Biography of John Updike, Pulitzer Prize Winning American Author

John Updike
Author John Updike in Wales, Great Britain, 2004. David Levenson / Getty Images

John Updike (March 18, 1932 - January 27, 2009) was an American novelist, essayist, and short story writer who brought the neuroses and the shifting sexual mores of the American middle class to the fore. He published more than 20 novels, a dozen collections of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. Updike was one of only three writers to win the Pulitzer-Prize for Fiction twice.

Fast Facts: John Updike

  • Full Name: John Hoyer Updike
  • Known For: Pulitzer Prize winning American writer whose fiction explored the tensions of the American middle class, sexuality, and religion
  • Born: March 18, 1932 in Reading, Pennsylvania
  • Parents: Wesley Russell Updike, Linda Updike (née Hoyer)
  • Died: January 27, 2009 in Danvers, Massachusetts 
  • Education: Harvard University
  • Notable Works: The Rabbit Saga (1960, 1971, 1981, 1990), The Centaur (1963), Couples (1968), Bech, A Book (1970), The Witches of Eastwick (1984)
  • Awards and Honors: Two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction (1982, 1991); two National Book Awards (1964, 1982); 1989 National Medal of Arts; 2003 National Humanities Medal; Rea Award for the Short Story for outstanding achievement; 2008 Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. government's highest humanities honor
  • Spouses: Mary Pennington, Martha Ruggles Bernhard
  • Children: Elizabeth, David, Michael, and Miranda Margaret

Early Life

John Hoyer Updike was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on March 18, 1932, to Wesley Russell and Linda Updike, née Hoyer. He was an eleventh generation American, and his family spent his childhood in Shillington, Pennsylvania, living with Linda’s parents. Shillington served as a base for his fictional town of Olinger, the embodiment of suburbia. 

Aged six, he started cartooning, and in 1941 he took drawing and painting lessons. In 1944, his paternal aunt gave the Updikes a subscription to The New Yorker, and cartoonist James Thurber gave him one of his dog drawings, which Updike kept in his study as a talisman his whole life.

Portrait Of John Updike
Portrait of American novelist and short story author John Updike, Massachusetts, mid 1960s. Susan Wood / Getty Images

Updike published his first story, “A Handshake with the Congressman,” in the February 16, 1945 edition of his high school publication Chatterbox. That same year, his family relocated to a farmhouse in the nearby town of Plowville. “Whatever creative or literary aspects I had were developed out of sheer boredom those two years before I got my driver’s license,” was how he described these early teenage years. In high school, he was known as “the sage” and as someone who “hopes to write for a living.” By the time he graduated high school in 1950 as president and co-valedictorian, he had contributed 285 items, between articles, drawings, and poems, to the Chatterbox. He enrolled in Harvard on a tuition scholarship, and while there he revered the Harvard Lampoon, for which he produced more than 40 poems and drawings in his first year alone.

Early Work and Breakthrough (1951-1960)

Novels

  • The Poorhouse Fair (1959)
  • Rabbit, Run (1960)

Short Stories: 

  • The Same Door

Updike's first prose work, “The Different One,” was published in the Harvard Lampoon in 1951. In 1953, he was named editor of the Harvard Lampoon, and novelist and professor Albert Guerard awarded him an A for a story on a former basketball player. That same year he married Mary Pennington, the daughter of a minister of the First Unitarian Church. In 1954, he graduated from Harvard with a thesis titled “Non-Horatian Elements in Robert Herrick’s Imitations and Echoes of Horace.” He won a Knox fellowship which enabled him to attend Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford. While in Oxford, he met E. B. White and his wife Katharine White, who was fiction editor of the The New Yorker. She offered him a job and the magazine bought ten poems and four stories; his first story, “Friends from Philadelphia,” appears on the October 30, 1954 issue.

The year 1955 saw the birth of his daughter Elizabeth and his move to New York, where he took the role of “Talk of the Town” reporter for The New Yorker. He became “Talk Writer” for the magazine, which refers to a writer whose copy is ready for publication without revisions. After the birth of his second son, David, Updike left New York and relocated to Ipswich, Massachusetts.

In 1959, he published his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, and he started reading Søren Kierkegaard. He won a Guggenheim fellowship to support the writing of Rabbit, Run, which was published in 1960 by Knopf. It focused on the lackluster life and graphic sexual escapades of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a former high school football star stuck in a dead-end job. Updike had to make changes prior to publication in order to avoid possible lawsuits for obscenity.

