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John Hoyer Updike (March 18, 1932 – January 27, 2009) was an American novelist, poet, short story writer, art critic, and literary critic.

Updike's most famous work is his Rabbit series (the novels Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit At Rest; and the novella "Rabbit Remembered"). Both Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit At Rest received the Pulitzer Prize. He published more than twenty novels and more than a dozen short story collections, as well as poetry, art criticism, literary criticism and children's books. Hundreds of his stories, reviews, and poems appeared in The New Yorker, starting in 1954. He also wrote regularly for The New York Review of Books.

Describing his subject as "the American small town, Protestant middle class", Updike was well recognized for his careful craftsmanship, his unique prose style, and his prolificity. Updike populated his fiction with characters who "frequently experience personal turmoil and must respond to crises relating to religion, family obligations, and marital infidelity." His work has attracted a significant amount of critical attention and praise, and he is widely considered to be one of the great American writers of his time. Updike's highly distinctive prose style features a "striking, allusive, and often esoteric vocabulary" as conveyed through the eyes of "a wry, intelligent authorial voice" that extravagantly describes the physical world, while remaining squarely in the realist tradition.

Early life, education, and early writing

Updike was born to Wesley Russell Updike and Linda Grace Hoyer in Reading, Pennsylvaniamarker. He later recalled how his mother's writing inspired him as a child. "One of my earliest memories is of seeing her at her desk.... I admired the writer's equipment, the typewriter eraser, the boxes of clean paper. And I remember the brown envelopes that stories would go off in – and come back in."

These early years in Berks County, Pennsylvania, would influence the environment of the Rabbit tetralogy, as well as many of his early novels and short stories. He graduated from Shillingtonmarker High School as co-valedictorian and class president during 1950. Updike later attended Harvardmarker after receiving a full scholarship. At Harvard, he "immediately established himself as a major talent of indefatigable energy, submitting a steady stream of articles and drawings for the Harvard Lampoonmarker," which he served as president, before graduating summa cum laude in 1954 with a degree in English.

After graduation, he decided to become a graphic artist and attended The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Artmarker at the University of Oxfordmarker. His early ambition was to be a cartoonist. After returning to the U.S., Updike and his family moved to New York, where he became a regular contributor to The New Yorker. He stayed only two years, writing "Talk of the Town" columns and submitting poetry and short stories. In New York, Updike "[composed] the remarkable poems and stories that filled such early books as The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958) and The Same Door: Short Stories (1959). Stylistically, his early stories were influenced directly by the New Yorker itself." This early work featured the influence of JD Salinger ("A&P"), John Cheever ("Snowing in Greenwich Village"), and the Modernists Marcel Proust, Henry Green, James Joyce, and Vladimir Nabokov.

During this time, Updike also underwent spiritual crisis. Suffering from a loss of religious faith, he "turned to the work of the Danishmarker philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and the German Christian theologian Karl Barth, both of whom decisively shaped both his spiritual beliefs and his artistic vision, which, in Updike's case, are intricately linked." Updike then remained a believing Christian for the rest of his life.

Later, Updike and his family relocated to Ipswich, Massachusettsmarker. Many commentators, including a columnist in the local Ipswich Chronicle, asserted that the fictional town of Tarbox in Couples was based on Ipswich. Updike denied the suggestion in a letter to the paper. Impressions of Updike's day-to-day life in Ipswich during the 1960s and 1970s are included in a letter to the same paper published soon after Updike's death and written by a friend and contemporary. In Ipswich, Updike wrote Rabbit, Run (1960), on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and The Centaur (1963), two of his most acclaimed and famous works; the latter won the National Book Award.

Rabbit, Run featured Rabbit Angstrom, a former high school basketball star and middle-class paragon who would become Updike's most enduring and critically examined character. Updike wrote three additional novels about him. Rabbit, Run was featured in Time's All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels.

Career, novels, and stories

In 1971, Updike published a sequel to Rabbit, Run called Rabbit Redux, his response to the 1960s; Rabbit reflected much of Updike's confusion and ambivalence towards the social and political changes that beset the United States during that time. In 1980 he published another novel featuring that character, Rabbit is Rich, which won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize, the three major American literary prizes. The novel found "Rabbit the fat and happy owner of a Toyota dealership". Updike found it difficult to end the book, because he was "having so much fun" in the imaginary county Rabbit and his family inhabited. In 1990, Updike published the last Rabbit novel, Rabbit at Rest, in which his main character died. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Over 500 pages long, the novel is among Updike's most celebrated. In 2000, Updike included the novella Rabbit Remembered in his collection Licks of Love, drawing a final close to the Rabbit saga.

In 1995, Everyman's Library collected and canonized the four novels as the omnibus Rabbit Angstrom, for which Updike wrote an introduction in which he described Rabbit as "a ticket to the America all around me. What I saw through Rabbit's eyes was more worth telling than what I saw through my own, though the difference was often slight." Updike later called Rabbit "a brother to me, and a good friend. He opened me up as a writer."

Updike's early Olinger Stories period was set in the Pennsylvania of his youth; it ended around 1965 with the lyrical Of the Farm. Updike then became most famous as a "chronicler of suburban adultery." He once wrote that it was "a subject which, if I have not exhausted, has exhausted me." The most prominent of Updike's novels of this vein is Couples (1968), a novel about adultery in a small fictional Massachusetts town called Tarbox. It garnered Updike an appearance on the cover of Time magazine with the headline "The Adulterous Society."

