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A major contemporary American author, Updike is noted for the subtle complexity of his fiction, verse, and criticism. His values derive from myth and Christianity and are evidenced in his work by his emphasis upon morality. Updike’s major subject since the mid-1960s has been the domestic life of the American middle class and its attendant rituals: marriage, sex, and divorce. Against the mundane setting of American suburbia, Updike presents average people—usually men—searching for aesthetic or religious meaning in the secular awareness of their own mortality.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Beginnings of a Literary Life
John Updike was born on March 18, 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. His father, Wesley, was a high school mathematics teacher, and because Updike’s mother, Linda Grace Hoyer Updike, nurtured literary aspirations of her own, books were a large part of the boy’s early life. This fertile environment prepared the way for a prolific career that began in earnest at the age of twenty-two, upon the publication of his first story, ”Friends from Philadelphia,” in The New Yorker in 1954.
Updike majored in English at Harvard where he developed his skills as a graphic artist and cartoonist for the Lampoon, the college’s humor magazine. In 1953, his junior year at Harvard, he married Mary Pennington. Upon his graduation the following year, Updike and his bride went to London where he had won a Knox fellowship for study at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford.
In 1954, Updike graduated from Harvard University. He soon began contributing stories, poems, and criticism to The New Yorker and served as a reporter for the magazine’s ”Talk of the Town” column from 1955 to 1957. Although Updike left The New Yorker to pursue his literary career, he has regularly published fiction, verse, and criticism in the magazine.
Prolific and Successful in the 1950s and 1960s
Updike’s first major work, The Carpentered Hen, and Other Tame Creatures (1958), contains poems that whimsically attack such topics as modern values, sports, and journalism. Updike published his first novel, Poor-house Fair, in 1959. His second novel, Rabbit, Run, his best-known work, established him as a major novelist. His third novel, The Centaur (1963), won a National Book Award in 1963.
Updike s early short fiction, collected in The Same Door (1959), also earned him a reputation as a leading practitioner of the short story form. Most of Updike s early stories are set in the fictional town of Olinger, which he modeled after his hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania. Small-town concerns are the subject of Updike s second short-story collection, Pigeon Feathers (1962), which addresses adolescent anxieties regarding love, marriage, and children. Further tales of small-town life are collected in Olinger Stories (1964). In the mid-1960s, the fictional Boston suburb of Tarbox largely replaced Olinger as Updike s setting, reflecting his actual move from New York City to Ipswich, Massachusetts, in 1957. The stories set in Tarbox feature sophisticated, urbanized individuals whose marital problems and quests for identity mirror the social anxieties of their times. Tarbox is the setting of Bech: A Book (1970), in which Updike introduces his alter ego, Henry Bech. A Jewish bachelor and writer who fears the commitments of marriage and success, Bech aims in these stories to ”confess sterility”—to demonstrate how authors betray their integrity for monetary or fashionable reasons
The “Rabbit” Books
Though The Centaur won him the National Book Award, it was Rabbit, Run that most intrigued critics and readers alike. This book explores the prolonged adolescence of an inarticulate working-class father named Harry Angstrom (nicknamed ”Rabbit ), who misses the excitement of his high school years as a basketball star. Updike wrote three sequels to Rabbit, Run, each reflecting a new decade in Rabbit s life. Rabbit Redux (1971) mirrors the unrest of the late 1960s, this time centering on the threat posed to Rabbit s marriage when he brings home a young drug addict and a black revolutionary. The novel begins on the day of the moon shot in 1969. The optimism of American technology is countered by the despair of race riots, anti-Vietnam War protests, and the drug culture. Rabbit is nostalgic for the secure serenity of the 1950s. Critical reaction to the book was largely negative, but reviewers were nearly unanimous in their praise of Rabbit Is Rich (1981), for which Updike received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. A quiet tone of acceptance permeates this work, in which Rabbit, middle-aged and basically content with his marriage, must resolve his feelings regarding his daughter s death and his own mortality. The novel also evokes one major crisis of the time: the gasoline shortage in 1979.