Literary Stardom (1961-1989)

Novels:

  • The Centaur (1963)
  • Of the Farm (1965)
  • Couples (1968)
  • Rabbit Redux (1971)
  • A Month of Sundays (1975)
  • Marry Me (1977)
  • The Coup (1978)
  • Rabbit Is Rich (1981)
  • The Witches of Eastwick (1984)
  • Roger's Version (1986)
  • S. (1988)
  • Rabbit at Rest (1990)

Short Stories and Collections:

  • Pigeon Feathers (1962)
  • Olinger Stories (a selection) (1964)
  • The Music School (1966)
  • Bech, a Book (1970)
  • Museums and Women (1972)
  • Problems and Other Stories (1979)
  • Too Far to Go (the Maples stories) (1979)
  • Your Lover Just Called (1980)
  • Bech Is Back (1982)
  • Trust Me (1987)

Non-Fiction:

  • Assorted Prose (1965)
  • Picked-Up Pieces (1975)
  • Hugging The Shore (1983)
  • Self-Consciousness: Memoirs (1989)
  • Just Looking: Essays on Art (1989)

Play:

  • Buchanan Dying (1974)

In 1962, Rabbit, Run was published in London by Deutsch, and he spent the fall of that year making “emendations and restorations” while living in Antibes. Revising the Rabbit saga would become a lifelong habit of his. “Rabbit, Run, in keeping with its jittery, indecisive protagonist, exists in more forms than any other novel of mine,” he wrote in the The New York Times in 1995. Following the success of Rabbit, Run, he published the important memoir “The Dogwood Tree” in Martin Levin's Five Boyhoods.

His 1963 novel, The Centaur, was awarded the National Book Award and the French literary prize Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger. Between 1963 and 1964, he marched in a Civil Rights demonstration and travelled to Russia and Eastern Europe for the State Department in the US-USSR Cultural Exchange Program. In 1964, he was also elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, one of the youngest persons ever so honored.

John Updike and Family
Author John Updike sitting with his wife and children, 1966. Truman Moore / Getty Images

In 1966, his short story “The Bulgarian Poetess,” published in his collection The Music School, won his first O. Henry Prize. In 1968, he published Couples, a novel where protestant sexual mores clash with the post-pill sexual liberation of the 1960s. Couples garnered so much praise that it landed Updike on the cover of Time.

In 1970, Updike published Rabbit Redux, the first sequel of Rabbit, Run, and received the Signet Society Medal for Achievement in the Arts. Parallel to Rabbit, he also created another mainstay in his character universe, Henry Bech, a Jewish bachelor who is a struggling writer. He first appeared in short story collections that would later be compiled in full-length books, namely Bech, A Book (1970), Bech Is Back (1982), and Bech at Bay (1998).

After starting research on president James Buchanan in 1968, he finally published the play Buchanan Dying in 1974, which premiered at the Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on April 29, 1976. In 1974, he also separated from his wife Mary and, in 1977, married Martha Ruggles Bernhard.

In 1981, he published Rabbit Is Rich, the third volume of the Rabbit quartet. The following year, 1982, Rabbit Is Rich won him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award for Fiction, the three major American literary fiction prizes. “What Makes Rabbit Run,” a BBC documentary from 1981, featured Updike as its main subject, following him all over the East Coast as he fulfilled his writerly obligations.

Updike Awarded National Medal Of Arts
American author and critic John Updike (1932 - 2009) (left) is awarded the National Medal of Arts by US First Lady Barbara Bush and President George HW Bush during a ceremony in the White House's East Room, Washington DC, November 19, 1989. Consolidated News Pictures / Getty Images

In 1983, his collection of articles and reviews, Hugging the Shore, was published, which earned him the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism the following year. In 1984, he published The Witches of Eastwick, which was adapted in a 1987 film starring Susan Sarandon, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jack Nicholson. The story deals with the concept of "being old" from the perspective of three women, which marked a departure from Updike’s previous work. On November 17, 1989, president George H. W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Arts.

Rabbit at Rest, the final chapter of the Rabbit saga (1990), portrayed the protagonist in old age, struggling with poor health and poor finances. It earned him his second Pulitzer Prize, which is a rarity in the literary world.

