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John (Hoyer) Updike (1932-2009)


American novelist, short story writer and poet, internationally known for his novels Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990). They follow the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a star athlete, from his youth through the social and sexual upheavals of the 1960s, to later periods of his life, and to final decline. Updike's oeuvre was large, consisting of novels, collections of poems, short stories, and essays.

"The heart prefers to move against the grain of circumstance; perversity is the soul's very life." (from Assorted Prose, 1965)

John Updike was born in Reading in Pennsylvania, but until he was 13 he lived in Shillington, a smaller city near Reading, and then he moved away to Plowville, PA. Updike's childhood was shadowed by psoriasis and stammering, but his mother encouraged him to write. In his childhood Updike lived in an isolated farm. Escaping to the world of mystery novels, he consumed books by Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr. A lot of his early reading was English; dead foreign authors depressed him. "I'm almost an English novelist manqué," Updike said later.

After high school in Shillington, where his father worked as a science teacher, Updike attended Harvard – Updike chose the university because it was the location of the world's oldest humor magazine, the Harvard Lampoon. "My inability to read bravely as a boy had this advantage: when I went to college, I was a true tabula rasa, and received gratefully the imprint of my instructors' opinion, and got good marks." (from New York Times, July 4, 1965)

Updike majored in English in 1954, and contributed to and later edited the Harvard Lampoon. He started as a cartoonist, but then shifted to poetry and prose. With his wife Mary Pennington, the daughter of a minister of the First Unitarian Church, Updike spent the academic year 1954-1955 at Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in Oxford, England. "A soggy little island huffing and puffing to keep up with Western Europe," he recalled in Picked Up Pieces (1975). In 1955 he joined The New Yorker staff, writing editorials, poetry, stories, and criticism. After the author's first marriage was dissolved, he married in 1977 Martha Bernhard.

From the age of 23, Updike supported himself by writing. He moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he lived for seventeen years. The small town became the model for Tarbox in his novel Couples (1968), behind which hide Choderlos de Laclos's 18th-century novel Dangerous Liaisons. The portrait of sexual passion in darkest New England amongst a group of young suburban married couples was criticized as merely an "uptown Peyton Place". Another fictional town is Eastwick, the scene of the bestseller The Witches of Eastwick (1984) and its sequel, The Widows of Eastwick (2008).

In 1958 Updike made his debut as a poet with the volume The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures. Updike's first novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959), was inspired by Henry Green's Concluding and told about the residents of an old people's home. Basically Updike was trying to write a novel, as he once confessed, "which would serve, in its breadth, as a base for further novels."

The Centaur (1963) used a mythological framework to explore the relationship of a schoolmaster father and his son. The Coup (1979) was an exotic first-person narration by an ex-dictator of a fictitious African state. In Updike's prequel to Hamlet (2000) the moody prince is not the central character but the story focuses on his mother Queen Gertrude, her husband, and Claudius, her husband's younger brother. Terrorist, Updike's 22nd novel, was about an 18-year-old Islamic extremist, whose critique of American culture is literally deadly. "This kind of friendliness toward death, this feeling that it's not such a big deal to kill or die, is after my generation," Updike said in Time (June 12, 2005).

The first book about Updike's famous hero, Harry Angstrom, the natural athlete, a sexually magnetic, blue-eyed Swede, ended with the verb "Runs." Updike wrote the book in the present tense, giving it a sort of cinematic quality. In Rabbit, Redux – Redux is Latin for brought back – Harry is a middle-aged bourgeois, who finds his life shattered by the infidelity of his wife. Updike leaves the reader with a question -- O.K.? The last word in Rabbit Is Rich was 'His.' Rabbit at Rest, set in the late 1980s, paralleled the decay of society, AIDS-plagued America, and Rabbit's swollen body, his chest pains, and his feeling that there is "nothing under you but black space..." After leaving Rabbit in 1990, Updike published a 182-page novella called 'Rabbit Remembered' in Licks of Love (2000), a collection of short stories. 'Rabbit Remembered' ends with the word 'Gladly.'

Updike lived in New England, where most of his fiction is set, and in Massachusetts, about twenty miles from Boston. As an essayist Updike was a gentle satirist, poking fun at American life and customs, without any mean-spirited nihilism. He observed the ordinary life he saw around him, and frequently asked the reader to recognize and reconsider preconceptions. In 'The Bankrupt Man' (1983) Updike turned upside-down the common views of a bankrupt and proveed that there is an afterlife: "The bankrupt man buys himself a motorcycle. He is going to hotdig it all the way to Santa Barbara and back. He has a bankrupt sister in Santa Barbara. Also, there are business details to be cleared up along the way, in Pittsburgh, South Bend, Dodge City, Santa Fe, and Palm Springs. Being bankrupt is an expansionist process; it generates even new horizons."

