John Updike

John Updike (1932-2009) is an American author who chronicled the experiences of the middle-class in the second half of the 20th century. A productive and driven writer, Updike published hundreds of short stories, 20 novels, eight volumes of poetry, and many pieces of art and literary criticism during his career. Best known for his masterful prose and command of language, Updike enjoyed a long and celebrated career. As the recipient of many awards, Updike is one of the rare writers to have received two Pulitzer Prizes in Fiction.

John Updike John Updike

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    John Updike, Humanities Medal, StudySmarterIn 2003, Updike (center) received the National Humanities Medal for President George W. Bush and the First Lady, Laura Bush. Wikicommons.

    Biography of John Updike

    John Updike enjoyed a long and illustrious career, receiving critical acclaim and many awards. Noted for his steady output and distinct writing style, Updike used his work to document life in America during the second half of the 20th century.

    Early Life and Education

    John Updike was born on March 18, 1932, in Reading, Pennsylvania. He grew up in the small town of Shillington, a quiet and comfortable middle-class community. Shillington was the embodiment of the average middle-American town with a population made up of predominantly white, Protestant professional families. This setting would hugely influence Updike's writing, as many of his works would explore the neurosis and hidden vices in the idyllic American suburbs.

    From an early age, Updike showed an interest in drawing and painting. Bored by small-town life, he became interested in writing during high school and began submitting illustrations, articles, and poems to the school paper. By the time he graduated in 1950, Updike had contributed over 285 pieces to the publication. This intense work ethic would remain with him throughout his career.

    After winning a scholarship to Harvard, Updike became a contributor to the illustrious Harvard Lampoon. His first published prose piece, "The Different One," appeared in 1951. Updike would continue to contribute poems and articles throughout his time at Harvard. Upon graduation in 1954, he received a Knox Fellowship to the Ruskin School of Drawing & Fine Art in Oxford, England.

    While at Oxford, Updike met American writer E.B. White and his wife, Katherine, the fiction editor at The New Yorker magazine. Katherine offered Updike a position at the publication, and his first published short story, "Friends from Philadelphia," appeared in the magazine's October issue in 1954.

    Writing Career

    With a growing family and regular work at The New Yorker, Updike moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, in 1957. During this period, he published several volumes of poetry and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1958). He also experienced a crisis of faith which caused him to seek fresh perspectives on the meaning of life. The works of existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard would greatly influence his writing. After receiving the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1959, Updike was able to commit himself to writing full time.

    Living off the fellowship, Updike completed his breakthrough novel, Rabbit, Run (1960). The story of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a young married man who wants to escape mundane everyday life, was greeted by warm reviews and established Updike as an important new voice in the American literary scene. Updike would return to the "Rabbit" character throughout his career.

    The protagonist of the 2002 movie 8 Mile is named Rabbit after John Updike's most enduring character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom.

    Updike's most successful and enduring character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, was the embodiment of the average, middle-class white male in mid-century America. "The Rabbit Novels" encompasses four novels and one novella that spanned Updike's career. As the author struggled with the complexities of life, growing older and wiser, so did Rabbit.

    Starting as an impulsive and selfish young man, Rabbit is driven by lust and the desire for something better in life. He suffers a crisis of faith, just as Updike had in the 1950s. Similarly, Updike found himself detached and confused by many of the events of the 1960s; in the series' second entry, Rabbit also struggles to understand what's going on in America.

    John Updike, existential crisis, StudySmarterThroughout the novels, Rabbit struggles to hold onto a sense of self in a rapidly changing America. Pixabay.

    Much like Updike, Rabbit is middle-aged and enjoys a comfortable life with financial security and stability but is still uneasy about developments in the outside world. Updike used Rabbit to observe changes in himself and society. From the hope of the post-war boom, through the turmoil of the 1960s, the global crisis of the 1970s and conservative 1980s, Updike used Rabbit to document his growth and America's difficult journey towards the new millennium. As scholar Thomas Hicks put it, "Harry Angstrom serves as a metaphor of our culture; a paradigm for an American era." 1

    Updike followed his breakthrough success with The Centaur (1963). The story of a distant father and son struggling to find meaning in life was another hit for Updike, earning the National Book Award. In 1964, Updike became the youngest person elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and won the O. Henry Prize in 1966 for his short story, "The Bulgarian Poetess" (1965).

    While many writers of the period fully embraced the radicalism of the 1960s, John Updike was more reserved about the movement for change. What do you think influenced his views on this era?

    Success and Cultural Impact

    The tumultuous social upheaval of the 1960s inspired Updike's next work, Couples (1968). Set in a respectable small town, the novel deals with the tension a group of couples feels when their prudish Protestant morals face the sexual liberation of the time. The book was another hit for Updike and proved so popular that the author ended up on the cover of Time magazine.

