John Updike | The National Endowment for the Humanities

John updike

His pen rarely rests, John Updike has been publishing fiction, essays, and poetry since the mid-1950s, when he was a New Yorker writer, contributing material to the “Talk of the Town” sections. “of all modern American writers,” writes adam gopnik in the humanities, “updike comes closest to satisfying virginia woolf’s demand that a writer’s only job is to express himself unimpeded.”

Self-Awareness: Memoirs, published in 1989, paints the landscape of his childhood in Shillington, on the outskirts of Reading, southwest of the old town of Solid Mills and stretching into the Pennsylvania Dutch farm country. but updike’s interests took him north and east: first, to the reading museum, a short distance from his hometown (the fictional olinger, which is the setting for many of the early tales), and then, with a Full scholarship in hand, to Harvard University, where, as an English major, he did a thesis on the 17th-century English poet Robert Herrick, graduating summa cum laude in 1954.

has had a sustained and abiding interest in art, since childhood when he received his first drawing lessons and, as a devotee of comics, wrote an insightful fan letter to the creator of “little orphan annie”, harold gray . much later, in the satire of harvard, of which he was president in his senior year, he was still at it. In one of his satirical cartoons, two apparent seekers of universal consciousness sit cross-legged next to each other, both dressed in loose, open garments more appropriate for meditation, and one says to the other: “don’t look now, but I think that my navel is contemplating me.” During that final year, the lampooned staff recalls, he wrote about two-thirds of each issue.At Harvard he took art classes with Hyman Bloom, a painter associated with a style known as Boston Expressionism.Then a Knox Fellowship gave Updike the means to study for a year at the ruskin school of drawing & fine art in oxford, england.painting had taught him, he once said, ‘how hard it is to see things exactly as they are, and that painting is’ there’ as a book is not”.

in just looking, 1989, and still looking, 2005, updike compiled the impressions he has left throughout his life observing painting and sculpture. In an essay in the former, he captures in limpid prose Vermeer’s achievement in painting in view of Delft: “an instant of sustained flux forever.” and in the last, in a chapter on jackson pollock, updike glimpses, and so do we, the essence of what pollock’s drip painting could achieve: “a picture, in dots and lines and little curdling clouds of opaque color, of The cosmos.” his interest in art has also manifested itself in his fiction. One of her later novels, Busca mi rostro, from 2002, follows the life lines of an elderly painter who often lived in the shadow of her more famous husband, also a painter. In The Witches of Eastwick, 1984, the novel’s hero, the Devil, in the guise of Darryl Van Horne, is an ecstatic collector of Pop Art. “I suppose,” Updike has said, “since I was once an aspiring cartoonist, I could ‘identify’ myself. . . to the imagery of pop art. Witches takes place in a post-Pop art era, so in a sense, dust has gathered on the movement, which was fairly short-lived.” Harold Bloom has called The Witches of Eastwick one of Updike’s most remarkable books, as all of his “themes and images come together in a rich, resonant swirl.” Updike himself commented that “the touch of magical realism gave it a kind of liveliness to me.”

about his fiction in general, he has said: “my only duty was to describe reality as it had come down to me, to give the mundane its beauty.” When considering the full scope of his work, readers of American fiction often think of Harry Angstrom, the character in the Rabbit Saga with whom Updike seemed to be on the closest, if often contentious, terms for many years. American novelist Joyce Carol Oates has written that Updike is “a master, like Flaubert, of captivating us with his narrative voice even as he might repel us with the vanities of human desire his scalpel exposes.” British novelist Martin Amis has seen the hand of a master in Rabbit at Rest, 1990, in awe, “This novel is enduringly eloquent about weariness, age, and disgust, in prose that is always fresh, nubile, and unfading.”

Avid readers and fans also point to many other of his eclectic oeuvre as masterpieces, including The Centaur, 1963, set, like the rabbit novels, in Pennsylvania and winner of France’s Best Foreign Book Award; Couples, 1968, set in the fictional Tarbox-inspired Ipswich, Massachusetts, where Updike and his first wife and family moved from Manhattan in 1957; and Roger’s 1986 version, which masterfully puts a middle-aged theology professor and a child computer whiz bent on proving the existence of God on a metaphysical collision course.

Many first know him as a short story author, with dozens appearing in the pages of the New Yorker before being published in collections. many other readers know the shorter fiction of him either through the or. Henry Prize Stories or Anthologies of American Literature, where they would have entered the sometimes sad, sometimes triumphant thoughts of, say, a certain cashier at the local grocery store; “a & p” serving as a model of dramatic irony for at least two generations of English literature teachers.

updike is, of course, also an accomplished literary critic, whose reviews and essays are distinguished both for their breadth of understanding and their charitable disposition. Examples of his critical acumen appear frequently in the New York Review of Books, and he received his second National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983 for embracing the edge, including such gems as the micro-essay “A Mild ‘Complaint’,” which skewers misuses and ‘misusers’ of ‘scare quotes’.

He has also applied his deft wit to poetry, composing an early collection called The Woodpecker in 1954. Three more volumes of verse followed. Collected Poems, 1953-1993, comprises what he calls his “beloved waifs.”

having met katharine white, a fiction editor at the new yorker during her year at the ruskin school, she began regularly submitting stories to the magazine, then settled in a manhattan apartment for her two-year term years there.

He migrated from Gotham to Ipswich, thrived in the healthy sea breeze, and continued to publish at the rate he set himself early in his career, about a book a year. It was during this time, roughly 1957-1970, that he published The Poorhouse Fair, Rabbit Run, Pigeon Feathers, The Centaur, and Bech: a book that introduced readers to his irreverent alter ego, Henry Bech.

If painstaking attention to craftsmanship has always been a hallmark of updike’s work, so have inventiveness and creative unpredictability. After moving to Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, with his second wife, Martha, in 1982, he produced work that differed widely in subject matter and setting: In the Beauty of Lilies, 1996, a multigenerational family saga spanning the twentieth century. and that summarizes an increasingly secular and cinephile America; towards the end of time, 1997, set in the near future, in new england, after the nuclear war, with a menacing background; gertrude and claudio, 2000, about the previous life of hamlet’s mother, claudio, and old hamlet; and Terrorist, 2006, starring the radicalized Islamist teenage son of an absent Arab father and an Irish-American mother.

In the half century that he has been writing, he has garnered many literary awards, accolades, and honors, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, twice each; the pen faulkner prize for fiction, the prize for short stories; and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is among the select few to have received both the National Humanities Medal and the National Arts Medal. Albright College in Reading (the fictional Brewer Readers first encountered in Rabbit Run) awarded him an honorary Litt.D. degree in 1982.

Along with his honed care for painting, which has often provided the visual element of his fiction, there has been a deep and abiding appreciation of the reading life in general and a love of the book in particular. he has alluded to an imaginary reader of his, ideal or not, like a teenager who one afternoon comes across one of his books on the dusty shelves of some library in search of a literary adventure. In a speech two years ago at the American Booksellers Association convention, he encouraged beleaguered booksellers to “defend [their his] lonely fortresses. . . . for some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity.”

In the fall of 2007, Updike published a collection of essays, Due Considerations. A new novel, The Widows of Eastwick, will be published in the fall of 2008. After so many words, is America’s literary leader even a little quiet? no, he keeps looking and he keeps typing.

-steve moyer

Related Articles

Back to top button