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Updike, John Hoyer

UPDIKE, John Hoyer

(b. 18 March 1932 in Reading, Pennsylvania), novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and critic who first came to literary prominence in the 1960s with such novels as Rabbit, Run and Couples.

Updike, of Dutch and German descent, is the only child of Wesley Russell and Linda Grace (Hoyer) Updike. In 1945, after living in Shillington, Pennsylvania, where his father was a public school mathematics teacher, Updike's family moved to the maternal grandparents' six-room sandstone farmhouse near Plowville, Pennsylvania. Encouraged by his mother, herself a writer, Updike pursued parallel interests in art and writing. Updike became editor of the Shillington High School newspaper, the Chatterbox, and was elected senior class president. After graduation in 1950 Updike worked as a copy boy for the Reading Eagle and then entered Harvard on a tuition scholarship in the fall of 1950. An English literature major, he wrote and drew cartoons for the National Lampoon. He graduated summa cum laude in 1954, the same year the New Yorker published his story "Friends from Philadelphia" and a poem, "Duet with Muffled Brake Drums." In 1953 Updike married Mary E. Pennington, a Radcliffe fine arts major, whom he divorced in 1976. The Updikes had four children. In 1977 he married Martha Ruggles Bernhard.

After attending the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts at Oxford University, Updike was hired by Katharine White as a staff writer for the New Yorker. Leaving the magazine in 1957 to concentrate on his poetry and fiction, Updike moved with his family to Ipswich, Massachusetts. In 1958 his volume of poems, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, was published. Updike's first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, and a collection of short stories, The Same Door, were published in 1959. In this period Updike—a Lutheran—was experiencing a spiritual crisis and reading the works of the existentialist Søren Kierkegaard and the neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth. By the end of the 1950s Updike had achieved status as a writer of "typical" New Yorker stories and as a master of lyrical realism. The 1960s, for Updike, was a prolific period in which he ascended into the top rank of American novelists and was on his way to becoming one of the seminal writers of the twentieth century.

The publication of Rabbit, Run in 1960 introduced Updike's most enduring character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Using a third-person, present-tense style of narration, Up-dike drew on his small-town Pennsylvania roots in telling the story of the twenty-six-year-old former high school basketball star's impulsive flight from a stifling marriage and nowhere job selling dime-store vegetable peelers toward a future that tempts him with the promise of transcendence. Set in the late 1950s, Rabbit, Run addresses sex and religion in the broader context of the American themes of transience, loss, and dislocation. Updike imbues Rabbit with the modernist spiritual hunger bridging T. S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land" to the counterculture of the Vietnam War period and the prosperity of the Reagan era. Like Sinclair Lewis's George Babbitt in the 1920s, Updike's Rabbit Angstrom personifies the middle American spiritual angst that accompanied the materialism of postindustrial, mass society. To underscore this theme Updike richly peppers his narrative with details of popular culture, current history, advertising, and politics.

Updike has acknowledged that an impetus for Rabbit, Run was the publication of Jack Kerouac's signature novel of the Beat Generation, On the Road. Yet Harry Angstrom is no Sal Paradise or Dean Moriarty. As his nickname implies, Rabbit is a creature of impulse: sex-obsessed, reckless, and instinctual. But this "beautiful brainless guy" is also patriotic, familial, and full of guilt. From his abortive car trip south listening to AM radio to his final flight from his daughter's grave, Rabbit realizes that "the thing that has left his life has left irrevocably; no search would recover it. No flight would reach it." Rabbit's quest, after all, is an inward journey away from chaos and toward an individualistic, almost inchoate kind of faith. In subsequent Rabbit novels, Rabbit Redux (1971) and Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Updike's protagonist, still running, circles back into the mainstream, encountering black nationalism and white backlash, the gasoline lines of the Carter administration, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), and uneasy affluence as a Toyota dealer in the Reagan-era 1980s. Updike's final novel in the tetralogy, Rabbit at Rest (1990), explores Rabbit's retirement and death in Florida. In sum, the Rabbit quartet is Updike's magnum opus about a protagonist, according to Updike, "meant to be a Kierkegaardian man, as his name Angstrom hints."

