Updike, John (1932—)

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Updike, John (1932—)

Considered by critics to be one of the most significant American writers of the latter half of the twentieth century, John Updike is best known for his tetralogy of Rabbit novels (Rabbit, Run, 1960; Rabbit Redux, 1971; Rabbit is Rich, 1981; and Rabbit at Rest, 1990), which chronicles four decades of American culture through the eyes of Everyman protagonist Harry Angstrom. His depictions of everyday middle-class life and the stifling atmosphere of marriage have, in the minds of many readers, vividly captured the emptiness of middle America. Prolific and versatile, Updike has published 50 volumes, including novels, short stories, essays, reviews, poems, memoirs, and drama.

Updike was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on March 18, 1932 and grew up in the small town of Shillington. He later lived on a family farm in nearby Plowville. Through early academic success, Updike earned a scholarship to Harvard, where he continued the writing and drawing he had begun as a child. Following graduation from Harvard, Updike spent a year in Oxford, England, studying drawing on a fellowship, and two years in New York City working as a staff writer for The New Yorker.

In 1957 Updike and his young family, which would grow to four children by 1960, left New York City and moved to the small town of Ipswich, Massachusetts. Big-city life had proved too distracting, expensive, and overwhelming. By returning to a small town, not so unlike the Shillington of his youth, Updike found an atmosphere conducive to writing that would allow him to experience firsthand the middle-class everyday life that would become the great subject of his work.

In Ipswich, Updike began publishing books, beginning with a volume of poetry, The Carpentered Hen (1958); a first novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959); and a collection of stories, The Same Door (1959). Most of Updike's early work, written between the early 1950s and mid-1960s, depicts and lyrically celebrates a mythically endowed Pennsylvania that the author knew intimately from childhood. His most famous novel, Rabbit, Run (1960), depicting the angst and entrapment of early married life, appeared in 1960 and would go on to sell more than 2.5 million copies. Before he turned 30, Updike had established himself as one of his generation's foremost writers.

Updike's break with his early work came in 1968 with the publication of the novel Couples, set in a small New England town, that dealt with the adulterous interactions of a circle of 10 couples. The novel, the author's first and only number-one best-seller, landed Updike on the cover of Time magazine (he would appear there again in 1982) and greatly enlarged his readership. Over the subsequent decade Updike became America's best-known chronicler of marriage and adultery, producing such works as A Month of Sundays (1975), Marry Me (1976), and Too Far to Go (1979). During this same period, Updike divorced his first wife of 20 years and remarried.

The next phase of Updike's writing was signaled by the publication of The Coup (1978), one of the most radical departures of his career. Set in a fictional African country and told from the perspective of a black African leader in exile, The Coup was a breakthrough novel, demonstrating that Updike could extend his vision beyond suburban adultery or a Pennsylvania boyhood.

Updike went on to write some of his finest and most exuberant fiction during the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Problems and Other Stories (1979), Rabbit is Rich (1981), and The Witches of Eastwick (1984). In addition, he emerged as one of America's finest and most prolific literary critics through the publication of his award-winning critical tome Hugging the Shore (1983).

In his later novels, such as Roger's Version (1986), an intellectually demanding novel about a divinity professor and his battle with a computer scientist, Rabbit at Rest (1990), and Toward the End ofTime (1997), Updike has revealed his concerns with aging and displayed a bleakness and detachment that stand in contrast to the lyrical celebration of much of his early work. Roger's Version also signaled the increasing use of research in Updike's writing, to the extent that he began appending bibliographies to his novels. More heavily intertextual and loaded with information, these novels reveal a more erudite author.

Despite his large following, Updike has had his share of critics. Some have argued that while he may be a brilliant verbal performer, he allows himself to be carried away by his prose, to the point that his language becomes excessive in description and detail. In addition, some have found his graphic depictions of human sexuality to be gratuitous, and several feminist critics have accused him of misogyny.

Updike is considered by many to be America's greatest poetic novelist—a master of metaphor, scene, description, and image. With his verbal gifts, his eye for detail, and his lyric love of the surface world, Updike has created moments and scenes of extraordinary beauty and freshness. Like Walt Whitman, the great nineteenth-century poet, Updike has attempted to celebrate and sing America, delighting in its textures and surfaces, its objects and gestures. His subject, in his own words, is "the whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled America," and the purpose of his books, which together form "a continental magnum opus," has been "the hymning of this great roughly rectangular country."

—James Schiff

Further Reading:

Baker, Nicholson. U & I: A True Story. New York, Random House,1991.

Broer, Lawrence R., editor. Rabbit Tales: Poetry and Politics in John Updike's Rabbit Novels. Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 1998.

Detweiler, Robert C. John Updike. Boston, Twayne, 1984.

Greiner, Donald J. John Updike's Novels. Athens, Ohio University Press, 1984.

Luscher, Robert M. John Updike: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York, Twayne, 1993.

Newman, Judie. John Updike. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Schiff, James. John Updike Revisited. New York, Twayne, 1998.