The Maple short stories, collected in Too Far To Go (1979), reflected the ebb and flow of Updike's first marriage; "Separating" (1974) and "Here Come the Maples" (1976) related to Updike's divorce. Those stories were the basis for the television movie Too Far To Go which was broadcast by NBC. Two other novels from this period, A Month of Sundays (1975), the first in Updike's so-called Scarlet Letter trilogy, and Marry Me: A Romance (1976), are also meditations on suburban adultery.

The Coup (1978), a lauded novel about an African dictatorship inspired by a visit, found Updike working in new terrirory. After writing Rabbit is Rich, Updike published The Witches of Eastwick (1984), a playful novel about witches living in Rhode Islandmarker. He described it as an attempt to "make things right with my, what shall we call them, feminist detractors." One of Updike's most popular novels, it was adapted as a film and was included in The Western Canon (1994) of Harold Bloom. During 2008 Updike published The Widows of Eastwick, a return to the witches in their old age. It was his last published novel.

In 1986 he published the unconventional novel Roger's Version, the second volume of the Scarlet Letter trilogy, about an attempt to prove God's existence using a computer program. Author and critic Martin Amis called it a "near-masterpiece." The novel S. (1989), uncharacteristically featuring a female protagonist, concluded Updike's reworking of Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter.

Updike enjoyed working in series; in addition to the Rabbit Angstrom novels and the Maples stories, a recurrent Updike alter-ego is the moderately well-known, unprolific Jewish novelist and eventual Nobel laureate Henry Bech, chronicled in three comic short-story cycles: Bech, a Book (1970), Bech Is Back (1981) and Bech At Bay: A Quasi-Novel (1998). These stories were compiled into The Complete Henry Bech (2001) by Everyman's Library. Bech was portrayed as a comical and self-conscious antithesis of Updike's own literary persona: Jewish, a World War II veteran, reclusive, and unprolific to a fault.

After the publication of the Pulitzer-winning Rabbit at Rest, Updike spent the rest of the 1990s and early 2000s publishing novels more experimental in "style and approach." These styles included the historical fiction of Memories of the Ford Administration (1992), the magical realism of Brazil (1994), the science fiction of Toward the End of Time (1997), the postmodernism of Gertrude and Claudius (2000), and the art-tinged experimentalism of Seek My Face (2002).

In the midst of these, he wrote a more conventional novel, named In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), an historical saga spanning many generations and exploring themes of religion and cinema in America. It is considered the most successful novel of Updike's late career. Some critics have predicted that the novel "may well emerge as the sort of late masterpiece overlooked or praised by rote in its day, only to be rediscovered by another generation." In Villages (2004), Updike returned to the familiar territory of infidelities in New Englandmarker. His twenty-second novel, Terrorist (2006), the story of a fervent, eighteen-year-old extremist Muslim in New Jerseymarker, garnered media attention.

During 2003, Updike published The Early Stories, a large collection of his short fiction spanning the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. At more than 800 pages long with over one hundred stories, it has been called "perhaps Updike's most important achievement", functioning "as a richly episodic and lyrical Bildungsroman – that is, a novel of education and development – in which Updike traces the trajectory from adolescence, college, married life, fatherhood, separation and divorce." It won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2004. This lengthy volume nevertheless excluded several others of his short-story collections.

Updike worked in a wide array of genres, including fiction, poetry (most but not all of which is compiled in Collected Poems: 1953-1993, 1993), essays (collected in about nine separate collections), a play (Buchanan Dying, 1974), and memoir (Self Consciousness, 1989).

Updike won an array of awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction, two National Book Awards, three National Book Critics Circle awards, the 1989 National Medal of Arts and 2003 National Humanities Medal, and the Rea Award for the Short Story for outstanding achievement; the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Updike to present the 2008 Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. government's highest humanities honor; Updike's lecture was entitled "The Clarity of Things: What is American about American Art."

He lived with his wife Martha in Beverly Farms, Massachusettsmarker. He died of lung cancer at a hospice in Danvers, Massachusettsmarker, on January 27, 2009, at the age of 76.

Marriage and family

Updike married Mary E. Pennington, an art student at Radcliffe College, in 1953. She accompanied him to Oxford, Englandmarker, where their first child, Elizabeth, was born in 1955. The couple had three more children together: writer David Updike (born 1957), Michael (born 1959) and Miranda (born 1960); Updike and Pennington divorced during 1974. Updike had 7 grandchildren: Michael Anoff Cobblah and John Quame Cobblah - Elizabeth's sons; Wesley Updike - David's son; Trevor and Sawyer Updike - Michael's sons; and Kai and Seneca Freyleue - Miranda's sons.

In 1977 Updike married Martha Ruggles Bernhard, to whom he remained married until his death in 2009.


Updike published eight volumes of poetry over his career, including his first book The Carpentered Hen (1958), and one of his last, the posthumous Endpoint (2009). The New Yorker published excerpts of Endpoint in their March 16, 2009 issue. Many of Updike's poems up until the mid-1990s were compiled in Knopf's Collected Poems (1993). He wrote that "I began as a writer of light verse, and have tried to carry over into my serious or lyric verse something of the strictness and liveliness of the lesser form." The poet Thomas M. Disch wrote that because Updike "enjoys such pre-eminence as a novelist...his poetry could be mistaken as a hobby or a foible"; instead it "is a poetry of civility—in its epigrammatical lucidity...and in its tone of vulgar bonhomie and good appetite." His poetry "encompasses a variety of forms and topics. He has been praised for his wit and precision, and for his ability to focus on common subjects and on places near and distant."

