Author John Updike (born 1932) mirrored his America in poems, short stories, essays, and novels, especially the four-volume "Rabbit" series.
John Updike was born on March 18, 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. His father, Wesley, was a high school mathematics teacher, the model for several sympathetic father figures in Updike's early works. Because Updike's mother, Linda Grace Hoyer Updike, nurtured literary aspirations of her own, books were a large part of the boy's early life. This fertile environment prepared the way for a prolific career which began in earnest at the age of 22, upon the publication of his first story, "Friends from Philadelphia, " in the New Yorker in 1954.
Updike admired the New Yorker and aspired to become a cartoonist for that periodical. He majored in English at Harvard where he developed his skills as a graphic artist and cartoonist for the Lampoon, the college's humor magazine. In 1953, his junior year at Harvard, he married Mary Pennington, a Radcliffe art student. Upon graduation the following year, Updike and his bride went to London where he had won a Knox fellowship for study at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford.
He returned to the United States in 1955 and took a job as a staff writer at the New Yorker at the invitation of famed editor E. B. White, achieving a life-long goal. But after two years and many "Talk of the Town" columns, he left New York for Ipswich, Massachusetts, to devote himself full time to his own writing.
Twenty Years of Poetry
Updike began his remarkable career as a poet in 1958 by publishing his first volume, a collection of poems titled The Carpentered Hen. It is a book of light, amusing verse in the style of Ogden Nash and Robert Service. The poetry possesses several stylistic conventions shared by his fiction: careful attention to the sounds of words and the nuances of their meanings, the use of popular culture by identifying objects by familiar brand names, and the mimicry of the popular press through advertising language and newspaper editorial boosterism. For example, a trivial snippet from Life magazine becomes the basis of a poem called "Youth's Progress, " which ostensibly details the physical metamorphosis of a young boy into an adult. "Dick Schneider of Wisconsin … was elected 'Greek God' for an interfraternity ball, " states the original excerpt from Life. The poem takes its cue from this by citing the common milestones of developing youth: "My teeth were firmly braced and much improved./ Two years went by; my tonsils were removed." The poet then playfully contrasts the narcissistic concerns of youth with the uniquely American optimistic faith in democracy, culminating in the assertion that even Greek divinity is accessible to the common man: "At twenty-one, I was elected Zeus."
Updike's output of light verse diminished with the publication of each succeeding volume of poems, and he stated later that he "writes no light verse now." His poetry has been collected in several volumes, among them Telephone Poles and Other Poems (1963); Midpoint (1969), which is an introspective assessment of the midpoint of his life; and Tossing and Turning (1977), which some critics consider his finest collection of verse. Much of the verse has been collected in a chronological format in a one-volume edition called Collected Poems: 1953-1993 (1993). Updike's poetry continued to appear in publications such as Poetry and the New Yorker.
The "Rabbit" Series and Other Novels
John Updike's first novel, published in 1959, was called Poorhouse Fair. It is a dystopian portrayal of an imaginary place under cruel conditions in the tradition of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, depicting life in a welfare state projected twenty years into the future, the late 1970s. The conflict between Conner, the young prefect of the home with an obsession for order, and Hook, a 94-year-old inmate who rebels against regimentation, is unresolved by the end of the novel, causing certain critics considerable discomfort with its ambiguity, especially Norman Podhoretz and other Commentary reviewers.
Although Updike's reputation rests on his complete body of works, he was first established as a major American writer upon the publication of his novel Rabbit Run (1960), although at that date no one could have predicted the rich series of novels that would follow it. It chronicled the life of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, creating as memorable an American character as Hester Prynne, Jay Gatsby, and Bigger Thomas. Harry Angstrom's life peaked in high school where he was admired as a superb basketball player. By the age of 26 he is washed up in a dead-end job, demonstrating gadgets in a dime store, living a disappointed and constricted life: "I once did something right. I played first-rate basketball. I really did. And after you're first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate." His primal reaction to this problem is to run (as would his namesake). And like Christian in the beginning of Pilgrim's Progress, he runs, fleeing his wife and family as though the salvation of his soul depends upon it. The climax of Rabbit's search results in tragedy, but it is to the credit of Updike's skill that great sympathy for a not-very-likable character is extracted from readers.
