John Updike, the iconic chronicler of white male angst in the second half of the 20th century, died Tuesday at age 76, leaving behind an expansive legacy of incisive work that assures him a preeminent spot in American literature.
Updike had been battling lung cancer and died in a hospice near his home in Beverly Farms, Mass., said his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.
Long recognized as the don of the American suburban novel, Updike, a Harvard graduate, was a prolific writer unable to write a bad sentence in any genre. He published 61 books of poetry, short stories, novels, essays and criticism. His precise, fluid and poetic prose coupled with his deep understanding of Americans in the changing decades after World War II won him the nation’s top literary prizes as well as thousands of readers.
Updike’s quartet of signature novels - beginning with “Rabbit Run” and ending with “Rabbit at Rest” - follow car salesman Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom from his days as a former high-school basketball star through his failing marriage and financial success to old age and decline. Rabbit is the ordinary American living his ordinary middle-class American life as major social and political events begin to change the nation.
“If we could take all of the Rabbit books as a single book, I would say John Updike wrote the Great American Novel with the Rabbit tetralogy,” Milwaukee novelist Larry Watson said, summing up Updike’s work. “He was one of those writers who was writing at a very high level almost from the beginning of his career.”
The last two in the series, “Rabbit Is Rich” (1981) and “Rabbit at Rest” (1990), won Pulitzer prizes as well as the National Book Critics Circle awards. “Rabbit Is Rich” further won the National Book Award.
Updike matters, though, not only for his Rabbit novels but also for other fiction that explored changing sexual mores and marital commitments as well as the intrusion of other nations in American life as globalization began to take root. Since his first books, the poetry collection “The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures” (1958) and the novel “The Poorhouse Fair” (1959), he has sought to explain and catalog the America he knows.
“I’ve always tried to write about America,” he said during a 1999 visit to Milwaukee to speak at a Milwaukee Public Library fundraiser. “It’s very worth a writer’s effort.”
In “The Centaur” (1963) he wrote about a school teacher, fondly modeling the character after his own father, who taught high school. In “Couples” (1968) he frankly probed the adulterous lives of four couples in the fictional town of Tarbox, not unlike the small Massachusetts town in which he lived with his first wife and four children. Readers also remember Updike’s masterful short stories, which also explored the life and death of an American marriage.
By the mid-1970s, Updike, who was born in 1932 in Reading, Pa., and raised in Shillington, Pa., was moving into foreign settings. In “The Coup” (1978 ), he entered an imaginary African country. He noticed then, he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “how America’s position in the world was changing and attitudes were changing . . . I had a theory that being a French novelist or an Indian novelist wasn’t enough anymore. We really have to start writing global novels.”
His move away from the WASP-ish world he knew brought mixed reviews. But his essays, short stories and book reviews for The New Yorker, for which he had written since he was 23, are universally praised for his careful writing. His criticism was elegant, often kind; yet he was capable of drawing and quartering with surgical precision.
In real life, though, he was mild-mannered and respectful. Kate Huston, the former chief librarian of the Milwaukee Public Library, remembers driving him around when he visited Milwaukee in 1999 with his second wife, Martha. “I found him to be rather shy and reserved,” she remembers. “I dropped him off at the art museum. He was a giant in literature . . . but there was no arrogance about him at all and he seemed absolutely delighted by the museum. “
On that visit, Updike also drove to Racine, Wis., so that his wife could see her ancestral family’s door and window sash company, T. Driver & Son . Later, sipping tea in the public library, he spoke of the state of American fiction. “Does fiction, artistic writing, have much of a future? I must say it’s on the way out. Do you think so?” In the electronic age, he said, it seems everybody is too distracted to be excited by Steinbeck or Faulkner.
But in his sixth book of essays, the 2007 “Due Considerations,” he noted, “Without books we might just melt into the airwaves, and be just another set of blips.”