Also in 1960 came the publication of Updike's essay "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," an epic tribute to the artistry of the Boston baseball great Ted Williams. After the phlegmatic Hall of Famer refused to take a curtain call for his final home run in his last game for the Boston Red Sox, Updike wrote, "Gods do not answer letters." The poet Donald Hall writes that Updike's essay marks the beginning of the "High Belletristic Tradition" of baseball writing, which "represents the fan's view from the stands, glorified by good prose."

Updike's output in the 1960s included three volumes of short stories: Pigeon Feathers (1962), Olinger Stories (1964), and The Music School (1966). Assorted Prose was published in 1965. A second volume of poems, Midpoint (1969), and three more novels—The Centaur (1963), Of the Farm (1965), and Couples (1968)—completed the decade. The Centaur and Of the Farm represented the culmination of Updike's use of his Shillington, Pennsylvania, background until the appearance of his memoirs, Self-Consciousness, in 1989. The Centaur, which won a National Book Award, focuses on three days in the lives of teacher George Caldwell and his son, Peter, in January 1947. This first-person retrospective narrative is juxtaposed with the mythological story of Chiron the centaur's wounding to release Prometheus from imprisonment. The novel serves as Updike's homage to his father, the model for Caldwell. The Washington Post called The Centaur "Updike at his angel-tongued best" in reference to his rich style. But Updike's painterly use of imagery, expressed in Peter Caldwell's love of Vermeer, was problematic for some readers. The novelist John Barth called Updike the "Andrew Wyeth of literature." The critic Alfred Kazin wrote that Updike's works lacked "depth." Norman Podhoretz complained that Updike had nothing to say. Yet in its narrative shifts and rhetorical variety, The Centaur foreshadowed Updike's movement toward fabulism in later novels such as The Coup (1978), The Witches of Eastwick (1984), Roger's Version (1986), and S (1988). Of the Farm is an extension of The Centaur, focusing on the return of the Peter Caldwell character, now called Joey Robinson, to the family farm a year after the death of his father and his remarriage to a woman his mother clearly resents. Updike's linear narrative avoids the experimentalism of The Centaur in shaping a psychological drama with piquant dialog and a plausibly ambiguous conclusion. Of the Farm, in its treatment of domestic and marital disharmony, seemed to be Updike's response to the critics' charges of irrelevancy. The novel is a finely crafted minor classic that ranks with the best work of Updike's contemporary Edward Albee, whose realistic plays of the 1960s penetrated the facade of Eisenhower-era family life in such works as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance.

In 1964 Updike, at age thirty-two, became the youngest person elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters. That year he was invited by the State Department to tour Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as part of a cultural exchange program. Later he signed, along with other writers, a letter drafted by Robert Penn Warren urging Soviet writers to use their writing to help restore Jewish cultural institutions. In a 1967 letter to the New York Times, Updike explained his moderate position on the Vietnam War, including his hope for a negotiated settlement. He also suggested that President Lyndon B. Johnson not run for reelection in 1968. The letter was his last public statement about the war until his chapter "On Not Being a Dove" was published in Self-Consciousness. Updike describes himself as a liberal Democrat with a "hardened antipathy to Communism" and a distrust of orthodoxies, "especially orthodoxies of dissent." In Self-Consciousness, Updike confesses that his "disposition to take contrary positions and to seek for nuances within the normal ill-suited" him for national debate.

Updike "found the country so distressing in its civil fury" that he took his family to London during 1968 and 1969. Describing the contrasts of the time, Updike writes, "what with Woodstock and Barbarella and The Joy of Sex and the choral nudity in Hair, there was a consciously retrieved Edenic innocence, a Blakeian triumph of the youthful human animal, along with napalm and defoliation."

Between 1962 and 1968 Updike's marriage was under stress. A self-described period of "grayness" followed in which Updike explored the subject of adultery and its consequences. During this time he wrote the draft of a novel that was eventually published as Marry Me: A Romance in 1976; it included material from a story titled "Couples" that was rejected by the New Yorker. His short stories from this period, as found in The Music School (1966), are brooding and meditative. In "The Stare," wrote the critic William H. Pritchard, Updike is "at his most Hawthornesque, at moments making us think of Poe, a writer to whom he seems otherwise alien."

