford, 1954–55. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Christian.
ADDRESSES: Home—Beverly Farms, MA. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Alfred A. Knopf, 201 E. 50th St., New York, NY 10022.
CAREER: Novelist, critic, short story writer, poet, essayist, and dramatist. New Yorker magazine, reporter, 1955–57. Visited USSR as part of a cultural exchange program of the U.S. Department of State, 1964.
MEMBER: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (secretary, chancellor), American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
AWARDS, HONORS: Guggenheim fellowship in poetry, 1959; American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Foundation Award, 1960, for The Poorhouse Fair; National Book Award in fiction, 1964, and Prix Medicis Etranger (France), 1966, both for The Centaur; O. Henry Award for fiction, 1966, for short story, "The Bulgarian Poetess;" Fulbright fellow in Africa, 1972; American Book Award nomination, 1980, for Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories; Edward MacDowell Medal for Literature, MacDowell Colony, 1981; Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1981, and National Book award for fiction, 1982, both for Rabbit Is Rich; National Book Critics Circle award for criticism, 1984, for Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism; Medal of Honor for Literature, National Arts Club (New York, NY), 1984; National Book Critics Circle award in fiction nomination, 1986, for Roger's Version; PEN/Malamud Memorial Prize, PEN/Faulkner Award Foundation, 1988, for "excellence in short story writing;" National Medal of Arts, 1989; National Book Critics Award and Pulitzer Prize, both 1990, and Howells medal, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1995, all for Rabbit at Rest; Premio Scanno, 1991; named Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, 1995; Ambassador Book Award, English-speaking Union, 1996, for In the Beauty of the Lilies; Campion Award, America magazine, 1997; Harvard Arts First Medal, 1997; National Book Foundation Medal for distinguished contribution to American letters, 1998; Los Angeles Public Library literary award, 1999; Caldecott Medal, 2000, for A Child's Calendar, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman; PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, 2004, for The Early Stories: 1953–1975; recipient of numerous honorary doctoral degrees, including Ursinsus College, 1962, Moravian College, 1967, Lafayette College, 1974, Albright College, 1982, and Harvard University, 1992.
The Poorhouse Fair (also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1959, with an introduction by Updike, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2004.
Rabbit, Run (also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1960.
The Centaur, Knopf (New York, NY), 1963.
Of the Farm, Knopf (New York, NY), 1965, reprinted, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2004.
The Poorhouse Fair [and] Rabbit, Run, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1965.
Couples, Knopf (New York, NY), 1968.
The Indian, Blue Cloud Abbey (Marvin, SD), 1971.
Rabbit Redux (also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1971.
A Month of Sundays, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.
Marry Me: A Romance, Knopf (New York, NY), 1976.
The Coup, Knopf, (New York, NY) 1978.
Rabbit Is Rich (also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1981.
Rabbit Is Rich/Rabbit Redux/Rabbit, Run (also see below), Quality Paperback Book Club, 1981.
The Witches of Eastwick, Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.
Roger's Version, Knopf (New York, NY), 1986.
S., Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.
Rabbit at Rest, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.
Memories of the Ford Administration, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
Brazil, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels (contains Rabbit Is Rich, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit, Run, and Rabbit at Rest), Knopf/Everymans (New York, NY), 1995, published as The Rabbit Novels, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2003.
In the Beauty of the Lilies, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
Toward the End of Time, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.
Gertrude and Claudius, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
Seek My Face, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
Villages, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
Terrorist, Knopf (New York, NY), 2006.
The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1958, published as Hoping for a Hoopoe, Gollancz (London, England), 1959.
Telephone Poles and Other Poems (also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1963.
Verse: The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures/Telephone Poles and Other Poems, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1965.
The Angels (poem; limited edition), King and Queen Press (Pensacola, FL), 1968.
Bath after Sailing (poem; limited edition), Pendulum Press (Monroe, CT), 1968.
Midpoint and Other Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1969.