The British poet Gavin Ewart praised Updike for his "ability to make the ordinary seem strange, as all metaphysical poets have always done" and calls Updike one of the few modern novelists capable of writing good poetry. Reading Endpoint aloud, the critic Charles McGrath claimed that he found "another, deeper music" in Updike's poetry. He finds that Updike's wordplay "smoothes and elides itself", and has many subtle "sound effects." The critic John Keenan, who praised the "beautiful and poignant" Endpoint, writes:
"I find it odd that Updike's reputation as a poet is slight at best. The fact that he wrote about the everyday world in a technically accomplished manner seems to count against him. His poetry is dismissed as light verse, as if obscurity is an achievement and transparency a vice. It is the same snobbery which dismisses Larkinmarker and Betjeman and fails to see their fundamental importance – what Clive James called, in another context, 'playful seriousness.' "

Literary criticism and art criticism

In addition to his novels, poetry, and short stories, Updike was also a critic of literature and art, cited frequently as one of the best American critics of his generation. He once stated his personal rules for literary criticism, in the introduction to Picked-Up Pieces, his 1975 collection of prose:
1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give enough direct quotation—- at least one extended passage—- of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never... try to put the author "in his place," making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

He reviewed "nearly every major writer of the 20th century and some 19th century authors", typically in The New Yorker, always trying to make his reviews "animated." He was also a champion for young writers, often making generous comparisons to his own literary heroes including Vladimir Nabokov and Marcel Proust. Good reviews from Updike often "meant something" in terms of literary reputation and even sales; some of his positive reviews gave "huge boosts to the careers, for example, of Erica Jong, Thomas Mallon and Jonathan Safran Foer." Bad reviews by Updike sometimes caused controversy too, as when in late 2008 he gave a "damning" review to Toni Morrison's novel A Mercy.

Updike was praised for his literary criticism's conventional simplicity and profundity, for being "an old-fashioned appreciative critic, an aestheticist, a subjectivist," and for his longtime commitment to the practice of literary criticism.

Updike's art criticism often appeared in The New York Review of Books, where he frequently wrote about American art. Drawings of Updike were made several times by caricaturist David Levine, whose first work for The New York Review of Books appeared in 1963.

Updike's 2008 Jefferson Lecture, "The Clarity of Things: What's American About American Art?", dealt with the uniqueness of American art from the 18th century to the 20th century. In the lecture he argued that American art, until the expressionist movement of the 20th century in which America declared its artistic "independence", is characterized by insecurity as compared with the artistic tradition of Europe." In Updike's own words:
Two centuries after Jonathan Edwards sought a link with the divine in the beautiful clarity of things, William Carlos Williams wrote in introducing his long poem Paterson that "for the poet there are no ideas but in things." No ideas but in things. The American artist, first born into a continent without museums and art schools, took Nature as his only instructor, and things as his principal study. A bias toward the empirical, toward the evidential object in the numinous fullness of its being, leads to a certain lininess, as the artist intently maps the visible in a New World that feels surrounded by chaos and emptiness.

Critical reputation and style

Updike is considered one of the greatest American fiction writers of his generation. Along with Toni Morrison, he was the most written about living American novelist of his time. He was widely praised as America's "last true man of letters", with an immense and far-reaching influence on many writers. The excellence of his prose style is near-universally acknowledged, even by those critics who are skeptical of Updike's significance as a novelist and of his larger artistic vision. Critics emphasize "his inimitable prose style" and "rich description and language, drawing comparisons to the prose of Marcel Proust and Vladimir Nabokov." Some critics consider him "fluent to a fault", others "question the depth and seriousness of his concerns" due to the supposed floweriness of his language, and some "[object] to Updike's portrayal of women, viewed by some as specious and misogynistic." Others more positively "suggest that Updike's employment of a dense vocabulary and syntax functions as a distancing technique to mediate the intellectual and emotional involvement of the reader." Ultimately John Updike "remains highly esteemed as a foremost man of letters whose prodigious intelligence, verbal prowess, and shrewd insight into the sorrows, frustrations, and banality of American life separate him from the ranks of his contemporaries."

His character Rabbit Angstrom, widely considered his magnum opus, has been said to have "entered the pantheon of signal American literary figures, joining Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield and the like." A 2002 list by Book magazine of the 100 Best Fictional Characters Since 1900 listed Rabbit in the top five. The Rabbit novels, the Henry Bech stories, and the Maple stories have been canonized by Everyman's Library.

Eulogizing Updike during January 2009, the British novelist Ian McEwan wrote that Updike's "literary schemes and pretty conceits touched at points on the Shakespearean", and that Updike's death marked the "the end of the golden age of the American novel in the 20th century's second half." McEwan concluded that the Rabbit series is Updike's "masterpiece and will surely be his monument", and describing it, concluded:
Updike is a master of effortless motion - between third and first person, from the metaphorical density of literary prose to the demotic, from specific detail to wide generalisation, from the actual to the numinous, from the scary to the comic. For his own particular purposes, Updike devised for himself a style of narration, an intense, present tense, free indirect style, that can leap up, whenever it wants, to a God's-eye view of Harry, or the view of his put-upon wife, Janice, or victimised son, Nelson. This carefully crafted artifice permits here assumptions about evolutionary theory, which are more Updike than Harry, and comically sweeping notions of Jewry, which are more Harry than Updike.

