John Updike, Prolific Chronicler of Small-Town Angst

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Updike died of lung cancer at a hospice near his home in Beverly Farms, Mass., on Tuesday. He was 76.
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike, whose finely polished novels and stories exploring the virtues, vices and spent hopes of America's small towns and suburbs earned him two Pulitzer Prizes and kept him at the pinnacle of the nation's literary life for five decades, died yesterday at a hospice near his home in Beverly Farms, Mass. He was 76 and had lung cancer.

Updike was best known for peering into the bedrooms and unquiet minds of suburban couples and small-town entrepreneurs in dozens of novels and stories that mirrored America's march from postwar optimism to the dimming dreams of a chastened generation.

His most famous works were probably the quartet of novels about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, whose life was a continual search, whether in business or the beds of other men's wives, for the crystallized feeling of joy he had known as a small-town high school basketball star.

Updike was often labeled the bard of suburban adultery -- "a subject which, if I have not exhausted, has exhausted me," he once said -- and many of his early works of fiction were considered scandalously explicit. Updike's reputation as a novelist and a sexual provocateur in print was secured with his novel "Couples," which became a No. 1 bestseller in 1968. The book, which tells the intertwined stories of the longings of five New England couples, landed Updike on the cover of Time magazine under the heading "The Adulterous Society."

"People read it as a report from the field," The Washington Post's David Streitfeld wrote in 1998, "wondering in amazement if their neighbors were really living such erotic lives."

Updike's literary reach went far beyond a study of the nation's sexual mores. His first novel, "The Poorhouse Fair" (1959), features a 90-year-old protagonist; "Brazil" (1994) sets the timeless Tristan and Isolde love story in modern South America; and the 2006 novel, "Terrorist," views the world through a post-9/11 prism.

In one of his more popular novels, 1984's "The Witches of Eastwick," three women are seduced and abandoned by a man on whom they wreak devilish revenge. (It was made into 1987 film starring Jack Nicholson, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer and Cher.) Updike wrote a sequel, "The Widows of Eastwick," in 2008.

In later works such as "Roger's Version" (1986) and "In the Beauty of the Lilies" (1996), Updike reveals his characters' religious lives with as much unsparing clarity as when he previously unlocked the bedroom door.

He was the author of almost 60 books of fiction, poetry, essays and memoirs, turning out a new book each year. He wrote hundreds of short stories, book reviews and "Talk of the Town" vignettes for the New Yorker magazine, to which he had contributed since 1954.

"No writer was more important to the soul of the New Yorker than John," New Yorker editor David Remnick said in a statement.

Updike's essays -- collected in 10 thick anthologies -- dug deeply into subjects as varied as art history, philosophy, European and Japanese literature, movie stars and golf. His best-remembered essay was undoubtedly "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," a touching 1960 evocation of baseball star Ted Williams's final game at Boston's Fenway Park, which Updike memorably called "a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark."

In Williams's final time at bat, the aging Boston Red Sox superstar hit a home run.

"Like a feather caught in a vortex," Updike wrote, "Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs -- hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap."

Updike may have been the finest prose stylist of his generation, with a precisely calibrated command of observation, pacing and diction that made his novels and essays extended poetic evocations.

"No one else using the English language over the past 2 1/2 decades has written so well in so many ways as he," critic Paul Gray wrote in 1982, in one of Time magazine's two cover stories about Updike.

In "Rabbit at Rest" (1990), Updike turns his eye to something as mundane as a character munching on a bag of chips: "Keep on Krunchin', the crinkly pumpkin-colored bag advises him. He loves the salty ghost of Indian corn and the way each thick flake, an inch or so square, solider than a potato chip and flatter than a Frito and less burny to the tongue than a triangular red-peppered Dorito sits edgy in his mouth and then shatters and dissolves between his teeth."

But Updike's stylistic felicity and assembly-line productivity weren't always well received. By the 1990s, novelist and journalist Tom Wolfe called Updike "insular, effete and irrelevant," and writer David Foster Wallace asked whether he "ever had one unpublished thought."

Yale University literary scholar Harold Bloom said Updike could write a "beautifully economical narrative" but didn't have the depth of other writers, such as Saul Bellow. He dismissed Updike as "a minor novelist with a major style."

