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