Seventy Poems, Penguin (New York, NY), 1972.
Six Poems (limited edition), Oliphant Press, 1973.
Cunts (poem; limited edition), Frank Hallman, 1974.
Tossing and Turning, Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.
Sixteen Sonnets (limited edition), Halty Ferguson (Cambridge, MA), 1979.
Five Poems (limited edition), Bits Press (Cleveland, OH), 1980.
Spring Trio (limited edition), Palaemon Press (Winston-Salem, NC), 1982.
Jester's Dozen (limited edition), Lord John (Northridge, CA), 1984.
Facing Nature: Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.
Collected Poems: 1953–1993, Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.
Americana and Other Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
The Same Door, Knopf (New York, NY), 1959.
Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 1962.
Olinger Stories: A Selection, Vintage (New York, NY), 1964.
The Music School, Knopf (New York, NY), 1966.
Bech: A Book, Knopf (New York, NY), 1970.
Museums and Women and Other Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 1972.
Warm Wine: An Idyll, Albondocani Press (New York, NY), 1973.
Couples: A Short Story, Halty Ferguson (Cambridge, MA), 1976.
From the Journal of a Leper, Lord John (Northridge, CA), 1978.
Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1979.
Three Illuminations in the Life of an American Author (short story), Targ (New York, NY), 1979.
Problems and Other Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 1979.
Your Lover Just Called: Stories of Joan and Richard Maple, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1980.
The Chaste Planet, Metacom (Worcester, MA), 1980.
People One Knows: Interviews with Insufficiently Famous Americans, Lord John (Northridge, CA), 1980.
Invasion of the Book Envelopes, Ewert (Concord, MA), 1981.
Bech Is Back, Knopf (New York, NY), 1982.
The Beloved (short story), Lord John (Northridge, CA), 1982.
Confessions of a Wild Bore, Tamazunchale Press, 1984.
More Stately Mansions, Nouveau Press (Jackson, MS), 1987.
Trust Me: Short Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.
The Afterlife and Other Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.
A & P, Harcourt (Fort Worth, TX), 1998.
Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel, "Rabbit Remembered," Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
The Complete Henry Bech: Twenty Stories, with an introduction by Malcolm Bradbury, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
The Early Stories: 1953–1975, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
Assorted Prose, Knopf (New York, NY), 1965.
On Meeting Authors, Wickford (Newburyport, MA), 1968.
A Good Place, Aloe (Atlanta, GA), 1973.
Picked-up Pieces, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.
Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, Lord John (Northridge, CA), 1977.
Talk from the Fifties, Lord John (Northridge, CA), 1979.
Ego and Art in Walt Whitman, Targ (New York, NY), 1980.
Hawthorne's Creed, Targ (New York, NY), 1981.
Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism, Knopf (New York, NY), 1983.
Emersonianism, Bits Press, 1984.
Just Looking: Essays on Art, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.
Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
Concerts at Castle Hill (music criticism), Lord John (Northridge, CA), 1993.
Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
More Matter: Essays and Criticism, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
More Matter: Essays and Criticism, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
Still Looking, Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.
(Adapter, with Warren Chappell) The Magic Flute (juvenile fiction; adapted from libretto of same title by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), Knopf (New York, NY), 1962.
(Adapter, with Warren Chappell) The Ring (juvenile fiction; adapted from libretto by Richard Wagner), Knopf (New York, NY), 1964.
A Child's Calendar (juvenile poetry), Knopf (New York, NY), 1965, new edition with illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1999.
Three Texts from Early Ipswich (historical pageant; produced in Ipswich, MA, 1968), Seventeenth Century Day Committee of the Town of Ipswich, 1968.
(Adapter) Bottom's Dream (juvenile fiction; adapted from William Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream), Knopf (New York, NY), 1969.
(Editor) David Levine, Pens and Needles: Literary Caricatures, Gambit (Ipswich, MA), 1970.
A Good Place: Being a Personal Account of Ipswich, Massachusetts, Aloe Editions (New York, NY), 1973.