    In Rabbit, Redux (1971), Updike continued to explore the social turmoil of contemporary America. Rabbit struggles to find his place in the world as his marriage disintegrates and the nation is traumatized by the war in Vietnam. Many of Updike's novels and short stories from this period examined the author's doubts and reservations about the counterculture and social changes.

    Throughout the 1970s, Updike continued to write prolifically. He created the character of Henry Bech, who first appeared in short stories before graduating to full novels. With Bech, Updike was able to move out of his comfort zone. Until this point, most of his work dealt with characters from a professional WASP background, whereas Bech was a neurotic underachiever from a Jewish background.

    WASP is an acronym for White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. It's generally used to describe people in America's most socially and economically privileged class.

    His work throughout this period mirrored his personal challenges and struggles as he documented the downfall of his marriage through the fictional couple Richard and Joan Maple in a series of stories, including "Separating" (1975) and "Here Come the Maples" (1976). In 1981, Updike published the third installment of the Rabbit Saga; Rabbit is Rich. The novel sees Harry enjoying a comfortable and privileged life in middle age as he runs a successful car dealership. The book was a huge success and netted Updike his first Pulitzer Prize.

    Later Career and Death

    In 1984, The Witches of Eastwick saw Updike deal with the theme of growing old through a supernatural comedy about three modern-day witches. The book was adapted into a successful film in 1987. Rabbit at Rest (1990) was the final installment in the Rabbit series and saw the protagonist deal with the uncertainty of old age. The book garnered Updike his second Pulitzer Prize.

    John Updike is in an exclusive club of writers who have received two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction. The other members are William Faulkner (1897-1962), Booth Tarkington (1869-1946), and Colson Whitehead (1969-Present).

    Updike's writing became more experimental during the 1990s as he portrayed works in the genres of historical fiction, sci-fi, and magical realism. He used In The Beauty of the Lilies (1996) to explore the relationship between religion and cinema. He continued to write politically during this period, producing short stories and critical essays. Although Updike was best known for his novels and short stories, he also produced eight volumes of poetry. Many of his early poems were light verse, but later in life, he moved onto more serious subject matter. Like his short stories, Updike's poems are marked by his wit and precise observations.

    Light verse is poetry that focuses on more lightweight themes using wordplay and humor. Light verse is concerned with lyrical beauty rather than literary quality.

    With Gertrude and Claudius (2000), Updike dabbled in Postmodernism to craft a prequel to William Shakespeare's (1564-1616) play, Hamlet (1603). His later novels dealt with American life in the new millennium, with his last novel, Terrorist (2006), tackling the paranoia of a post-9/11 world. Updike continued his prolific output until succumbing to lung cancer on January 27, 2009.

    John Updike: Novels

    John Updike published more than 20 novels during his career. While his early books focused on the suburban middle-class he grew up in, Updike became more experimental and adventurous in his later works.

    The Rabbit Novels

    Updike's most famous and popular works follow the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Rabbit, Run (1960) introduced the world to the character Rabbit and helped establish Updike as an important voice in American literature. As a young man, Rabbit is impulsive, seeking sexual adventures and escape from the commitments of married life and family. A former basketball star in high school, Rabbit's local fame has long since faded, and he finds himself beginning to lose faith. The book explores the shallowness of suburban life and the quest for meaning.

    Rabbit, Redux (1971) takes place ten years after the first novel's events. Harry, now in his mid-30s, observes the chaotic social changes of American society in the 1960s, feeling detached and lost. The book is Updike's exploration of the darker side of the counterculture and his attempt to understand the need for change.

    Rabbit is Rich (1981) sees a financially secure, middle-aged Rabbit finally finding some peace in life. This contentment is shattered when his estranged son re-enters his life, forcing Rabbit to face the selfish decisions of his past.

    The series' final novel, Rabbit at Rest (1990), sees Rabbit face old age and death in the conservative Reagan-era 1980s. After suffering a heart attack in front of his granddaughter, Rabbit learns that his son is struggling with drug addiction. Knowing his time is limited, Rabbit desperately tries to keep his family together and safe.

    A novella postscript to the series was published in 2001; Rabbit Remembered takes place after Rabbit's death and follows his son and illegitimate daughter as they meet for the first time in middle age.

    Gertrude and Claudius (2000)

    This postmodernist novel follows the villains of Shakespeare's Hamlet as they plot and scheme for the Danish Throne. Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, is the neglected wife of the King, who falls for the King's younger brother, Claudius. When their scandalous relationship is uncovered, the pair plan to murder the King, marry, and have Claudius become the King of Denmark. Updike's prequel to the classic play takes a more sympathetic view of Gertrude, portraying her as conflicted and trapped by circumstances.

    John Updike: Short Stories

    John Updike was known for his near-constant output; he wrote hundreds of short stories over decades. Many of his works first appeared in The New Yorker magazine. Updike only worked at The New Yorker for two years during the 1950s, but he maintained a close relationship with the magazine for the rest of his life.