This is at the heart of the tetralogy's achievement. Updike once said of the Rabbit books that they were an exercise in point of view. This was typically self-deprecating, but contains an important grain of truth. Harry's education extends no further than high school, and his view is further limited by a range of prejudices and a stubborn, combative spirit, yet he is the vehicle for a half-million-word meditation on postwar American anxiety, failure and prosperity. A mode had to be devised to make this possible, and that involved pushing beyond the bounds of realism. In a novel like this, Updike insisted, you have to be generous and allow your characters eloquence, "and not chop them down to what you think is the right size".

Jonathan Raban, highlighting many of the virtues that have been ascribed to Updike's prose, called Rabbit at Rest (1990) "one of the very few modern novels in English (Bellow's Herzog is another) that one can set beside the work of Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Joyce, and not feel the draft...It is a book that works by a steady accumulation of a mass of brilliant details, of shades and nuances, of the byplay between one sentence and the next, and no short review can properly honor its intricacy and richness."

The novelist Philip Roth, considered one of Updike's chief literary rivals, wrote that "John Updike is our time's greatest man of letters, as brilliant a literary critic and essayist as he was a novelist and short story writer. He is and always will be no less a national treasure than his 19th-century precursor, Nathaniel Hawthorne."

The noted critic James Wood called Updike "a prose writer of great beauty, but that prose confronts one with the question of whether beauty is enough, and whether beauty always conveys all that a novelist must convey." In a review of Updike's Licks of Love (2001), Wood concluded that Updike's "prose trusses things in very pretty ribbons", but there often exists in his work a "hard, coarse, primitive, misogynistic worldview." Wood both praises and criticizes Updike's language for having "an essayistic saunter; the language lifts itself up on pretty hydraulics, and hovers slightly above its subjects, generally a little too accomplished and a little too abstract." He writes that Updike is capable of writing "the perfect sentence" and notes that Updike's unique style is characterized by a "delicate deferral" of the sentence's subject. The beauty of Updike's language and his faith in the power of that language floats above reality, according to Wood:
For some time now Updike's language has seemed to encode an almost theological optimism about its capacity to refer. Updike is notably unmodern in his impermeability to silence and the interruptions of the abyss. For all his fabled Protestantism, both American Puritan and Lutheran-Barthian, with its cold glitter, its insistence on the aching gap between God and His creatures, Updike seems less like Hawthorne than Balzac, in his unstopping and limitless energy, and his cheerfully professional belief that stories can be continued; the very form of the Rabbit books – here extended a further instance – suggests continuance. Updike does not appear to believe that words ever fail us – ‘life's gallant, battered ongoingness’, indeed – and part of the difficulty he has run into, late in his career, is that he shows no willingness, verbally, to acknowledge silence, failure, interruption, loss of faith, despair and so on. Supremely, better than almost any other contemporary writer, he can always describe these feelings and states; but they are not inscribed in the language itself. Updike's language, for all that it gestures towards the usual range of human disappointment and collapse, testifies instead to its own uncanny success: to a belief that the world can always be brought out of its cloudiness and made clear in a fair season.

In direct contrast to Wood's evaluation, the Oxfordmarker critic Thomas Karshan asserted that Updike is "intensely intellectual", with a style that constitutes his "manner of thought" not merely "a set of dainty curlicues." Karshan calls Updike an inheritor of the "traditional role of the epic writer." According to Karshan, "Updike's writing picks up one voice, joins its cadence, and moves on to another, like Rabbit himself, driving south through radio zones on his flight away from his wife and child." Disagreeing with Wood's critique of Updike's alleged over-stylization, Karshan evaluates Updike's language as convincingly naturalistic:
Updike's sentences at their frequent best are not a complacent expression of faith. Rather, like Proust's sentences in Updike's description, they "seek out an essence so fine the search itself is an act of faith." Updike aspires to "this sense of self-qualification, the kind of timid reverence towards what exists that Cézanne shows when he grapples for the shape and shade of a fruit through a mist of delicate stabs." Their hesitancy and self-qualification arise as they meet obstacles, readjust and pass on. If life is bountiful in New Englandmarker, it is also evasive and easily missed. In the stories Updike tells, marriages and homes are made only to be broken. His descriptiveness embodies a promiscuous love for everything in the world. But love is precarious, Updike is always saying, since it thrives on obstructions and makes them if it cannot find them.

Harold Bloom, the famous critic, once called Updike "a minor novelist with a major style. A quite beautiful and very considerable stylist.... He specializes in the easier pleasures." Bloom also edited an important collection of critical essays on Updike in 1987, in which he concluded that Updike possessed a major style and was capable of writing beautiful sentences which are "beyond praise"; nevertheless, Bloom went on, "the American sublime will never touch his pages."

On The Dick Cavett Show during 1981, the novelist and short story writer John Cheever was asked why he did not write book reviews and what he would say if he were given the chance to review Updike's Rabbit is Rich (1981). He replied:
The reason I didn't review the book is that it perhaps would have taken me three weeks. My appreciation of it is that diverse and that complicated... John is perhaps the only contemporary writer who I know now who gives me the sense of the fact that life is -- the life that we perform is in an environment that enjoys a grandeur that escapes us. Rabbit is very much possessed of a paradise lost, of a paradise known fleetingly perhaps through erotic love and a paradise that he pursues through his children. It's the vastness of John's scope that I would have described if I could through a review.