Buchanan Dying (play; produced in Lancaster, MA, 1976), Knopf (New York, NY), 1974.
(Author of introduction) Henry Green, Loving, Living, Party Going, Penguin Books, 1978.
(Author of introduction) Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, Penguin Books, 1979.
(Author of afterword) Edmund Wilson, Memoirs of Hecate County, Nonpareil (Boston, MA), 1980.
(Editor, with Shannon Ravenel and author of introduction) The Best American Short Stories: 1984, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1984.
Self-Consciousness: Memoirs, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.
The Alligators (children's fiction), Creative Education (Mankato, IL), 1990.
(Author of introduction) The Art of Mickey Mouse, edited by Craig Yoe and Janet Morra-Yoe, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1991.
(Author of introduction) Heroes and Anti-Heroes, Random House (New York, NY), 1991.
(Author of introduction) Henry Green, Surviving, Viking (New York, NY), 1993.
A Helpful Alphabet of Friendly Objects (juvenile poetry; photographs by David Updike), Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
(Author of introduction) Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1996.
(Author of introduction) Herman Melville, The Complete Shorter Fiction, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.
(Author of introduction) Jill Krementz, The Writer's Desk, Random House (New York, NY), 1997.
(Editor) A Century of Arts and Letters: The History of the National Institute of Arts and Letters as Told, Decade by Decade, by Eleven Members, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1998.
(Editor, with Katrina Kenison, also selector and author of introduction) The Best American Short Stories of the Century, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1999, expanded edition, 2000.
(Author of introduction) Max Beerbohm, Seven Men, New York Review Books (New York, NY), 2000.
(Editor) Karl Schapiro, Selected Poems, Library of America (New York, NY), 2003.
Also author with Günther Schuller of words and music for The Fisherman and His Wife, performed in Boston, MA, 1970. "Talk of the Town" reporter, New Yorker, 1955–57. Contributor to books, including Martin Levin, editor, Five Boyhoods, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1962; contributor of translations to Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems: 1923–1967, edited by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1972. Contributor of short stories, book reviews, and poems to New Yorker and other periodicals.
Updike's papers are housed in the Houghton Library, Harvard University.
ADAPTATIONS: Couples was purchased by United Artists in 1969; Rabbit, Run was filmed by Warner Bros. in 1970; Bech: A Book was adapted as the play Bech Takes Pot Luck, produced in New York, NY, 1970; The Music School was broadcast by Public Broadcasting System, 1976; Two Far to Go was made into a television movie by National Broadcasting Co. in March, 1979, later revised and released for theater distribution by Sea Cliff Productions, 1982; director George Miller's movie The Witches of Eastwick, 1987, was loosely based on Updike's novel of the same title; "The Christian Roommates," a short story, was made into a ninety-minute movie for television; the novel S. was adapted as S.: An Opera in Two Acts, music by Ronald Perera, libretto by Constance Congdon, conception and artistic collaboration by Mark Harrison (Boston, MA), E.C. Schirmer, 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: John Updike "has earned an … imposing stance on the literary landscape," wrote Los Angeles Times contributor Katherine Stephen, "earning virtually every American literary award, repeated best-sellerdom and the near-royal status of the American author-celebrity." Hailed by critics and readers as one of the great American novelists of his generation, Updike has been hailed as a premiere chronicler of middle America in all its mundane glory. "A reader would be hard pressed to name a contemporary author other than John Updike who is more in tune with the way most Americans live," wrote Donald J. Greiner in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. "Man, wife, home, children, job—these … concerns have rested at the heart of his art since he published his first book … and they have continued to help him dissect, lovingly and clearly, the daily routine of middle America in small town and suburb."