The soft-spoken Updike responded to his detractors indirectly, through one of his unlikely fictional alter egos, writer Henry Bech. In "Bech at Bay" (1998), the contentious and chronically blocked Bech begins killing his critics one by one, asserting, "Violence is our poetry now, now that sex has become fatally tainted."

Feminists took issue with Updike's depictions of women, who are often portrayed primarily in their relation to men. He seldom addressed directly the social issues of the 1960s, preferring to keep his attention focused on the inner motives of his characters.

"Everything can be as interesting as every other thing," Updike once told Life magazine. "My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class. I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules."

Updike captured that clash of extremes -- desire and disappointment, success and hopelessness -- most vividly in the "Rabbit" tetralogy. "Rabbit, Run" (1960) introduced Harry Angstrom, the basketball star from a town in Pennsylvania. The three later volumes -- "Rabbit Redux" (1971), "Rabbit Is Rich" (1981) and "Rabbit at Rest" (1990) -- followed Angstrom's career as a successful car dealer and an unhappy husband, whose wife is an alcoholic and whose son becomes a drug addict. Angstrom seeks solace in women and civic success without ever finding true happiness.

"It is a book that works by a steady accumulation of a mass of brilliant details, of shades and nuances, of the byplay between one sentence and the next, and no short review can properly honor its intricacy and richness," critic Jonathan Raban wrote in his Washington Post review of "Rabbit at Rest."

The two final volumes in the series won the Pulitzer Prize and prompted critic Thomas M. Disch to take the measure of the novels: "Updike's Rabbit and the landscape he inhabits more closely resemble the world I've witnessed during the time span of the four novels -- 1959 through 1989 -- than any other work of American literature I know."

John Hoyer Updike was born March 18, 1932, in Reading, Pa., and grew up in the nearby town of Shillington, which he later transformed into the fictional setting of Olinger for many of his novels. His father was a high school mathematics teacher, whom Updike later memorialized in the 1963 novel "The Centaur."

Updike spent part of his youth on his grandparents' farm, where he developed hay fever. He also had the skin condition psoriasis and a stammer.

As a result, he spent much of his childhood reading and drawing, and his early dream was to be a cartoonist. He began reading the New Yorker for its wry drawings by James Thurber and Saul Steinberg before turning to writing.

Updike received a full scholarship to Harvard University, from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1954. He wrote for the Harvard Lampoon and all the while kept submitting stories to the New Yorker.

"My first break came late in my college career when a short story that I had based on my grandmother's slow dying of Parkinson's disease was returned with a note scrawled in pencil at the bottom of the rejection slip," he wrote in AARP magazine last year. "It read, if my failing memory serves: 'Look--we don't use stories of senility, but try us again.' "

He studied painting for a year at Oxford University, then took a job at the New Yorker after his light verse submissions caught the eye of staff editor Katharine S. White, the wife of author E.B. White. Her son, Roger Angell, later became Updike's principal fiction editor at the New Yorker.

His first book was a collection of largely playful verse that received positive comparisons to the humorous poems of Ogden Nash. By the early 1960s, critics were comparing his sensitive, quietly compelling fiction to the stories of Russian master Anton Chekhov.

Updike considered his work as a New Yorker "Talk of the Town" reporter unfulfilling and moved to Massachusetts in 1957 to concentrate on fiction. He adhered to a strict schedule, writing at least three hours a day, six days a week.

"We read fiction because it makes us feel less lonely about being a human being," he told The Post in 1998. "We read about what other human beings feel -- what they're driven to do, how they often work for their own destruction, how they're in the grip of appetites that are beyond them and they can't control or harness."

In 1953, Updike married Mary E. Pennington, who was the mother of their four children. They separated and divorced in the mid-1970s, in circumstances not unlike those in the disintegrating marriages Updike portrayed in "Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories" (1979). In 1977, he married Martha Bernhard, a psychologist, who survives him, along with his four children and three grandsons.

In addition to two Pulitzer Prizes, Updike won the National Book Award twice and the PEN/Faulkner Award once. He was often rumored to be in contention for the Nobel Prize for literature. As year after year passed without his getting the prize, he became a prime example of the stubborn views of the Swedish Academy toward American literature.

Updike shrugged and awarded a fictional Nobel to one of his more annoying creations, Henry Bech.

In recent years, Updike often wrote essays on art for the New York Review of Books and sometimes lamented his shrinking audience and the declining role of books in modern life. Reading, he said at a publishing convention in 2006, is an "encounter, in silence, of two minds."

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