The majority of Updike's non-fiction were occasional, and he considered the opportunity to produce reviews educational for himself, "for writing educates the writer as it goes along." Or: "My purpose in reading has ever secretly been not to come and judge but to come and steal." Updike measured writing with traditional maxims: felicity in style, accuracy in presenting one's subject, precision in describing the external and inner world, and humanistic values. The writers whose works he reviewed included such names as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, Iris Murdoch, Michael Tournier, Raymond Queneau, Umberto Eco, Milan Kundera, Evgenii Evtushenko, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Isabel Allende.

In his autobiographical piece, 'The Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood', Updike called sex, art, and religion "the three great secret things" in human experience. James Yerkes defined in his introduction to John Updike and Religion (2002), a collection of essays dealing with the religious vision of the author, "the religious consciousness in Updike may best be characterized as our sense of an unavoidable, unbearable, and unbelievable Sacred Presence." Existential questions were in the center of Updike's work from the beginning of his career. He also read theologians for guidance and regularly attended church for worship.

Updike received several awards, including Guggenheim Fellow (1959), Rosenthal Award, National Institute of Arts and Letters (1959), National Book Award in Fiction (1964), O. Henry Prize (1967-68), American Book Award (1982), National Book Critics Circle Award, for fiction (1982, 1990), Union League Club Abraham Lincoln Award (1982), National Arts Club Medal of Honor (1984); National Medal of the Arts (1989). Updike became in 1976 a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in November 2003 he received the National Medal for Humanites at the White House, joining a very small group of notables who have been honored with both the National Medal of Art and the National Medal for the Humanites. His novels Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest won Pulitzer Prizes. John Updike died of lung cancer on January 27, 2009. The poems, which he wrote in the last years of his life, were collected in the posthumously published Endpoint (2009).

For further reading: John Updike: The Critical Responses to His "Rabbit" Saga by Jack De Bellis (2005); John Updike and Religion: The Sense of the Sacred and the Motions of Grace, ed. by James Yerkes (1999); John Updike Revisited by James A. Schiff (1998); John Updike's Rabbit at Rest by Dilvo I. Ristoff (1998); Updike and the Patriarchal Dilemma by Mary O'Connell (1996); John Updike; A Study of the Short Fiction by Robert M. Luscher (1993); John Updike by Judie Newman (1988); John Updike, ed. by Harold Bloom (1987); John Updike by Robert Detweiler (1984); Critical Essays on John Updike, ed. by William R. Macnaughton (1982); The Other John Updike by Donald J. Greiner (1981); John Updike and the Three Great Secret Things: Sex, Religion, and Art by George W. Hunt (1980); John Updike by Rachael C. Burchard (1971) - Note: Updike's mother published the novel Enchantment under her maiden name Linda Grace Hoyer in 1971. Updike's son is a writer and the author himself was the subject of Nicholson Baker's book U and I (1991) - See also: The New Yorker's literary circle and John Cheever, who, like Updike, has revealed under the respectable surface of suburban American life unfilled dreams and painful feelings of inadequacy.

Selected works:

