The long, distinguished career of John Updike

[28 January 2009]

By Carlin Romano

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

John Updike, 76, the bookish, prolific, Berks County, Pa.-born novelist, poet and critic whose extraordinary and exquisite six-decade body of work made him Pennsylvania’s greatest contributor to contemporary American and world literature, died Tuesday of lung cancer.

He died in a hospice outside Boston. He had lived for many years in Beverly Farms, Mass.

Like Joyce Carol Oates, Updike enjoyed a reputation for prolific creativity across almost every genre known to literature. Like an American Flaubert, he astonished the literary world with the pointillist precision of his sentences, the pleasing, surprising lilts and twists of his lyrical diction.

In the manner of Henry James, Updike probed deeply into the 20th-century American psyche, but he departed from that urbane master of prose in favoring the scrutiny of ordinary middle-class American minds of the sort he grew up with, rather than the tortured, precious sensibilities of New York elites.

Born March 18, 1932, in Reading, Pa., where he wrote his first newspaper features for the Reading Eagle, John Hoyer Updike grew up in suburban Shillington, Pa., with his parents - Wesley, a junior high school math teacher, and Linda, a writer herself - and his maternal grandparents.

In 1945, the family moved to the farmhouse in rural Plowville, Pa., 11 miles away, where Linda Updike had been born. Co-valedictorian of Shillington High School in 1950, Updike went on to Harvard, where he served as an editor of the Harvard Lampoon and met Mary Pennington, a Radcliffe fine-arts student, whom he married in 1953.

Graduating summa cum laude in 1954 with a thesis on the English poet Robert Herrick, Updike pursued art training for a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in Oxford, England.

Originally he aimed to be a cartoonist for the New Yorker. Instead, the lanky young writer, whose beakish profile would become familiar to thousands of literary fans, joined the magazine in 1955 as a “Talk of the Town” writer. Although he left the magazine two years later, he did so only after establishing a tight writing connection to it - his first story there was titled “Friends From Philadelphia” - that would come to define his career.

After daughter Elizabeth and son David arrived in the mid-1950s, he moved to Ipswich, Mass., to write full-time as a freelancer. He largely remained in that setting - solo literary practitioner in small-town Massachusetts - the rest of his life.

His first novel, “The Poorhouse Fair” (1959), about a rebellion by residents of an old-age home against its director, established his sympathetic attention to the experiences of normal folks close to home; he’d often walked past such an institution in his Shillington adolescence.

Yet the novel that put him on the map was “Rabbit, Run” (1960), with its portrait of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a young car salesman nostalgic for his halcyon days as a successful high school basketball player, who deserts his wife and children.

Although readers elsewhere often saw Updike as the consummate sophisticated New Yorker writer, whose hundreds of short stories, reviews and poems graced the magazine for half a century, Pennsylvanians continued to view him as the great chronicler of their modest, yet complicated small-town experience through the “Rabbit” tetrology that grew from that book. “Rabbit, Run” was followed by “Rabbit Redux” (1971), “Rabbit Is Rich” (1981), and “Rabbit at Rest” (1990).

The cliche image of Updike, however - nestled in his Massachusetts office, calmly limning contemporary American life through the prism of small-town Pennsylvania and Massachusetts - never really captured a writer who personally and in his imagination frequently ranged far afield.

He traveled to Eastern Europe for the State Department in 1964, lived in London with his family from 1968 to 1969, won a Fulbright lectureship to Africa in 1973, and took up other opportunities to see the world.

Similarly, in his fiction, he engaged in unlikely arabesques - moves responded to in mixed ways by critics - to write about matters beyond his normal experience.

In his early novel “The Centaur” (1963), he combined reverence for his schoolteacher father and delight in mythology. A tale of three days in the life of a teenager and his science-teacher father, it also brings them to us as figures from Greek myth.

Novels such as “The Coup” (1978), a lighthearted look at the leader of Kush, an invented African country bereft of resources, and “Brazil” (1994), in which Updike retold the Tristan and Isolde story through characters named Isabel and Tristão, displayed the author choreographing cultures and players that some complained he knew little about.

Late in his career, “Terrorist” (2006), about a convert to Islam, brought similar charges.

But a hallmark of his literary persona was a playful desire, when it suited him, to leap beyond his life and the fictional terrains associated with him.

One of those standard territories, to be sure, was loyal examination of sexual hijinks among the middle class. He did his duty in “Couples” (1968), about young married sorts breaking traditional vows in the New England town of Tarbox (based on Ipswich); “Marry Me” (1976), about the affairs of two couples who exchange mates; and “The Witches of Eastwick” (1984), in which a trio of suburban divorcees cavort with Satan.

Another area that regularly drew his devoted attention was religion and spirituality, both traditional and eccentric. “S.” (1988), for instance, took us along with a 42-year-old New Englander who joins a phony Hindu-based religious community in Arizona - certainly not a stop in the author’s real career. Not infrequently, Updike combined his predilections, as in “A Month of Sundays” (1975), where a clergyman runs wild while stuck in a rest home.

Those tried and true bents made Updike’s high-risk novels, such as “Bech: A Book” (1970) and “Bech Is Back” (1982) - in which the unimpeachably Protestant author gave Philip Roth a run for his money by vetriloquizing through a successful Jewish novelist - an even greater delight.

Over the course of his career, Updike won the Pulitzer Prize, American Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award for “Rabbit Is Rich,” another Pulitzer for “Rabbit at Rest,” and a slew of other prizes.

Although often overlooked amidst his enormous corpus, his collected criticism alone came to more than 10 volumes, including “Hugging the Shore” (1983), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, and “Just Looking” (1989), his selected essays on art.

Fellow critics throughout his career both bowed to his superiority as a master of sentences, and occasionally suggested that his work, somehow, remained too safe.

Martin Seymour-Smith, the renowned British critic and scholar, described Updike as “the brightest, funniest, most intelligent, and entertaining” writer to come out of the “depressingly glittering stable” of the New Yorker.

Leslie Fiedler, a towering critic of the era in which Updike came to maturity, wrote that the author provided “the illusion of vision and fantasy without surrendering the kind of reassurance provided by slick writing at its most professionally “all right.”

Penn scholar Peter Conn, in his excellent “Literature in America,” wrote that Updike’s subject, ultimately, was “discontented men and women whose lives occupy the puzzling, undefined space between older inhibitions and contemporary permissiveness.”

Conn, too, raised the point that hovered about Updike’s whole career: that perhaps he had produced “a glut of ‘fine writing,’” perhaps the “final point of Updike’s writing is itself.”

For his entire adulthood as a writer, Updike was in some ways best known to his longtime publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, for a calm, craftsmanlike commitment to producing at least one book a year, a standard to which the writer kept by daily production of at least three pages a day.

This time there will be no Updike Redux. Updike is at rest.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/69661-the-long-distinguished-career-of-john-updike/