The Fiction Circus, an online and multimedia literary magazine, called Updike one of the "four Great American Novelists" of his time along with Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo, each one jokingly representing signs of the Zodiac. Furthermore, Updike was seen as the "best prose writer in the world", like Nabokov before him. But, in contrast to many literati and establishment obituaries, they assert that nobody "thought of Updike as a vital writer."

Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker evaluated Updike as "the first American writer since Henry James to get himself fully expressed, the man who broke the curse of incompleteness that had haunted American writing... He sang like Henry James, but he saw like Sinclair Lewis. The two sides of American fiction -- the precise, realist, encylcopedic appetite to get it all in, and the exquisite urge to make writing out of sensation rendered exactly -- were both alive in him." The critic James Wolcott, in a review of Updike's last novel The Widows of Eastwick (2008), notes that Updike's penchant for observing America's decline is coupled with an affirmation of America's ultimate merits: "Updike elegises entropy American-style with a resigned, paternal, disappointed affection that distinguishes his fiction from that of grimmer declinists: Don DeLillo, Gore Vidal, Philip Roth. America may have lost its looks and stature, but it was a beauty once, and worth every golden dab of sperm."

Gore Vidal professed to have "never taken Updike seriously as a writer." He criticizes his political and aesthetic worldview for its "blandness and acceptance of authority in any form." He concludes that Updike "describes to no purpose." Vidal mockingly refers to Updike as "our good child", in reference to his wide establishment acclaim, and excoriates his alleged political conservatism. Vidal's ultimate conclusion is that "Updike's work is more and more representative of that polarizing within a state where Authority grows ever more brutal and malign while its hired hands in the media grow ever more excited as the holy war of the few against the many heats up."

Robert B. Silvers, editor of The New York Review of Books, called Updike "one of the most elegant and coolly observant writers of his generation". The short story writer Lorrie Moore, who once described Updike as "American literature's greatest short story writer... and arguably our greatest writer", reviewed Updike's body of short stories in The New York Review, praising their intricate detail and rich imagery, and asserted that "his eye and his prose never falter, even when the world fails to send its more socially complicated revelations directly his story's way."

During November 2008 the editors of the UK's Literary Review magazine awarded Updike their Bad Sex in Fiction Lifetime Achievement Award, which celebrates "crude, tasteless or ridiculous sexual passages in modern literature."


The principal themes in Updike's work are religion, sex, and America as well as death. Often he would combine them, frequently in his favored terrain of "the American small town, Protestant middle class", of which he once said, "I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules." For example, the decline of religion in America is chronicled in In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996) alongside the history of cinema, and Rabbit Angstrom contemplates the merits of sex with the wife of his friend Reverend Jack Eccles while the latter is giving his sermon in Rabbit, Run (1960). Critics have often noted that Updike imbued language itself with a kind of faith in its efficacy, and that his tendency to construct narratives spanning many years and books -- the Rabbit series, the Henry Bech series, Eastwick, the Maples stories -- demonstrates a similar faith in the transcendent power of fiction and language. Updike's novels often act as dialectical theological debates between the book itself and the reader, the novel endowed with theological beliefs meant to challenge the reader as the plot runs its course. Rabbit Angstrom himself acts as a Kierkegaardian Knight of Faith.

Sex in Updike's work is noted for its ubiquity and the reverence with which he described it:
His contemporaries invade the ground with wild Dionysian yelps, mocking both the taboos that would make it forbidden and the lust that drives men to it. Updike can be honest about it, and his descriptions of the sight, taste and texture of women's bodies can be perfect little madrigals.
The critic Edward Champion notes that Updike's prose heavily favors "external sexual imagery" rife with "explicit anatomical detail" rather than descriptions of "internal emotion" in descriptions of sex. In Champion's interview with Updike on The Bat Segundo Show, Updike replied that he perhaps favored such imagery to concretize and make sex "real" in his prose. Another sexual theme commonly addressed in Updike is adultery, especially in a suburban, middle class setting, most famously in Couples (1968). The Updikean narrator is often "a man guilty of infidelity and abandonment of his family."

Similarly, Updike wrote about America with a certain nostalgia, reverence, and recognition and celebration of America's broad diversity. ZZ Packer wrote that in Updike, "there seemed a strange ability to harken both America the Beautiful as well as America the Plain Jane, and the lovely Protestant backbone in his fiction and essays, when he decided to show it off, was as progressive and enlightened as it was unapologetic."The Rabbit novels in particular can be viewed, according to Julian Barnes, as "a distraction from, and a glittering confirmation of, the vast bustling ordinariness of American life." But as Updike celebrated ordinary America, he also alluded to its decline: at times, he was "so clearly disturbed by the downward spin of America." Adam Gopnik concludes that "Updike's great subject was the American attempt to fill the gap left by faith with the materials produced by mass culture. He documented how the death of a credible religious belief has been offset by sex and adultery and movies and sports and Toyotas and family love and family obligation. For Updike, this effort was blessed, and very nearly successful."

