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John Updike

Biography: John Updike
Two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction

John Updike Date of birth: March 18, 1932
John Updike Date of death: January 27, 2009

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John Updike was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, and spent his first years in nearby Shillington, a small town where his father was a high school science teacher. The area surrounding Reading has provided the setting for many of his stories, with the invented towns of Brewer and Olinger standing in for Reading and Shillington. An only child, Updike and his parents shared a house with his grandparents for much of his childhood. When he was 13, the family moved to his mother's birthplace, a stone farmhouse on an 80-acre farm near Plowville, eleven miles from Shillington, where he continued to attend school.

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At home, he consumed popular fiction, especially humor and mysteries. His mother, herself an aspiring writer, encouraged him to write and draw. He excelled in school and served as President and co-valedictorian of his graduating class at Shillington High School. For the first three summers after high school, he worked as a copy boy at the Reading Eagle newspaper, eventually producing a number of feature stories for the paper. He received a tuition scholarship to Harvard University, where he majored in English. As an undergraduate, he wrote stories and drew cartoons for the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine, serving as the magazine's president in his senior year. Before graduating, he married fellow student Mary E. Pennington. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1954, and in that same year sold a poem and a short story to The New Yorker magazine.

Updike and his wife spent the following year in England, where Updike studied at Oxford's Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. While they were in England, their first daughter was born and Updike met the American writers E. B. and Katharine White, editors at The New Yorker, who urged him to seek a job at the magazine. On returning from England, the Updikes settled in Manhattan, where John took a position as a staff writer at The New Yorker. He worked at the magazine for nearly two years, writing editorials, features and reviews, but after the birth of a son in 1957, he decided to move his growing family to the small town of Ipswich, Massachusetts. He continued to contribute to The New Yorker but resolved to support his family by writing full-time, without taking a salaried position. He maintained a lifelong relationship with The New Yorker, where many of his poems, reviews and short stories appeared, but he resided in Massachusetts for the rest of his life.

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Updike's first book of poetry, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, was published by Harper and Brothers in 1958. When the publisher sought changes to the ending of his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, he moved to Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. The first novel was well-received, and with support from the Guggenheim Fellowship, Updike undertook a more ambitious novel, Rabbit, Run. The novel introduced one of Updike's most memorable characters, the small-town athlete, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Knopf feared that his frank description of Rabbit's sexual adventures could lead to prosecution for obscenity, and made a number of changes to the text. The book was published to widespread acclaim without legal repercussions. The original text was restored for the British edition a few years later, and subsequent American editions of the book have reflected the author's original intent. Updike's reputation as a leading author of his generation was established.

After the birth of a third child, Updike rented a one-room office above a restaurant in Ipswich, where he wrote for several hours every morning, six days a week, a schedule he adhered to throughout his career. In 1963, he received the National Book Award for his novel The Centaur, inspired by his childhood in Pennsylvania. The following year, at age 32, he became the youngest person ever elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and was invited by the State Department to tour eastern Europe as part of a cultural exchange program between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1967, he joined the author Robert Penn Warren and other American writers in signing a letter urging Soviet writers to defend Jewish cultural institutions under attack by the Soviet government.

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In 1968, Updike's novel Couples created a national sensation with its portrayal of the complicated relationships among a set of young married couples in the suburbs. It remained on the best-seller lists for over a year and prompted a Time magazine cover story featuring Updike. In Bech: A Book (1970), Updike introduced a new protagonist, the imaginary novelist Henry Bech, who, like Rabbit Angstrom, was destined to reappear in Updike's fiction for many years. Rabbit Angstrom reappeared in Rabbit Redux (1971).

In the 1970s, Updike continued to travel as a cultural ambassador of the United States, and in 1974 he joined authors John Cheever, Arthur Miller and Richard Wilbur in calling on the Soviet government to cease its persecution of dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Updike separated from his wife Mary in 1974 and moved to Boston where he taught briefly at Boston University. Two years later, the Updikes were divorced, and in 1977 he married Martha Ruggles Bernhard, settling with her and her three children in Georgetown, Massachusetts.

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Rabbit is Rich, published in 1981, received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1983 Updike's other alter ego, Harry Bech, reappeared in Bech is Back, and Updike was featured in a second Time magazine cover story, "Going Great at 50." Among his novels of the 1980s and 1990s are a trilogy retelling The Scarlet Letter from the points of view of three different characters, and a prequel to Hamlet, entitled Gertrude and Claudius. In 1991 he received a second Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit at Rest. He was only the third American to win a second Pulitzer Prize in the fiction category.

In an autobiographical essay, Updike famously identified sex, art, and religion as "the three great secret things" in human experience. The grandson of a Presbyterian minister (his first father-in-law was also a minister), his writing in all genres has displayed a preoccupation with philosophical questions. A lifelong churchgoer and student of Christian theology, the Jesuit magazine America awarded him its Campion Award in 1997 as a "distinguished Christian person of letters." He received the National Medal of Art from President George H.W. Bush in 1989, and in 2003 was presented with the National Medal for the Humanities from President George W. Bush. He was one of a very few Americans to receive both of these honors. The same year saw the publication of a comprehensive collection, The Early Stories, 1953-1975.

John Updike spent his last years in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, in the same corner of New England where so much of his fiction is set. His last book was The Widows of Eastwick (2008), a sequel to his 1984 novel The Witches of Eastwick. Updike succumbed to lung cancer the following year at the age of 76.




This page last revised on Aug 11, 2009 22:01 EST