John Updike is one of America’s most prominent contemporary authors. He has written novels, short stories, essays, poetry, reviews, articles, memoirs, art criticism, and drama. His work has been adapted for television and film, and he has won numerous awards, including a National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes.
Updike was born on March 18, 1932, in Reading, Pennsylvania, and lived in nearby Shillington until he was thirteen. Many of Updike’s stories exhibit autobiographical elements, and his fictional town of Olinger is patterned after Shillington. When he was thirteen he moved with his parents and grandparents to a farm in Plowville, Pennsylvania, where his mother had been born. His father was a junior high school math teacher, and his mother a writer who wrote stories for the New Yorker magazine, as her son later did. Updike did well in school, graduated from high school as co-valedictorian, and attended Harvard University on a scholarship. In college, he wrote for the Harvard Lampoon.
In 1953 Updike married Mary Pennington, and the couple traveled to England on a Knox Fellowship. He enrolled in the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford, and for a while he considered a career drawing cartoons for Walt Disney or the New Yorker. In 1955 his daughter Elizabeth was born. For the sake of his growing family, Updike took a job at the New Yorker, which he held for two years before deciding to move to Ipswich, Massachusetts, and devote himself to fiction writing as an independent author. He and Mary eventually had four children before the couple divorced in 1977. He subsequently married Martha Bernhard.
The late 1950s were productive for Updike. He published his first novel, Poorhouse Fair; a collection of short stories, The Same Door; and a book of poems, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures. In 1960 the first of his “Rabbit” books, Rabbit, Run, introduced the world to Harry Angstrom, a man whose life peaked at eighteen when he was a high-school basketball star. To Harry’s continued amazement and sorrow, he lives his life as a shadow of what he used to be.
Critics have praised the character of Harry Angstrom highly, and Updike has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his “Rabbit” books; one in 1982 for Rabbit Is Rich, and one in 1991 for Rabbit at Rest. Another of Updike’s most popular novels is The Witches of Eastwick, the story of three divorced women in New England who gain magical skills to attract men. Their enticements backfire when a devilish man moves into the neighborhood. The book was made into a film in 1987 starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Cher. Throughout the many forms Updike’s writing takes-novels, stories, poems, and essays-the author’s primary concerns are Protestant, middle-class, contemporary American life, and the roles that marriage, divorce, sexuality, and religion play in it.