The final book of the Rabbit tetralogy, Rabbit at Rest (1991), also won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Rabbit at Rest brings Rabbit into the 1980s to confront an even grimmer set of problems: AIDS, cocaine addiction, and terrorism. Much of this work focuses on Rabbit’s physical deterioration—his overeating, diminished libido, and two heart attacks, the last one of which kills him. Several critics have viewed Rabbit’s fate as representative of the United States’ decline over four decades.
Updike’s novel, The Witches of Eastwick (1984), centers on three divorced women who acquire the powers of witches, casting evil spells and pursuing unhappily married men in their suburban community until the arrival of a demonic stranger throws them into competition. The novel received mixed reviews, as did Roger’s Version (1986), which centers on a divinity school professor’s dualistic feelings regarding a student’s proposal to prove the existence of God by computer.
Updike has continued to be prolific in his literary output. During the 1990s he wrote the novels Brazil (1993), a reworking of the legend of Tristan and Isolde, and In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), which chronicled the lives of an American family over four generations. In Updike’s fifth decade of publication, he offered Gertrude and Claudius (2000), a prequel to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c. 1600). Other novels followed: Rabbit Remembered (2001), Seek My Face (2002), Villages (2004), Terrorist (2006), and The Widows of Eastwick (2008).
Updike died in January 2009 from lung cancer.
Works in Literary Context
The Suburban American Experience
Updike has been described as the chronicler of suburban America, of ordinary people living ordinary lives. His typical concerns are with family relationships, sex, marriage and divorce, religion, and aging. He explores the spiritual condition of people’s lives from the perspective of Christian theology influenced by his study of the theologian Karl Barth. Updike has said that the central theme of each of his novels is ”meant to be a moral dilemma,” and that his books are intended as ”moral debates with the reader.” The tension in his work is often the result of the struggles of his characters to deal with these apparently insoluble dilemmas and determine what is morally right in a constantly changing world. Tempted to act selfishly, they also are aware of the need for self-restraint.
Updike’s focus on the complex implications of his characters’ moral decisions is sharp, so that the issues are always clear and the consequences of each decision fully developed. While Updike’s characters are quick to judge each other, their creator refuses either to bless or to condemn; and each novel clearly demonstrates that the specific moral problem it treats is irresolvable. The world Updike creates in his fiction is morally ambiguous. He himself has said, ”My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class. I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”
Works in Critical Context
Hailed by critics and readers for his breadth of knowledge and mastery of presentation, Updike is one of America’s great novelists; he is considered a premier chronicler of middle America in all its mundane glory. However, the true merit of his work is subject to fierce debate. Most critics familiar with Updike have strong opinions about the author’s work. As Joseph Kanon explains in Saturday Review: ”The debate … has long since divided itself into two pretty firmly entrenched camps: those who admire the work consider him one of the keepers of the language; those who don’t say he writes beautifully about nothing very much.” In the former category is John Cheever, who deems Updike the most brilliant and versatile writer of his generation.” On the other side of the debate are such literary figures as Norman Mailer and John W. Aldridge, who regard Updike’s style as superficial, masking a lack of statement or substance.
Couples met with a generally negative critical response, although this did little to tone down public enthusiasm for the work; it was on the Publishers Weekly best-seller list for thirty-six weeks. One of the critics who had harsh words for Couples was Elizabeth Dalton. In her Partisan Review commentary she asserts: In its delicacy and fullness Updike’s style seems to register a flow of fragments almost perfectly toned. And yet, after pages and pages of his minutely detailed impressions, the accumulated effect is one of waste.” Charles Thomas Samuels, in John Updike, offers the view that although there is in the novel ”a great deal of talk about God and sin,” there is very little action to illustrate it. Robert Detweiler, while acknowledging the negative character of many reviews, is of the view that the novel deserves better. He describes it as a ”big novel about love and death, free-flowing and clever… and socially significant enough to inspire a Time cover story on American morals.”
The Rabbit Tetralogy
By general consent, it was Updike’s second novel, Rabbit, Run, that established his reputation as a major novelist. Reviewing the novel in the Times Literary Supplement, Sir Thomas Wiles Chitty comments, ”Updike has written a small-town tragedy and has succeeded in making it convincing, vivid, and awful.” However, Rabbit, Run was not without its critics. Some reviewers professed shock at the sexual explicitness of the language and situations. ”Looking back,” writes Eliot Fremont-Smith in the Village Voice, ”it must have been the sexuality that so upset the respectable critics of Rabbit, Run in 1960. Their consternation had to do with what seemed a great divide between John Updike’s exquisite command of prose … and the apparent no-good vulgar nothing he expended it on.”
