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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

John Updike
(b. 1932)


Born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, John Updike was the only child of Wesley R. and Linda Grace (Hoyer) Updike. His father was a high-school mathematics teacher and his mother later became a freelance writer. Young Updike received a full scholarship to Harvard University, where he was elected president of the Lampoon, the campus humor magazine. Upon graduating summa cum laude in 1954, he attended the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. Since 1955 he has written for the New Yorker magazine, first as a reporter and then as a regular contributor of stories, poems, and reviews. He has published more than fifty books and has received numerous honors, including the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and election to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters. Divorced and remarried, he now lives in Massachusetts.

Over the years, Updike has become something of a celebrity, appearing on talk shows and magazine covers. His short stories have been dramatized for television; his novel The Witches of Eastwick was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and was later released as a Warner Brothers film starring Jack Nicholson. Updike’s work is assigned in college literature courses and has generated a substantial body of scholarly criticism. He is a rarity among serious writers, having secured both popular success and academic acclaim.

Remarkably versatile—writing novels, children’s books, short story and poetry collections, a play, and eight anthologies of non-fiction prose—he is most highly regarded as a fiction writer. He draws heavily upon his own life for subject matter but transcends the particulars of personal experience, achieving a broadly encompassing vision of the contemporary American situation.

With a few exceptions, his novels and stories can be grouped into three overlapping categories: the “Olinger” fiction, the “Rabbit” novels, and the “suburban” books. Chief among the early works set in fictional Olinger, Pennsylvania (based on Updike’s hometown), is The Centaur, a loving tribute to his father. The tetralogy comprising Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; and Rabbit at Rest focuses on Harry Angstrom, a blue-collar protagonist whom some critics have identified as Updike’s alter-ego. Other works—Couples, Marry Me, and the many stories about Richard and Joan Maple, for example—document the tensions of upper-middle-class suburbia, often depicting divorce and its aftermath.

Common to all of Updike’s works is a concern with individual moral responsibility and guilt, coupled with a clearcut indictment of current values and a quixotic yearning to recapture the simpler and presumably purer American past. A consciously religious writer, he repeatedly creates confused, unfulfilled characters unable to reconcile the opposed demands of the self and the social contract, particularly in the context of interpersonal relationships. Parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and friends encounter difficulties because they cannot strike a balance between license and repression. Usually this failure is linked to sexual avidity, and the resulting dilemmas are played out against a depressing background of vulgar materialism. Updike’s overriding theme is that of cultural disintegration, the abrogation of the Protestant ethic.

He is not, however, simply a diagnostician of social ills. His books will endure for their historical accuracy but also as belles-lettres—works of art. Although a novelist of the everyday, Updike fashions sparkling metaphors that invest his rather commonplace topics with fresh vitality. This keenness derives also from the striking specificity and exactitude that typify his presentation of sensory detail. He tells the reader not only what to see but what to hear, what to taste, what to smell—a technique that he may have learned from the example of James Joyce. At his best, Updike can evoke a moment as vividly as anyone writing today. And although his content is highly contemporary (including frequent forays into explicitly sexual depiction), he is in many respects a throwback to the nineteenth-century novelists of manners, capturing social nuances while plumbing the depths of his characters’ motivations and interrelationships. As the critic Charles Thomas Samuels said, “Updike offers the novel’s traditional pleasures.”

The selection in the book, from a 1979 short story collection entitled Problems, is an excellent example of Updike at the top of his form.

George J. Searles
Mohawk Valley Community College


Texts
In the Heath Anthology
Separating (1979)

Other Works
The Carpentered Hen (1958)
Poorhouse Fair (1959)
The Same Door (1959)
Rabbit, Run (1960)
Pigeon Feathers (1962)
The Magic Flute (1962)
Telephone Poles (1963)
The Centaur (1963)
Olinger Stories (1964)
The Ring (1964)
A Child's Calendar (1965)
Assorted Prose (1965)
Of the Farm (1965)
Verse (1965)
The Music School (1966)
Couples (1968)
Bottom's Dream (1969)
Midpoint (1969)
Bech: A Book (1970)
Rabbit Redux (1971)
Museums and Women (1972)
Buchanan Dying (1974)
A Month of Sundays (1975)
Picked-Up Pieces (1975)
Marry Me (1976)
Tossing and Turning (1977)
The Coup (1978)
Problems (1979)
Too Far to Go (1979)
Rabbit Is Rich (1980)
Bech Is Back (1982)
Hugging the Shore (1983)
The Witches of Eastwick (1984)
Facing Nature (1985)
Roger's Version (1986)
Trust Me (1987)
S. (1988)
Just Looking (1989)
Self-Consciousness (1989)
Rabbit at Rest (1990)
Odd Jobs (1991)
Memories of the Ford Administration (1992)
Collected Poems, 1953-1993 (1993)
Brazil (1994)
The Afterlife and Other Stories (1994)
Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels (1995)
Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf (1996)
In the Beauty of the Lillies (1996)



Cultural Objects
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Links

Books and Writers
(http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/updike.htm)
A biographical and literary introduction to Updike.

John Updike's American Comedies
(http://www.usfca.edu/fac-staff/southerr/updike.html)
Joyce Carol Oates on John Updike.

Life and Times
(http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/04/06/lifetimes/updike.html)
Links to several primary texts, including audio interviews and readings.

The Salon Interview: John Updike
(http://www.salon.com/08/features/updike.html)
Interview conducted by Dwight Garner for Salon.com.

What's New in Updikiana
(http://www.ctel.net/~joyerkes/Item1.html)
Provides a plethora of regularly updated information on Updike.



Secondary Sources





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