Updike also commonly wrote about death, his characters providing a "mosaic of reactions" to mortality, ranging from terror to attempts at insulation. In The Poorhouse Fair (1959), the elderly John Hook intones, "There is no goodness without belief...And if you have not believed, at the end of your life you shall know you have buried your talent in the ground of this world and have nothing saved, to take into the next", demonstrating a religious, metaphysical faith present in much of Updike's work. For Rabbit Angstrom, with his constant musings on mortality, his near-witnessing of his daughter's death, and his often shaky faith, death is more frightening and less obvious in its ramifications. At the end of Rabbit at Rest (1990), though, Rabbit demonstrates a kind of certainty, telling his son Nelson on his deathbed, "...But enough. Maybe. Enough." In The Centaur (1963), George Caldwell is afraid of his cancer and does not have any religious faith. Death can also be a sort of unseen terror; it "occurs offstage but reverberates for survivors as an absent presence."

Updike himself also experienced a "crisis over the afterlife", and indeed "many of his heroes shared the same sort of existential fears the author acknowledged he had suffered as a young man: Henry Bech's concern that he was 'a fleck of dust condemned to know it is a fleck of dust,' or Colonel Ellelloû's lament that 'we will be forgotten, all of us forgotten.' Their fear of death threatens to make everything they do feel meaningless, and it also sends them running after God — looking for some reassurance that there is something beyond the familiar, everyday world with 'its signals and buildings and cars and bricks.'" Updike demonstrated his own fear in some of his more personal writings, including the poem "Perfection Wasted" (1990):
And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic...

Describing his purpose in writing prose, Updike himself, in the introduction to his Early Stories: 1953-1975 (2004), wrote that his aim was always "to give the mundane its beautiful due." Elsewhere he famously said, "When I write, I aim my mind not towards New Yorkmarker but towards a vague spot east of Kansasmarker." Some have suggested that the "best statement of Updike's aesthetic comes in his early memoir 'The Dogwood Tree'" (1962): "Blankness is not emptiness; we may skate upon an intense radiance we do not see because we see nothing else. And in fact there is a colour, a quiet but tireless goodness that things at rest, like a brick wall or a small stone, seem to affirm."

Cultural references

  • Updike was the subject of a "closed book examination" by Nicholson Baker, entitled U and I (1991). Baker discusses his wish to meet Updike and become his golf partner.
  • In a season 12 episode of the animated series The Simpsons, "Insane Clown Poppy" (2000), John Updike is the ghost writer of a book that Krusty the Clown is promoting. The book's title is Your Shoe's Too Big To Kickbox God, a 20-page book written entirely by John Updike as a money-making scam.
  • Updike was featured on the cover of Time twice, on 26 April 1968 and again on 18 October 1982.
  • The main character in the Eminem film 8 Mile (2002) is nicknamed "Rabbit" and has some similarities to Rabbit Angstrom. The film's soundtrack has a song titled "Rabbit Run."
  • In an episode of the television series Gilmore Girls, "In the Clamor and the Clangor", the main characters are attending a funeral and jocularly try to guess which members of the town will be the next to die, but they quickly realize the morbidity of their conversation and regret it, especially when ominous things begin to happen to the people they speculated dying, prompting Lorelai to say, "We are The Witches of Eastwick."
  • In 2009 a U.S. television series named Eastwick premiered, based (loosely) on the Updike novel.


Rabbit novels

Bech books

Buchanan books

Eastwick books

Other novels

The Scarlet Letter Trilogy'

Short Story Collections Poetry
  • (1958) The Carpentered Hen
  • (1963) Telephone Poles
  • (1969) Midpoint
  • (1969) Dance of the Solids
  • (1974) Cunts: Upon Receiving The Swingers Life Club Membership Solicitation (limited edition)
  • (1977) Tossing and Turning
  • (1985) Facing Nature
  • (1993) Collected Poems 1953–1993
  • (2001) Americana: and Other Poems
  • (2009) Endpoint and Other Poems

Non-fiction, essays and criticism
  • (1965) Assorted Prose
  • (1975) Picked-Up Pieces
  • (1983) Hugging The Shore
  • (1989) Self-Consciousness: Memoirs
  • (1989) Just Looking
  • (1991) Odd Jobs
  • (1996) Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf
  • (1999) More Matter
  • (2005) Still Looking: Essays on American Art
  • (2007) Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism

See also the External links section below for links to archives of his essays and reviews in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.