Rabbit Redux, the second volume in the trilogy, was generally not so well received. Christopher Ricks, in the New York Review of Books argues that ”[t]he book is cleverer than a barrel full of monkeys, and about as odd in its relation of form to content…; its existence is likely to do retrospective damage to that better book, Rabbit Run.” The book was not without its defenders. In Yale Review, Michael Cooke describes it as ”vintage Updike. The prose is swift and sinuous, though the action is somewhat slow and wanting in momentum.”
After the comparative failure of Rabbit Redux, critical assessment of Rabbit Is Rich was, on the whole, laudatory. For Gene Lyons, writing in The Nation, it was Updike’s ”best work in many years. It is beautifully written, compassionate, knowing and wise novel.” In the New York Review of Books, Alfred Kazin calls the novel ”a brilliant performance,” observing that Updike ”revels in his great gifts of style and social—I mean domestic—observation.” Roger Sales in the New York Times Book Review believes the book to be far superior to its predecessor in the trilogy.
The publication of Rabbit at Rest in 1990 completed the Rabbit tetralogy. Many critics regarded the final novel as Updike’s masterpiece. For Jonathan Rabin in the Washington Post, ”From now on it is going to be hard to read John Updike without seeing all his earlier work as a long rehearsal for this book.” In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani asserts, the novel ”should be read. . . by anyone interested in the vicissitudes of middle-class life in America today.”
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- Burchard, Rachael C. John Updike: Yea Sayings. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
- Broer, Lawrence R. Rabbit Tales: Poetry and Politics in John Updike’s Rabbit Novels. Tuscaloosa, Ala.:University of Alabama Press, 1998.
- De Bellis, Jack, ed. John Updike: the Critical Responses to the “Rabbit” Saga. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005.
- Detweiler, Robert. John Updike. Boston: Twayne, 1984.
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- Hunt, George. John Updike and the Three Great Secret Things: Sex, Religion, and Art. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1980.
- Karl, Frederick R. American Fictions, 1940/1980: A Comprehensive History and Critical Evaluation. New York: Harper & Row, 1983, pp. 276-383.
- Luscher, Robert M. John Updike: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.
- Markle, Joyce B. Fighters and Lovers: Theme in the Novels of John Updike. New York: New York University Press, 1973.
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- Olster, Stacey. The Cambridge Companion to John Updike. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- Pritchard, William H. Updike: America’s Man of Letters. South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press, 2000.
- Ristoff, Dilvo I. Updike’s America: The Presence of Contemporary American History in John Updike’s Rabbit Trilogy. New York: Peter Lang, 1988.
- Samuels, Charles Thomas. John Updike. University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers, no. 79. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1969.
- Schiff, James A. John Updike Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.
- Uphaus, Suzanne Henning. John Updike. New York: Ungar, 1980.
- Chitty, Sir Thomas Willes. ”Enemies of Promise.” Times Literary Supplement (September 29, 1961): 648.
- Cooke, Michael. Review of Rabbit Reddux. Yale Review (Summer 1972): 606.
- Detweiler, Robert. ”Updike’s Couples Eros Demythologized.” Twentieth Century Literature (October 1971): 235-6.
- Fremont-Smith, Eliot. ”Rabbit Ruts.” Village Voice (September 30-October 6, 1981): 35, 55.
- Kakutani, Michiko. ”Just 30 Years Later, Updike Has a Quartet.” New York Times (September 25, 1990):C13, C17.
- Leonard, John. Review of Rabbit Is Rich. New York Times (September 22, 1981).
- Lyons, Gene. Rabbit Is Rich. The Nation (November 7, 1981): 477-79.
- Rabin, Jonathan. ”Rabbit’s Last Run.” Washington Post Book World (September 30, 1990): 1, 15.
- Ricks, Christopher. ”Flopsy Bunny.” New York Review of Books (December 16, 1971): 7-9.
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