    Updike's stories were often autobiographical and dealt with all aspects of his personal life. Recurring themes of class, sex, politics, aging, and faith dominate most of Updike's short stories. He explores the suburban middle-class setting to uncover a more profound and darker understanding of people who seem to have everything.

    Updike unflinchingly mined his own relationships for inspiration. One early story, "Flight" (1959), deals with the relationship between an overbearing mother and her timid son. Updike based this on his own complicated relationship with his mother. The decline and breakup of his marriage are fictionized in the collection The Maples Stories (1979), and his struggle with organized religion forms the basis of "The Pigeon Feathers" (1961).

    Updike often strove for realism in his writing, which is most apparent in his short stories, where he puts his fears, loves, and desires on full display for the reader.

    John Updike: Writing Style

    John Updike is well-known for his elegant prose and slick linguistic skills. He effortlessly creates a sense of place and mood with rich and impactful sentences. Updike uses a highly developed vocabulary to give his narrators a voice of authority and a sense of power, but it also displays the inner doubts and trauma of the socially reserved. He managed to do all these things while being straightforward and ornate.

    This unique style allowed Updike to explore hidden complexities of everyday life. His characters often came from a middle-class background and appeared to have ordinary, dull lives at first. Updike exposes the shortcomings and shallowness of modern life in America by showing their inner thoughts.

    John Updike, suburbs, StudySmarterMany of Updike's works are set in the American suburbs and explore what lies beneath the perfect facade. Pixabay.

    Born and raised in what many consider a picture-perfect setting, Updike liked to explore the tension between appearance and reality. Some of his characters appear to have it all but secretly face a deep existential crisis. They often struggle with the anxiety between traditional values and the new ideas of modernity, particularly concerning political changes and social norms. His works explore the gap between morals and human nature, especially sexual desire. Religion and faith were themes in many of Updike's works. Raised in the Protestant faith, Updike rebelled against established religion but remained committed to his faith. His later works explore the death of religion in American life.

    John Updike: Quotes

    Updike was known in writing and in person for his sharp, eloquent observations. Here are some of his memorable quotes.

    Hope has vanished, he is hanging on out of despair, when the gnawing ringing stops, the metal is lifted, and openness, an impression of light and air, washes back through the wires to Eccles' ear." Rabbit, Run (Ch. 9)

    Updike was able to infuse a simple act, like answering the phone, with tension and depth. His prose often brought drama and beauty to the everyday actions of ordinary people. In Updike's work, people who appear the most mundane often have a fascinating inner struggle.

    My subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class. I like middles...It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules."2

    Updike worked with what he knew best. He did not have an exciting upbringing, but he could observe the hidden reality of life that most people miss. While most people aspired for the middle as a safe and secure place, Updike knew that behind the picture-perfect life, there was a shallowness and a lacking that needed to be explored.

    ...my only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me- to give the mundane its beautiful due."3

    Updike was a master of language who used his talent to examine the beauty of ordinary life. His work did not depend on exciting plot twists or exotic settings; it dealt with the life his readers led. Noted for his realism, Updike's work relies on details and depth to creature beauty in the everyday events of modern life.

    John Updike - Key takeaways

    • John Updike is an American author famous for his novels and short stories.
    • Updike was an extraordinarily prolific writer who produced ample amounts of short stories, novels, poetry collections, and critical essays.
    • Updike usually dealt with middle-class American characters in everyday settings and situations.
    • His most famous works are the Rabbit Novels. Consisting of four novels and one novella, the works follow the life and times of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom.
    • Updike's writing is distinctive for his eloquent use of language to describe everyday things.

    1 Thomas Hicks, "Updike's Rabbit Novels: An American Epic," Sacred Heart University Review, 1993.

    2 Jane Howard, "Can a Nice Novelist Finish First?", Life Magazine, November 1966.

    3John Updike, The Early Stories: 1953-1975, 2003.

    Frequently Asked Questions about John Updike

    What was John Updike known for?

    John Updike's best-known works are the Rabbit Novels, which consist of the novels Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990). 

    What kind of books did John Updike write?

    John Updike's books were usually domestic dramas that focused on middle-class Americans. He often dealt with themes of detachment and angst.

    What is John Updike's style of writing?

    John Updike's style of writing is marked by his use of eloquent and descriptive language, especially concerning everyday, mundane situations. 

    When did John Updike die?

    John Updike died on January 27, 2009. 

    Where did John Updike live?

    John Updike was born in Pennyslyviana, lived briefly in New York, and spent most of his life in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    In which state was John Updike born in?

    Many of John Updike's short stories appeared in which popular magazine? 

    What is the nickname of John Updike's most popular character, Harry Angstrom?

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