Most critics familiar with Updike have strong opinions about the author's work. As Joseph Kanon explained in Saturday Review: "The debate … has long since divided itself into two pretty firmly entrenched camps: those who admire the work consider him one of the keepers of the language; those who don't say he writes beautifully about nothing very much." Updike acknowledges this charge but believes the complaint lacks validity. "There is a great deal to be said about almost anything," he explained to Jane Howard in a Life magazine interview. "Everything can be as interesting as every other thing. An old milk carton is worth a rose…. The idea of a hero is aristocratic. Now either nobody is a hero or everyone is. I vote for everyone. My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class. I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules."
Debate about the effectiveness of Updike's writing began in 1957 with publication of The Poorhouse Fair, his first novel. As Curt Suplee noted in his Washington Post profile of the author: "Updike's fiction is not overburdened by action, and his spare story lines are embellished with a lush and elegantly wrought style that some readers find majestic (John Barth calls him the Andrew Wyeth of American writers) and others intolerable. Norman Podhoretz described his prose in 'The Poorhouse Fair' as 'overly lyrical, bloated like a child who has eaten too much candy.'" Other critics differed: New York Times reviewer Donald Barr called The Poorhouse Fair "a work of art," and Chicago Sunday Tribune's Fanny Butcher cited the work for "the author's brilliant use of words and … subtle observations."
"There is one point on which his critics all agree," observed Rachael C. Burchard in John Updike: Yea Sayings. "His style is superb. His work is worth reading if for no reason other than to enjoy the piquant phrase, the lyric vision, the fluent rhetoric." In a cover story on Updike, Time magazine's Paul Gray claimed: "No one else using the English language over the past two and a half decades has written so well in so many ways as he." A reviewer for Books Abroad noted that "Critics continually comment on the technical virtuosity of Updike," while in John Updike Suzanne Henning Uphaus declared: "In the midst of diversity there are certain elements common to all of Updike's writing. Most important, there is Updike's remarkable mastery of language."
Other commentators fail to see Updike's work in such a favorable light. For example, in her Partisan Review commentary on Couples Elizabeth Dalton asserted: "In its delicacy and fullness Updike's style seems to register a flow of fragments almost perfectly toned. And yet, after pages and pages of his minutely detailed impressions, the accumulated effect is one of waste." John W. Aldridge wrote in Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis that the novelist "has none of the attributes we conventionally associate with major literary talent. He does not have an interesting mind. He does not possess remarkable narrative gifts or a distinguished style. He does not create dynamic or colorful or deeply meaningful characters…. In fact, one of the problems he poses for the critic is that he engages the imagination so little that one has real difficulty remembering his work long enough to think clearly about it." Updike "has difficulty in reining in his superfluous facility with words," Edward Hoagland complained in New York Times Book Review. "He is too fluent."
Many of the most disparaging reviews of Updike's work have come from critics who object not only to his writing style, but also to the author's subject matter. Com-menting on the frenzy of criticism from reviewers that met the 1968 publication of Couples, Updike's explicit look at sexual freedom in a small New England town, Robert Detweiler noted in John Updike: "As frequently happens, the furor accompanying the depiction of sexual amorality increased the difficulty of judging the novel's artistic quality. Most of the reviews appeared to be impulsive reactions to the subject matter rather than measured assessments." In the case of this novel, negative critical response did little to tone down public enthusiasm for the work; it was on Publishers Weekly bestseller list for thirty-six weeks.
Couples was not the first Updike novel to deal with the sexual habits of middle-class America or to receive disapproving reviews from commentators upset by the author's frank language. "Looking back," wrote Eliot Fremont-Smith in Village Voice, "it must have been the sexuality that so upset the respectable critics of Rabbit, Run in 1960. Their consternation had to do with what seemed a great divide between John Updike's exquisite command of prose … and the apparent no-good vulgar nothing he expended it on." Rabbit, Run is the first installment in Updike's continuing saga of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom that has expanded to include Rabbit Redux, the highly celebrated Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest. Published at ten-year intervals, the novels follow the life of "Rabbit" as he tries to leave his marriage, discovers his wife has been unfaithful, finds himself laid off from his blue-collar job, and as he confronts middle-age, ill health, and death. Greiner noted that in the Rabbit tetralogy, Updike "takes a common American experience—the graduation from high school of a star athlete who has no life to lead once the applause diminishes and the headlines fade—and turns it into a subtle expose of the frailty of the American dream…. It is now clear that he has written a saga of middle-class America in the second half of the twentieth century."