Updike appeared on the best-seller lists and on the cover of Time magazine in 1968 with the publication of his novel Couples. Set in the years 1963 and 1964, the novel details the sexual relationships among the young married set in a New England town called Tarbox. Published in the first flowering of the sexual revolution, Couples, in its explicitness, seemed to capture the wife-swapping hedonism of a new age, one that Time called "the adulterous society." Yet in a deeper sense the novel is about the spiritual quest of its Calvinist protagonist, Piet Hanema, and the ways in which America has fallen from grace. Dismissed by some critics as an upper-middle-class version of the popular 1960s television series Peyton Place, Couples seemed to be the major novel that critics had predicted for him. Arthur Mizener had called him "the most talented writer of his generation." Yet in the year of the Tet offensive, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy, and continued urban violence, Updike's centrist politics and his focus on the white suburban upper middle class brought criticism from the left. In reviewing Couples, Alfred Kazin described Updike as "someone who can brilliantly describe the adult world without conveying its depth and risks, someone wholly literary, dazzlingly bright, the quickest of quick children."

Updike's precocity invited such judgments, though they seem overheated now. The contemporary novelist Joyce Carol Oates thoughtfully connects Updike to the tradition of nineteenth-century French realism. Of Rabbit Angstrom, she writes: "One thinks of Flaubert and his doomed fantasist Emma Bovary, for … Updike … mesmeriz[es] us with his narrative voice even as he might repel us with the vanities of human desire his scalpel exposes."

In Midpoint and Other Poems (1969) Updike concludes "Midpoint," an extended five-part poem, with the lines "Born laughing, I've believed in the Absurd, which brought me this far; henceforth, if I can, I must impersonate a serious man." Clearly, Updike, at thirty-seven, was taking stock and pointing toward new challenges. The immediate results were Bech: A Book (1970), and a return to Pennsylvania in Rabbit Redux (1971). The character Bech, a Jewish novelist suffering from writer's block, is a comic alter ego that Updike would assume again in Bech Is Back (1982) and Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel (1998). Echoing the influence of the character Humbert from Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita, Bech: A Book won critical praise for its wit and mockery of late 1960s morals and manners.

Rabbit Redux was Updike's most extensive exploration of the turbulence of the Vietnam era. Set against the Moon landing of 1969 and the urban decay of Brewer, Pennsylvania, the novel traces Rabbit's estrangement from his wife, Janice, and his cohabitation with Jill, a nineteen-year-old runaway hooked on drugs. Skeeter, a black Vietnam veteran and self-styled prophet, joins Rabbit's household, where he is trying to raise his adolescent son, Nelson. Up-dike devotes portions of the novel to Skeeter's militant raps and revisionist rants on American history. Throughout, Rabbit's reflections drip with dissonance between his traditional past and the new world revealed in the events unfolding on the television news each night. Events build toward a holocaust. Rabbit's suburban house is torched by vigilantes, Jill dies in the fire, and Rabbit helps Skeeter escape. The novel ends in a literal anticlimax when Rabbit and Janice are reconciled in a motel room, where they simply fall asleep.

The 1960s was, for Updike, a formative and productive decade. He won Pulitzer Prizes in 1982 for Rabbit Is Rich and in 1992 for Rabbit at Rest. In 1996 he revisited the 1960s once again in In the Beauty of the Lilies, a 500-page novel tracing the course of an American family over four generations. On publication of More Matter (1999), Updike's fifth collection of prose essays and criticism, the critic William Pritchard made a strong case for Updike's placement as "our preeminent man of letters." The beginning of the new century found Updike at work on his twentieth novel. His place in the American literary pantheon is secure.

The most comprehensive literary biography on Updike is William H. Pritchard, Updike: America's Man of Letters (2000). Pritchard's explication of Updike's oeuvre is superb. James Yerkes, John Updike and Religion: The Sense of the Sacred and the Motions of Grace (1999), is a collection of essays on Updike as a Christian writer. "View from the Catacombs," Time (26 Apr. 1968), presents a portrait of the writer after the publication of Couples. "Perennial Promises Kept," Time (18 Oct. 1982), is also essential reading. The chapter "On Not Being a Dove," in Self-Consciousness (1989), is essential to understanding Updike's position on Vietnam. Dennis Farney, "Novelist Updike Sees a Nation Frustrated by Its Own Dreams," Wall Street Journal (16 Sept. 1992), presents a useful thematic overview of the Rabbit novels.

Doug Collar

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