The second novel in the series, Rabbit Redux (1971), takes up the story of Harry Angstrom ten years later at the age of 36. Updike continues Rabbit's story against a background of current events. The novel begins on the day of the moon shot. It is the late 1960s and the optimism of American technology is countered by the despair of race riots, anti-Vietnam protests, and the drug culture. Rabbit is nostalgic for the secure serenity of the Eisenhower years. But his world is unsettled by realization that the old way of life is rapidly disappearing, his mother is dying of disease, and his father is aged. Rabbit has become complacent in the face of change. His wife, Janice, from whom he fled in Rabbit Run, now flees him and his inertia. His family is falling apart, mirroring divisive problems of the country at large. Rabbit finally overcomes his complacency and brings "outsiders" into his home, attempting to reconstitute his family. Although some critics were disappointed, Charles Thomas Samuels and Eugene Lyons among them, most, like Brendan Gill and Richard Locke, considered Rabbit Redux a successful novel.
The next book in the series was Rabbit Is Rich (1981), which won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize. Rabbit is 46 and finally successful, selling Japanese fuel-efficient cars during the time of the oil crisis in the 1970s. In this novel Rabbit's son Nelson's failure becomes the counterweight to Rabbit's success. Updike describes an upper-middle-class milieu of Caribbean vacations and wife-swapping. Nelson revives Rabbit's vice of irresponsibility but without the grace Rabbit possessed in his youth. Rabbit again becomes the source of family salvation. He steps in for the missing Nelson to be present at the birth of his grandchild. In a sense, the loss of momentum represented by the fuel shortage and the consequent slowing of industry, and even the aging Harry Angstrom, is tentatively renewed by this young life. Updike offers slender hope in a bleak American landscape.
Rabbit at Rest (1990) brings Rabbit into the 1980s to confront an even grimmer set of problems: AIDS, cocaine addiction, and terrorism. Rabbit suffers a heart attack and is haunted by ghosts of his past. Death looms ever larger. The fragility of life and the randomness of death are represented for Harry by the Lockerbie tragedy where death becomes as inevitable as "falling from the burst-open airplane: he too is falling, helplessly falling, toward death." In these four novels an insignificant life presses and insists itself upon our consciousness, and we realize that this life has become the epic of our common American experience recorded over three decades.
Updike wrote many other major novels, including The Centaur (1963), Couples (1965), A Month of Sundays (1975), The Witches of Eastwick (1984), and Brazil (1993). Updike was also the author of several volumes of short stories, among them Pigeon Feathers (1962), The Music School (1966), Bech: A Book (1970), Museums and Women (1972), and Bech Is Back (1982). His novel In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996) was met with mixed reviews from such esteemed literary critics as Gore Vidal. In addition to being a prolific novelist, Updike also released several volumes of essays, two being Odd Jobs (1991) and Just Looking: Essays on Art (1989). In 1996, he released a collection, Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf (1996), which was met with favorable reviews. David Owen wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "Like plenty of other golfers, I suspect, I wish that John Updike had spent fewer man-years dutifully weighing the merits of unappealing foreign novels and more reflecting on his slice."
Updike has been honored throughout his career: twice he received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He also received the American Book Award and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Updike has been one of the most prolific American authors of his time, leading even his most ardent fans to confess, as Sean French did in New Statesman and Society, "…Updike can write faster than I can read…"
Further Reading on John Updike
For Updike's discussion of himself and his work, his own Picked-up Pieces (1975) is useful because it contains interviews of Updike by others. Michael A. Olivas has compiled a useful bibliography called An Annotated Bibliography of John Updike Criticism, 1967-1973. For an early dissenting opinion on Updike see Norman Podhoretz's Doings and Undoings (1964). For good, concise, non-ideological discussions of Updike and his novels, see Robert Detweiler's Twain Edition of John Updike (1984). See also Donald Greiner's John Updike's Novels (1984). For a wide selection of reviews and essays, see William Macnaughton's Critical Essays on John Updike (1982).