Both celebrated and vilified for its sexual focus and its deeply ambivalent central character, the "Rabbit" tetralogy has garnered a number of significant awards. The third volume in the series, Rabbit Is Rich, received the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Award. The final volume also earned a Pulitzer and a National Book Critics Award. Anthony Quinton in a London Times review argued that the "Rabbit novels are John Updike's best since they give the fullest scope to his remarkable gifts as observer and describer. What they amount to is a social and, so to speak, emotional history of the United States over the last twenty years or more, the period of Rabbit's and his creator's conscious life." Greiner wrote: "Like James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking, Hawthorne's Hester, and Mark Twain's Huck, Harry is one of the immortal characters who first absorb and then define a national culture…. Personal limitation mirrors national malaise." Greiner concludes: "It is sad to think of death setting its snare for Rabbit Angstrom because, after four decades and four long novels, he has joined the pantheon of American literary heroes. Yet a glimpse of final defeat is the price to be paid for membership in that exclusive club." All four of Updike's Rabbit novels were published together as The Rabbit Novels, released in 2003.
In John Updike and the Three Great Secret Things George Hunt suggested that sex, religion, and art "characterize the predominant subject matter, thematic concerns, and central questions found throughout [Updike's] adult fiction." According to Greiner, Updike criticism has shifted since the 1960s from a consideration of the novelist's style to a focus on his themes and how they interrelate. "Later commentators," Greiner asserted, "are concerned with his intellectually rigorous union of theology and fiction and with his suggestion that sex is a kind of emerging religion in the suburban enclaves of the middle class."
Exploring the interrelatedness of sex and religion in Updike's fiction, Jean Strouse observed in a Newsweek review, "Readers and critics have accused Updike of being obsessed with sex. Maybe—but I think he is using Harry Angstrom and Piet Hanema in 'Couples,' and Richard Maple in 'Too Far to Go,' to explore that modern search for 'something behind all this … that wants me to find it.' Melville—and many others—may have announced the demise of God, but nobody has managed to excise the desire for something beyond death and daily life, a desire that has in the twentieth century shifted its focus from God to sex." New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani offered a similar explanation of the development of what she called Updike's "favorite preoccupations:" "His heroes, over the years, have all suffered from 'the tension and guilt of being human.' Torn between vestigial spiritual yearnings and the new imperatives of self-fulfillment, they hunger for salvation even as they submit to the importunate demands of the flesh."
Updike's 1992 novel, Memories of the Ford Administration, centers around a history professor, Alf Clayton, and his contribution to an historical journal concerning the Ford administration. Alf ruminates upon his past and discovers, as Charles Johnson in New York Times Book Review noted, he "can only remember two things—his knot of extramarital affairs and his never-completed opus on the life of President James Buchanan." As Richard Eder commented in Los Angeles Times Book Review, "Alf's struggles with his formless life and time are intercut with his stabs at portraying Buchanan's hapless struggles with his." Nicholas von Hoffman in a Chicago Tribune Books review found the layered plots of Memories something "only a writer of great technical accomplishment can bring off…. While one of the plots pulls us through the sex, the dissolving marital unions, the saturnalian nights of the Ford years, another works its sinuous way into the past and finds an American male unrecognizable to us moderns." Bruce Bawer in Washington Post Book World compared Memories of the Ford Administration to Updike's Rabbit at Rest, arguing that there "is the same sad sense of life winding down, of the aging eagle stretching his wings; the same fixation on orgasms and grace." Bawer concluded that despite the juxtaposition of Alf and Buchanan offering at times "a touching sense of the isolation and helplessness of the human condition," at other times it "seems sheer contrivance." Hoffman, however, concluded that Updike "has the ability to evoke the micro-epochs that fascinate us." Despite differing appraisals, most critics agree that, as Johnson commented, Memories is "quintessential Updike, an exploration of a modern American terrain of desire, guilt and moral ambiguity that he has made distinctly his own."