  • The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, 1958
  • Hoping for a Hoopoe; Poems, 1958
  • The Poorhouse Fair, 1959
  • The Same Door: Short Stories, 1959
  • Rabbit, Run, 1960
    - Juokse jänis (suom. Oiva Oksanen, 1963)
    - film 1970, dir. by Jack Smight, starring James Caan, Jack Albertson, Melodie Johnson
  • 'A&P', 1961 (short story, first published in The New Yorker)
    - short film 1996 (17 min.), dir. by Bruce Schwartz, adaptation by Bruce Schwartz, cast: Sean Hayes, Randy Oglesby, Jeramy Guillory, Amy Smart, Andrea Lyn
  • Pigeon Feathers, and Other Stories, 1962
    - TV film 1987 (48 min.), dir. by Learning in Focus, adaptation by Jan Hartman, cast: Christopher Collet, Caroline McWilliams, Jeffrey DeMunn, Lenka Peterson
  • The Centaur, 1963
  • Telephone Poles, and Other Poems, 1963
  • Olinger Stories, 1964
  • Of the Farm, 1965
  • A Child’s Calendar, 1965 (illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert)
  • Assorted Prose, 1965
  • The Music School: Short Stories, 1966
    - TV film 1974 (30 min.), dir. and written by John Korty
  • Couples, 1968
    - Parit (suom. Heimo Pihlajamaa, 1969)
  • Bath after Sailing, 1968
  • Bottom’s Dream, 1969 (adapted from William Shakespeare’s A midsummer night’s dream; with music by Felix Mendelssohn and illus. by Warren Chappell)
  • Midpoint, and Other Poems, 1969
  • Dance of the Solids, 1969
  • Bech: A Book, 1970
  • The Indian, 1971
  • Rabbit Redux, 1971
    - Amerikkalainen tarina (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1973)
  • Museums And Women, and Other Stories, 1972
  • Seventy Poems, 1972
  • A Good place: being a Personal Account of Ipswich, Massachusetts / Written on the Occasion of its Seventeenth-Century Day, 1972, 1972
  • Six Poems, 1973
  • Warm Wine; an Idyll, 1973
  • Buchanan Dying: A Play, 1974
  • Cunts: Upon Receiving The Swingers Life Club Membership Solicitation, 1974
  • Query, 1974
  • A Month of Sundays, 1975
  • Picked-Up Pieces, 1975
  • Marry Me: A Romance, 1976
    - Kunnes rakkaus meidät erottaa (suom. Elina Hytönen, 1981)
  • Tossing and Turning: Poems, 1977
  • The Poorhouse Fair, 1977 (new ed., with a introd. by the author)
  • From the Journal of a Leper, 1978
  • The Lovelorn Astronomer: A New Poem, 1978
  • The Coup, 1978
    - Minä olen eversti Ellelloû (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1980)
  • Problems,  and Other Stories, 1979
  • Too Far To Go: The Maples Stories, 1979
  • Sixteen Sonnets, 1979
  • Talk from the Fifties, 1979
  • Three Illuminations in the Life of an American Author, 1979
  • Five Poems, 1980
  • Ego and Art in Walt Whitman, 1980
  • The Chaste Planet, 1980
  • Hawthorne’s Creed, 1981
  • Invasion of the Book Envelopes, 1981
  • Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, 1981 (illustrated by Bob Dacey)
  •  Rabbit Is Rich, 1981 (Pulitzer Prize)
    - Autokauppiaan unelmat (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1983)
  • The Beloved, 1982
  • When I Write..., 1982
  • Spring Trio, 1982
  • Bech Is Back, 1982
  • Hugging The Shore: Essays and Criticism, 1983
  • Jester's Dozen, 1984
  • The Witches of Eastwick, 1984
    - Noidat (suom. Eva Siikarla, 1987)
    - films: 1987, dir. by George Miller, starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, Veronica Cartwright; TV film 1992, dir. by Rick Rosenthal, cast: Julia Campbell, Catherine Mary Stewart, Ally Walker, Michael Siberry; TV film (60 min.), dir. by Michael M. Robin, cast: Marcia Cross, Kelly Rutherford, Lori Loughlin, Jason O'Mara
  • Facing Nature: Poems, 1985
  • Roger's Version, 1986
  • Trust Me: Short Stories, 1987
  • S.: A Novel, 1989
  • Just Looking: Essays on Art, 1989
  • Self-Consciousness: Memoirs, 1989
  • The Alligators, 1990
  • Brother Grasshopper, 1990
  • Rabbit At Rest, 1990 (Pulitzer Prize)
    - Jänis ei juokse (suom. Eva Siikarla, 1992)
  • Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism, 1991
  • Memories of the Ford Administration, 1992
  • Collected Poems 1953–1993, 1993
  • Brazil, 1994
  • The Afterlife and Other Stories, 1994
  • A Helpful Alphabet of Friendly Objects: Poems, 1995 (photographs by David Updike)
  • Rabbit Angstrom: A Tetralogy, 1995
  • Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf, 1996 (drawings by Paul Szep) 
  • In the Beauty of the Lilies, 1996
  • Toward the End of Time, 1997
  • Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel, 1998
  • More Matter, 1999
  • Gertrude and Claudius, 2000
  • The Best American Short Stories of the Century, 2000 (ed.)
  • Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel, 'Rabbit Remembered', 2000
  • Americana and Other Poems, 2001
  • The Complete Henry Bech: Twenty Stories, 2001
  • Seek My Face, 2002
  • The Early Stories: 1953–1975, 2003
  • Three Stories, 2003
  • Villages, 2004
  • In Love with a Wanton: Essays on Golf, 2005
  • Still Looking: Essays on American Art, 2005
  • Terrorist, 2006
  • The Twelve Terrors of Christmas, 2006 (rev. ed., drawings by Edward Gorey)
  • Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism, 2007
  • George Nick: Spirit of Place, 2007 (John Updike, Katherine French, Arthur Dion)
  • Updike in Cincinnati: A Literary Performance, 2007 (edited by James Schiff; photographs by Jon Hughes)
  • The Widows of Eastwick, 2008
  • Endpoint and Other Poems, 2009
  • My Father's Tears and Other Stories, 2009
  • The Maples Stories, 2009
  • Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu: John Updike on Ted Williams, 2010
  •  Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism, 2011 (edited by Christopher Carduff)
  • Always Looking: Essays on Art, 2012 (edited by Christopher Carduff)

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