  1. MSN Encarta, " John Updike", 2008, 2009-10-31.
  2. Contemporary Literary Criticism, "John Updike Criticism (Vol. 139)" (2001)
  3. Boswell, Marshall. "John Updike", The Literary Encyclopedia, 18 March 2004
  4. Jeet Heer, "John Updike's animated ambitions", The Guardian, 20 March 2004 Link
  5. "Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly: John Updike" 19 November 2004,, Episode 812.
  6. The Ipswich Chronicle. 25 April 1968 Letter: "Updike 'flatly denies' that Tarbox is Ipswich."
  7. All-Time 100 Novels
  8. Charlie Rose interview, 24 October 1995, Link
  9. John Updike, "Introduction", Rabbit Angstrom (1995), Everyman's Library.
  10. Charlie Rose interview, 1996, Link
  11. "Farewell, King John of Suburbia", New Statesman, 29 January 2009, Link
  12. Michiko Kakutani, "Books of the Times: 'The Widows of Eastwick'", New York Times, 19 October 2008, Link
  13. Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages (1994), Riverhead Trade, "The Chaotic Age: The United States."
  14. Martin Amis, "When Amis met Updike...", The Guardian, 1 February 2009, Link
  15. Jack De Bellis (ed.), The John Updike Encyclopedia (2000), "Bech, Henry", pp. 52-53.
  16. Adam Gopnik, "Postscript: John Updike", The New Yorker, 9 February 2009, Link
  17. Powell's Books - Award Winners - The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
  18. John Updike: The Poetry Foundation, archive
  19. John Updike
  20. Gavin Ewart, "Making it strange", New York Times, 28 April 1985 Link
  21. Charles McGrath, "Reading Updike's Last Words, Aloud", New York Times, 3 April 2009, Link
  22. John Keenan, "The clarity of Updike's poetry should not obscure its class", The Guardian, 12 March 2009, Link
  23. James Atlas, "Towards the Transhuman", London Review of Books, 2 February 1984, Link
  24. "Remembering Updike: The Gospel According to John", New Yorker online, Link
  25. ZZ Packer, "Remembering Updike", New Yorker online, Link
  26. Charles McGrath, "John Updike's Mighty Pen", New York Times, 31 January 2009, Link
  27. Alex Carnevale, "Literary Feuds: Toni Morrison is John Updike's Latest Lit-Fit Victim", October 2008,, Link
  28. "Updike takes a swipe at Toni Morrison", The First Post, 29 October 2008, Link
  29. John Updike, "Dreamy Wilderness", New Yorker, 3 November 2008, Link
  30. Wyatt Mason, "Among the reviewers: John Updike and the book-review bugaboo", Harper's, December 2007, Link
  31. John Updike Archive, New York Review of Books, Link
  32. "David Levine Gallery", New York Review of Books.
  33. John Updike, "The Clarity of Things", National Endowment for the Humanities, Link
  34. "What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?" New York Times, 21 May 2006, Link A survey of "a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages" listed the Rabbit series as one of the few greatest works of modern American fiction.
  35. Thomas Karshan, "Batsy", London Review of Books, 31 March 2005, Link
  36. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "John Updike, a Lyrical Writer of the Middle Class, Dies at 76", New York Times, 28 January 2009, Link
  37. Book magazine, March/April 2002, "100 Best Fictional Characters since 1900", via NPR, Link
  38. Everyman's Library: Authors
  39. Ian McEwan, "Beyond the Bounds of Realism", The Guardian, 31 January 2009, Link
  40. Jonathan Raban, The Oxford Book of the Sea (1993), Oxford University Press, pp. 509-517.
  41. "John Updike: 2008 Jefferson Lecture", National Endowment for the Humanities, Link
  42. James Wood, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (2000), "John Updike's Complacent God", Modern Library, pg 192.
  43. James Wood, "Gossip in Gilt", London Review of Books, 19 April 2001, Link
  44. Richard Eder, "The Paris Interviews", New York Times, 25 December 2007.
  45. Harold Bloom, ed., Modern Critical Views of John Updike, Chelsea House, New York, 1987.
  46. Dick Cavett, "Writers Bloc: When Updike and Cheever Came to Visit", New York Times, 13 February 2009. Video 14 October 1981 Link
  47. S. Future, "Updike", The Fiction Circus, 27 January 2009, Link
  48. Adam Gopnik, "Postscript: John Updike", The New Yorker, 9 February 2009, Link
  49. James Wolcott, "Caretaker/Pallbearer", London Review of Books, 1 January 2009, Link
  50. Gore Vidal, "Rabbit's own burrow", Times Literary Supplement, 26 April 1996, the longest essay ever to appear in the TLS, Link
  51. Brand, Madeleine. Robert B. Silvers interview for NPR Remembrances: "John Updike: The Shy Man And Great Writer", NPR, Day to Day, January 27, 2009
  52. Mary Rourke, "John Updike dies at 76; Pulitzer-winning author", Los Angeles Times, 28 January 2009, Link
  53. Lorrie Moore, "Home Truths", New York Review of Books, 20 November 2003, Link
  54. The Economist, "An American subversive", 29 January 2009, Link
  55. Jack De Bellis (ed.), "Mortality and Immortality", The John Updike Encyclopedia (2000), pg. 286. See here for many subsequent quotes and citations on death.
  56. Boswell, Marshall. "John Updike", The Literary Encyclopedia, 18 March 2004
  57. Time, "View from the Catacombs", 26 April 1968, pg. 6, Link
  58. The Bat Segundo Show, Show #50, John Updike, link
  59. Antonya Nelson, "Remembering Updike", New Yorker online, Link
  60. ZZ Packer, "Remembering Updike", New Yorker online, Link
  61. Julian Barnes, "Remembering Updike", New Yorker online, Link
  62. Jack De Bellis (ed.), "More Matter", The John Updike Encyclopedia (2000), pg. 281.
  63. Michiko Kakutani, "An Appraisal", New York Times, 27 January 2009, Link
  64. John Updike, "Perfection Wasted", Collected Poems: 1953-1993 (1995), Knopf.
  65. John Updike, The Early Stories: 1953-1975 (2004), Ballantine Books.
  66. Robert McCrun, "John Updike was of a generation that changed the literary landscape irrevocably," The Guardian, 1 February 2009, link
  67. John Updike, "The Dogwood Tree", Assorted Prose (1965), Knopf.
  68. Nicholson Baker, U and I: A True Story, Random House, 1991, Google Books, Link
  69. ,
  70. 26 April 1968 Time cover, 18 October 1982 Time cover
  71. ECHO Journal IV/2, Kajikawa, "Review: 8 Mile, "Rap, Rabbit, Rap," Link
  72., Gilmore Girls, "In the Clamor and the Clangor," Season 4 Episode 11, Quotes, Link
  73. All awards listed at The Centaurian Updike homepage, "Awards, Prizes, and Honors", 17 March 2009