Breaking with this familiar terrain in 1994, the prolific Updike published his sixteenth novel, Brazil. As Tom Shone explained in Times Literary Supplement, Brazil's genre, magic realism, makes for "the most bizarrely uncharacteristic novel Updike has yet written." Brazil is the story of two lovers: the poor, black Tristao, and the well-to-do white Isabel living in Rio de Janeiro. The plot, as Caroline Moore summarized it in Spectator, is uninhibited: "Isabel invited Tristao to deflower her at their first encounter; they steal from her uncle and flee on the proceeds to a hotel…. They are pursued, recaptured, re-elope, and undergo severe yet picaresque sufferings in the wilds of western Brazil, including starvation and slavery." Both Isabel and Tristao "survive a transformation of identity," as Alexander Theroux commented in Chicago's Tribune Books, "for at one crucial point in the novel there takes place an astonishing role reversal in which she turns black, he white—a piece of fantasy born as much of the ongoing requirements of Updike's parable as of the young lovers' passion."
Brazil received mixed reviews from many critics. Michael Dirda in a Washington Post Book World review found aspects of Brazil "that irritate, like the nips of tropical insects," but argues that these are "compensated for by the novel's zesty readability." Michiko Kakutani argued in New York Times that though "there are occasional passages [in Brazil] that sparkle with Mr. Updike's patented gift for the lyrical metaphor, his descriptions of Tristao and Isabel's adventures often feel forced and contrived." Rhoda Koenig gave Brazil a similarly mixed review in New York: "The main characters themselves are not credible, with their mythic passions, expressed in diction more formal and flowery than would ever issue from a boy of the slums and a girl from the world of pampered inanity." Koenig concluded, however, that Updike's Brazil "is a novel of endless and astonishing fertility," and is "the most absorbing and unsettling novel, apart from the Rabbit books, that [Updike] has written in some time." Barbara Kingsolver in a review of Brazil for New York Times Book Review found that Updike's "prose is measured, layered, insightful, smooth, as addictive a verbal drug as exists on the modern market. For every tiresome appearance of Tristao's yam, there is also an image or observation that seems, against all odds, to mark the arrival of something new in the English language."
Updike returns to more familiar thematic territory in 1996's In the Beauty of the Lilies, a four-generation saga of the spiritual emptiness of modern American life. The novel begins, as Julian Barnes of New York Times Book Review noted, with "a sly misdirection. D.W. Griffith is filming 'A Call to Arms' … in the spring of 1910. Mary Pickford, short of sleep and over-costumed for a hot day, faints." Updike then introduces the Reverend Clarence Arthur Wilmot, and never returns to Griffith and Pickford. The novel follows Clarence's loss of faith, his switch from clergyman to encyclopedia salesman, his death, and then follows his family three further generations. When film is mentioned again in the text, Barnes argues, the connection is made by the reader: "religion and the movies: two great illusionary forces, two worlds in which the primal image is of darkness conquered by light." Sybil S. Steinberg in a Publishers Weekly interview with Updike paraphrased: "The four generations that Lilies depicts … are meant to allude to the biblical line from Abraham to Isaac to Joseph and his brothers." Updike told Steinberg that his Sunday school education left him "haunted by that particular [biblical] saga, and the notion that we are members of our ancestors. I wanted to give an American version of that sense." Barnes concluded that Lilies is "a novel of accumulated wisdom, with … Updike in full control of his subtle, crafty and incessantly observing art." Steinberg also noted Updike's control, finding that his "gift for exact, metaphorical observation binds matters of the soul to the ephemera of daily life."
