Updike, John (1932-2009), American writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Updike is known for his well-crafted prose that explores the hidden tensions and problems of middle-class American life. His characters frequently experience personal turmoil and must respond to crises relating to religion, family obligations, and marital infidelity.
John Hoyer Updike was born in Shillington, Pennsylvania. After attending public schools he received a scholarship to attend Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Updike was editor of the Harvard Lampoon humor publication while a student there; he graduated with a degree in English literature and spent a year studying at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford University in England.
Updike returned to the United States in 1955 to accept his dream job, as a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. He stayed just two years, however, deciding to leave New York City and move to a small town in Massachusetts to write fiction and poetry. It is this type of community, the suburbs and small to midsized towns, where Updike typically sets his fiction. His relationship with The New Yorker remained intact; many of his short stories, poems, and essays since that time have first been published in the magazine.
Updike’s first book, The Carpentered Hen (1958), was a collection of verse. His first novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959), is about the inhabitants of a home for the aged, and it received a great deal of critical praise. His second novel, Rabbit, Run (1960), is probably his best-known work. The novel tells the story of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a young man struggling with the transition to adulthood and the accompanying responsibilities. Updike wrote three more books examining Rabbit’s life against the changing backdrop of America in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s: Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981; Pulitzer Prize, 1982), and Rabbit at Rest (1990; Pulitzer Prize, 1991).
In the novel The Centaur (1963), Updike adapted characters from Greek legend, presenting them as a Pennsylvania schoolteacher and his adolescent son (Updike’s father was a teacher). The book won the 1964 National Book Award for fiction. Of the Farm (1965) is a short, intense look at a man torn between past and present, as represented by his mother and his wife. Couples (1968) probes the world of suburban married couples in the mid-1960s. Bech: A Book (1970) is a collection of seven interrelated stories about a writer. Updike followed it with Bech Is Back (1982) and Bech at Bay (1998).
Updike’s novel A Month of Sundays (1975) was the first in a “Scarlet Letter” trilogy that includes Roger’s Version (1986) and S. (1988). The Coup (1978) is a novel of political upheaval set in Africa. Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick (1984), about three women who have magical powers over men, drew sharp criticism for a supposed antifeminist stance. It was also made into a major Hollywood motion picture featuring Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Cher as the witches. Later Updike novels include Brazil (1994), a South American retelling of the Tristan and Isolde story; In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), a novel about families and religion; Toward the End of Time (1997), set in the future after a disastrous war between the United States and China; Gertrude and Claudius (2000), an ambitious reimagining of the events leading up to the circumstances in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet; and Seek My Face (2002), a story about 20th-century American art as told by a 79-year-old woman who was married to two prominent artists.
Short story collections by Updike include The Music School (1966), Museums and Women (1972), Problems and Other Stories (1979), The Afterlife (1994), and Licks of Love (2000), which includes a Harry Angstrom follow-up titled “Rabbit Remembered.” His nonfiction works include Hugging the Shore (1983), Odd Jobs (1991), Golf Dreams (1996), and More Matter (1999). Much of Updike’s poetry was compiled in a 1993 volume, Collected Poems: 1953-1993. His autobiography Self-Consciousness: Memoirs was published in 1989. Updike was given the National Medal of Arts by President George H. W. Bush in 1989.