Further reading and literary criticism

  • Bailey, Peter J., Rabbit (Un)Redeemed: The Drama of Belief in John Updike's Fiction, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, Madison, New Jersey, 2006.
  • Baker, Nicholas, U & I: A True Story, Random House, New York, 1991.
  • Ben Hassat, Hedda, Prophets Without Vision: Subjectivity and the Sacred in Contemporary American Writing, Bucknell University Press, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, 2000.
  • Bloom, Harold, ed., Modern Critical Views of John Updike, Chelsea House, New York, 1987.
  • Boswell, Marshall, John Updike's Rabbit Tetralogy: Mastered Irony in Motion, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, Missouri, 2001.
  • Broer, Lawrence, Rabbit Tales: Poetry and Politics in John Updike's Rabbit Novels, University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 2000.
  • Burchard, Rachel C., John Updike: Yea Sayings, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois, 1971.
  • Campbell, Jeff H., Updike's Novels: Thorns Spell A Word, Midwestern State University Press, Wichita Falls, Texas, 1988.
  • Clarke Taylor, C., John Updike: A Bibliography, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio, 1968.
  • De Bellis, Jack, John Updike: A Bibliography, 1968-1993, Greenwood Publishing Group, Westport, Connecticut, 1994.
  • De Bellis, Jack, John Updike: The Critical Responses to the Rabbit Saga, Greenwood Publishing Group, Westport, Connecticut, 2005.
  • De Bellis, Jack, ed., The John Updike Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, Santa Barbara, California, 2001.
  • Detwiler, Robert, John Updike, Twayne, Boston, 1984.
  • Greiner, Donald, " Don DeLillo, John Updike, and the Sustaining Power of Myth", UnderWords: Perspectives on Don DeLillo's Underworld, University of Delaware Press, Newark, Delaware, 2002.
  • Greiner, Donald, John Updike's Novels, Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, 1984.
  • Greiner, Donald, The Other John Updike: Poems, Short Stories, Prose, Play, Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, 1981.
  • Gullette, Margaret Morganroth, "John Updike: Rabbit Angstrom Grows Up", Safe at Last in the Middle Years : The Invention of the Midlife Progress Novel,, New York, 2001.
  • Hamilton, Alice and Kenneth, The Elements of John Updike, William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1970.
  • Hunt, George W., John Updike and the Three Great Secret Things: Sex, Religion, and Art, William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1985.
  • Karshan, Thomas, " Batsy", London Review of Books, 31 March 2005.
  • Luscher, Robert M., John Updike: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, New York, 1993.
  • McNaughton, William R., ed., Critical Essays on John Updike, GK Hall, Boston, 1982.
  • Markle, Joyce B., Fighters and Lovers: Themes in the Novels of John Updike, New York University Press, 1973.
  • Miller, D. Quentin, John Updike and the Cold War: Drawing the Iron Curtain, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, Missouri, 2001.
  • Morley, Catherine, "The Bard of Everyday Domesticity: John Updike's Song for America", The Quest for Epic in Contemporary American Literature, Routledge, New York, 2008.
  • Newman, Judie, John Updike, Macmillan, London, 1988.
  • O'Connell, Mary, Updike and the Patriarchal Dilemma: Masculinity in the Rabbit Novels, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois, 1996.
  • Olster, Stanley, The Cambridge Companion to John Updike, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006.
  • Plath, James, ed., Conversations with John Updike, University Press of Mississippi Press, Jackson, Mississippi, 1994.
  • Porter, M. Gilbert, " John Updike's 'A&P': The Establishment and an Emersonian Cashier", English Journal 61 (8), pp. 1155-1158, November 1972.
  • Pritchard, William, Updike: America's Man of Letters, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, Massachusetts, 2005.
  • Ristoff, Dilvo I., John Updike's Rabbit at Rest: Appropriating History, Peter Lang, New York, 1998.'
  • Roiphe, Anne, For Rabbit, with Love and Squalor, Free Press, Washington, D.C., 2000.
  • Searles, George J., The Fiction of Philip Roth and John Updike, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois, 1984.
  • Schiff, James A., Updike's Version: Rewriting The Scarlet Letter, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, Missouri, 1992.
  • Schiff, James A., United States Author Series: John Updike Revisited, Twayne Publishers, Woodbridge, Connecticut, 1998.
  • Tallent, Elizabeth, Married Men and Magic Tricks: John Updike's Erotic Heroes, Creative Arts Book Company, Berkeley, California, 1982.
  • Tanner, Tony, "A Compromised Environment", City of Words: American Fiction, 1950-1970, Jonathan Cape, London, 1971.
  • Thorburn, David and Eiland, Howard, eds., John Updike: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1979.
  • Trachtenberg, Stanley, ed., New Essays on Rabbit, Run, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993.
  • Uphaus, Suzanne H., John Updike, Ungar, New York, 1980.
  • Vidal, Gore, " Rabbit's own burrow", Times Literary Supplement, 26 April 1996.
  • Wallace, David Foster, " John Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat, Drops One", New York Observer, 12 October 1997.
  • Wood, James, " Gossip in Gilt", London Review of Books, 19 April 2001.
  • Wood, James, "John Updike's Complacent God", The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, Modern Library, New York, 2000.
  • Yerkes, James, John Updike and Religion: The Sense of the Sacred and the Motions of Grace, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Missouri, 1999.

External links


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