Toward the End of Time is unlike typical Updike fare in that it is set in the future. The setting is the year 2020 after a war between the United States and China that has toppled the government and turned the Great Plains into "a radioactive dustbowl and left the management of local affairs to thugs who demand protection money," summarized a Publishers Weekly critic. Updike's protagonist, Ben Turnbull, has kept a journal depicting a year in his life. In his journal, Ben reveals his "basic Updikean traits" similar to other Updike characters, including his "importunate sexual urges combined with vague spiritual yearnings, an inclination toward melancholy introspection and a love of golf," noted Michiko Kakutani in New York Times Book Review. But, argued Kakutani, Turnbull is less like Rabbit Angstrom and more a "narcissistic and dirty minded old man." "As Ben confronts the looming certainty that time is running out for him and the universe, the narrative sweeps to a bittersweet conclusion," found a critic for Publishers Weekly.
Critics of Toward the End of Time were typically mixed in their assessment. Kakutani asked: "How could this veteran novelist, who just this year published the magisterial and masterly In the Beauty of the Lilies, follow that dazzling performance with this callous and perfunctory book?… Updike's usual sympathy for—and insight into—his characters gives way to cartoonish caricature, while his fascination with the intricacies of marriage, adultery and male-female relations devolves into the clumsy string-pulling of a chauvinistic puppeteer." James Wood, reviewing the novel for New Republic, commented that "too much of this novel advances into serenity when it should retreat into anguish, and too much of it finds what already exists rather than creates what does not." Woods criticized "the novel's reliance on a narrative that is already familiar to us," noting that this "sucks interest away from its fictionalized telling;" still, the critic did have praise for the "gorgeousness in the book" and its "fine words."
Updike's Gertrude and Claudius is a fictional exploration of the lives of Hamlet's parents and the relationship between Hamlet's mother and uncle. "Updike has appropriated the old Scandinavian legend about a prince who avenges his father's murder," wrote Ron Charles in Christian Science Monitor. "But in this version, Updike wonders if Hamlet's mom and dad were such bad parents after all." In the work, Updike creates the fictional lives of Gertrude, King Hamlet (her first husband), and Claudius, the king's brother who, as in Shakespeare's famous play, murders Claudius and soon after marries Gertrude. "This is a new perspective," found Adam Begley in People, citing Updike's plot about "a middle-aged queen falling for her husband's darkly mysterious younger brother."
Critics were again mixed. "Ultimately … one wonders what Updike hoped to achieve by deflating this Danish colossus into a soap opera befitting an age in which half of all marriages end in divorce," opined Norah Vincent in her appraisal of Gertrude and Claudius for National Review. "Turning Hamlet into a spoiled suburban brat may be amusing, but in the end it's a bit like portraying Macbeth as a hen-pecked Walter Mitty…. For all its pleasures, Gertrude and Claudius can't help being a disappointment to those who still find dignity and meaning in the tragic view of life." "Most likely, Updike's just having fun," countered Rex Roberts in Insight on the News. "Gertrude and Claudius allowed him to indulge his considerable talents, to writ a bit of Shakespearean rag…. Readers will enjoy Gertrude and Claudius best by giving themselves over to the book's playful spirit." Richard Eder in New York Times Book Review was even more laudatory: "Just as Shakespeare used older chronicles to construct his anguished balance between imagination and action, Updike has used Shakespeare to write a free-standing, pleasurable and wonderfully dexterous novel about three figures in complex interplay with their public state, their private longings and one another."
In Villages Updike writes of seventy-something Owen Mackenzie, a retired computer programmer who lives with his second wife. Most of the book is occupied by Owen's recollections of his erotic encounters with his wives and numerous lovers. The book is really a sort of history of sex in twentieth-century America, as Owen's burgeoning sexual awareness coincides with the American sexual revolution. Owen's sex life is indeed shaped, from his first encounter to the present-day, by the changing trends of, and attitudes toward, American sexuality.
