Writer Best Known for Stories of Suburban American 1932 – 2009
Before World War II, American lived in two basic environment: Some lived in towns and cities; others lived in rural regions. But after World War II, a third environment, the suburb, came to dominate American society. Dependent upon cities but featuring rural elements – open spaces, backyards, highways – the suburbs of the 1950s and 1960s represented a new mode of living. And the writer who described this new lifestyle most eloquently and memorably, and who helped Americans make sense of changes it inspired, was John Updike.
Updike was not a child of the suburbs, however. He was born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, in 1932 and grew up on a farm in nearby Plowville. Sickly as a youth, he depended on books for his enjoyment. At his mother’s encouragement, he also began writing. This early education served him well; he graduated at the top of his high-school class and in 1950 received a scholarship to attend Harvard University. There, he joined the campus humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon, and developed his skills as both writer and a cartoonist. After graduating in 1954, he studied art for a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in England before talking a job at the premier American literary magazine of the era, The New Yorker.
Updike had already published a short story in The New Yorker when he was hired to write reviews and articles for the magazine’s humor section, called “The Talk of the Town.” For two years he lived near The New Yorker’s main office in Manhattan. Then, in 1957, he left his full-time job as well as the big city and moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts. Living in a Boston suburb, free now to concentrate exclusively on his fiction, he began his writing career.
In 1958 he published his first book, a poetry collection entitled The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, and in 1959 he published his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair. The story of an old-age home, The Poorhouse Faire received good reviews and paved the way for Updike’s first major critical and popular success, his 1960 novel Rabbit, Run. In the novel’s main character, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a former high-school basketball player struggling to make sense of his restrictive adult life in the suburbs, Updike created his most enduring character. He would revisit Angstrom in three subsequent novels, tracing his development through three more decades of American history: Rabbit Redux in 1971, Rabbit Is Rich in 1981, and Rabbit at Rest in 1990. And in a short-story collection from 2000, Licks of Love, he would offer a postscript, “Rabbit Remembered.” Both Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest would win Pulitzer Prizes.
But Angstrom was only one of Updike’s important contributions to American literature. In his 1963 National Book Award winner, The Centaur, he combined ancient mythology with contemporary life – as well as his own family history – to describe the relationship between a father and son. In his controversial account of marital infidelity, Couples (1968), he explored the anger, hostility, and betrayal behind the perfect exterior of suburban living, a theme he revisited in his celebrated short stories about the Maple family, collected in the 1979 volume Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories. And in his memorable, humorous novels about the fictional writer Henry Bech – Bech: A Book (1970), Bech Is Back (1982), and Bech at Bay (1998) – he reflected on the profession of writing in modern American society.
Although these and other novels – including 1984’s The Witches of Eastwick, which became a popular movie in 1987 – made Updike a household name, he has pursued a variety of other literary interests including poetry, criticism, and sports-writing, and he remains a regular contributor to The New Yorker. Meanwhile, his 1995 novel about modern American spirituality, In the Beauty of the Lilies, has kept him at the forefront of American fiction.
Though less secretive than some of his contemporaries, Updike tries to keep his private life out of the popular press. His celebrity is therefore based almost entirely on his work: his honest accounts of suburban life, his talent for humorous observation, and his crystal-clear writing style. After four exceptionally productive decades of writing, during which he has produced twenty novels and a wide array of other works, he remains one of the nation’s favorite and most impotent literary figures.
More detailed information can be found in the "Extraordinary American Writers" John Tessitore, and issued by The Scholastic Inc. in the USA.Information should be used just for educational purposes.