Later Years and Death (1991—2009)

Novels:

  • Memories of the Ford Administration (a novel) (1992)
  • Brazil (1994)
  • In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996)
  • Toward the End of Time (1997)
  • Gertrude and Claudius (2000)
  • Seek My Face (2002)
  • Villages (2004)
  • Terrorist (2006)
  • The Widows of Eastwick (2008)

Short Stories and Collections:

  • The Afterlife (1994)
  • Bech at Bay (1998)
  • The Complete Henry Bech (2001)
  • Licks of Love (2001)
  • The Early Stories: 1953–1975 (2003)
  • Three Trips (2003)
  • My Father's Tears and Other Stories (2009)
  • The Maples Stories (2009)

Non-Fiction:

  • Odd Jobs (1991)
  • Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf (1996)
  • More Matter (1999)
  • Still Looking: Essays on American Art (2005)
  • In Love with a Wanton: Essays on Golf (2005)
  • Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism (2007)

The 1990s were quite prolific for Updike, as he experimented with several genres. He published the essay collection Odd Jobs in 1991, the historical-fiction work Memories of the Ford Administration in 1992, the magical-realist novel Brazil in 1995, In the Beauty of the Lilies in 1996—which deals with cinema and religion in America—, the science fiction novel Toward the End of Time in 1997, and Gertrude and Claudius (2000)a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 2006, he published the novel Terrorist, about a Muslim extremist in New Jersey.

John Updike
Novelist John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius. Urbano Delvalle / Getty Images

Beyond his experimentation, during this period he also expanded his New England universe: his story collection Licks of Love (2000) includes the novella Rabbit Remembered. Villages (2004) centers on the middle-aged libertine Owen Mackenzie. In 2008, he also returned to Eastwick to explore what the heroines from his 1984 novel The Witches of Eastwick were like during widowhood. This was his last published novel. He died the following year, on January 27, 2009. The cause, his publishing house Alfred Knopf reported, was lung cancer.

Literary Style and Themes 

Updike explored and analyzed the American middle class, seeking dramatic tension in everyday interactions such as marriage, sex, and dead-end job dissatisfaction. “My subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class. I like middles,” he told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.” 

This ambiguity surfaces in the way he approached sex, as he advocated for taking “coitus out of the closet and off the altar and put it on the continuum of human behavior,” in a 1967 interview with The Paris Review. His characters have an animalistic—rather than romanticized—view of sex and sexuality. He wanted to demystify sex, as the Puritanical legacy of America had harmfully mythologized it. Throughout the course his work, we see how his portrayal of sex mirrors the shifting sexual mores in America from the 1950s onwards: his early work has sexual favors parceled out carefully through marriage, while works such as Couples reflect the 1960s sexual revolution, and later works deal with the looming threat of AIDS.

Having been raised a Protestant, Updike prominently featured religion in his works, too, especially the traditional Protestant faith that is so characteristic of middle class America. In The Beauty of The Lilies (1996), he explores the decline of religion in America alongside the history of cinema, while the characters Rabbit and Piet Hanema are modeled after the readings of Kierkegaard he started undertaking in the mid 1955—the Lutheran philosopher examined the non-rational nature of life and mankind’s need for self-examination.

Unlike his average, middle-class characters, his prose displayed a rich, dense, and at times arcane vocabulary and syntax, fully expressed in his description of sex scenes and anatomy, which proved to be a turn-off for several readers. In later works, however, as he grew more experimental in genre and content, his prose became leaner. 

Legacy

While he experimented with several literary genres including criticism, article writing, poetry, playwriting, and even genre fiction, Updike became a mainstay in the American literary canon for his observation of the sexual and personal neuroses of small town America. His most renowned antihero-type characters, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom and Henry Bech, embodied, respectively, the average post-war Protestant suburbanite and the struggling writer. 

Sources

  • Bellis, Jack De. The John Updike Encyclopedia. Greenwood Press, 2000.
  • Olster, Stacey. The Cambridge Companion to John Updike. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Samuels, Charles Thomas. “John Updike, The Art of Fiction No. 43.” The Paris Review, 12 June 2017, https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4219/john-updike-the-art-of-fiction-no-43-john-updike.
  • Updike, John. “BOOKEND; Rabbit Gets It Together.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 Sept. 1995, https://www.nytimes.com/1995/09/24/books/bookend-rabbit-gets-it-together.html.