Updike, as usual, does not shy away from the more graphic aspects of sex, and, as usual, his work has been met with mixed reviews. New Statesman critic Stephen Amidon noted that the author's "grinning disregard for the grammar of political correctness is a welcome tonic." Yet, Amidon went on to note, "there is something vaguely monstrous about … an utterly eroticised space where everything … is filtered through the prism of … sexual needs." In addition, an Economist contributor felt the descriptive passages fell short, stating that parts "could only have been written by an author who has described a few too many thighs," and concluding that the "point, too, is reductive." On the other hand, Stephen Abell, writing in the Spectator, was directly contradictory. He stated, Updike's "mind's eye has the quality of compound vision, separating the world into essential parts that make up the whole."
Like his novels, Updike's short stories and poetry also illustrate his command of language and his deep affec-tion for everyday life in all its banality. "Read as a whole, [Updike's] short-story volumes offer a social commentary on American domesticity since midcentury, and, while the prose is always lyrical and the observations always sharp, a tone of sadness—wistfulness—prevails," wrote Greiner in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Reviewing The Afterlife and Other Stories, Peter Kemp in the London Sunday Times found nearly the entire volume of stories "masterpieces of stead delineation, in which psychological and emotional nuance are traced with as much lucid finesse as the wealth of visual detail." Noting that poetry is not Updike's "primary medium," Mark Ford in Times Literary Supplement nonetheless found that Updike's verse "evokes with the clarity and precision of his fiction the contours of particular moments and places." Greiner maintained that the "happy union of lyrical prose and intellectual probing that is the highlight of [Updike's] fiction shows itself everywhere in his nonfiction."
Particularly praised by critics has been the author's collected work The Early Stories: 1953–1975, which won the PEN/Faulkner award in 2003. As Scott Shibuya Brown commented in Atlantic, reading through this 864-page volume "is a testament to many things, not least Updike's prodigious work habits (reputedly three pages a day, six days a week)." Beginning with 1953's "Ace in the Hole" and extending to his more experimental work, such as "Love Song, for a Moog Synthesizer," the 103-story collection demonstrates the author's "masterful ability to find beauty in the mundane and foreshadows the emotional complexity of his later novels," according to Entertainment Weekly reviewer Michelle Kung. Updike's work "is as prolific and valuable and given to experimentation as it was in those early years," noted Kyle Minor in appraising The Early Stories for Antioch Review, Minor adding that this comprehensive collection of Updike's formative short fiction "can be considered a good gift to the emerging writer" due to the author's skills as a stylist.
Updike is also a prolific author of prose nonfiction, including "book reviews, essays, addresses, comic feuilletons and random, autobiographical jottings," according to Michiko Kakutani in a review of More Matter: Essays and Criticism for New York Times Book Review. His other collections include Hugging the Shore, Odd Jobs, Golf Dreams, and the 2005 critical essays Still Looking. "In his strongest pieces," wrote Kakutani, "Updike's awesome pictorial powers of description combine with a rigorous, searching intelligence to produce essays of enormous tactile power and conviction…. His best pieces manage both to edify and to beguile."
Updike's skill in portraying the anxieties and frustrations of middle-America is considered the outstanding feature of his works. "He is our unchallenged master at evoking the heroic void of ordinary life," Suplee maintained, "where small braveries contend in vain against the nagging entropy of things, where the fear of death drips from a faulty faucet and supermarket daydreams turn to God. With heart-clutching clarity, he transmutes the stubborn banality of middle-class existence into tableaux that shiver with the hint of spiritual meaning." According to Kakutani, Updike's work "has not only lyrically defined the joys and sorrows of the American middle class, but also gives—as he once wrote of another author—'the happy impression of an oeuvre, of a continuous task carried forward variously, of a solid personality, of a plenitude of gifts explored, knowingly.'" A Publishers Weekly reviewer maintained that "one looks forward to the changing perspective (though not changing themes) that each decade brings to this masterful writer's work."
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John Updike: In His Own Words (video recording), Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 1997.