John Updike was a tireless novelist, a transcriber of the individual consciousness in contemporary culture as well as history. His protagonists constantly confront in dramatic and explicit ways the topology and emotions of adulterous sexuality – but at the same time are drawn to a dialectical religiosity influenced by the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and the Protestant theologian Karl Barth. Writing until his death at the age of 76, Updike was a former New Yorker staffer who began his literary career with a short story in the early 1950s and continued to produce works in nearly all genres, though focusing on fiction. His oeuvre includes more than 20 novels, 12 collections of short stories, six books of poetry, a memoir, anthologies of prose essays, and a book on golf.
Updike was born March 18, 1932 in Shillington, Pennsylvania, where he lived most of his early life before attending Harvard University, graduating summa cum laude in 1954, and then attending for a year the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford. He served at the New Yorker from 1955 to 1957, and lived after that in Massachusetts. In 1953 he married Mary Pennington, and they had four children. After his divorce in 1977, he married Martha Bernhard, acquiring three stepchildren. He also had three grandchildren. Updike won the Pulitzer Prize twice as well as the National Book Award, and the Howells Medal for the best American novel in the last five years.
Updike's most remarkable creation is the tetralogy of Rabbit novels, chronicling the evolution of a middle-American male, the near-everyman Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom: Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990). In an interview early in his career Updike acknowledged his subject as “the American small town middle class. I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules” (Howard 1966). Rabbit is such a middle figure, living in a small Pennsylvania town, but eventually also part of the year in Florida; though he begins as a member of the lower middle class, selling a vege-peeler, then becomes a printer, he eventually emerges in the upper middle class, an entrepreneur Toyota dealership owner; for three of the novels, he is middle-aged. His experiences and antenna seem to echo a middle register of the impressions of historical events and cultural patterns from 1959 to 1989, such as moon landings and airplane crashes, pop songs and cocaine abuse.
These four novels and a coda (Rabbit Remembered, 2000b), appearing about once a decade, trace the young adulthood and gradual aging of the protagonist. The novels also provide a breathtaking and probing portrait of American culture and the interior experience of it over 30 years and could be seen as Updike's version of Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy. But whereas Dos Passos chose breadth, fragmentation, and vignettes – portraying some 16 representative fictional Americans between the turn of the century and the Great Depression- Updike chooses depth via the consciousness of a single individual.
Rabbit Angstrom is at once the cuddly, animallike, incurably sexual rabbit, yet somehow representative of a broad spectrum of experiences and also a minute victim of vast social forces, an angstrom unit (one-hundred millionth of a centimeter) used in scientific measurement. Though he begins as a social rebel testing moral limits in small-town America by leaving his wife and young child to live with a quasi-prostitute, he is also an icon of the failed American dream, a former high school basketball star who searches for a better life than the one he seems to have found. In Rabbit, Run he leaves his wife in Pennsylvania and drives toward an imagined Florida pastoral, but ironically circles home. This first self-defeating circle marks the broad pattern of the novel and of the novels to come. Rabbit is a runner, a has-been athlete, constantly in motion, searching nostalgically for something better. By Rabbit at Rest, he is in his mid-fifties, and seems successful and admired enough to portray Uncle Sam in the July 4th parade. Underneath, however, he is the same Rabbit, an ambiguous figure still searching emotionally and sexually. Though he appears superficially conventional, he still assaults social-sexual norms, spending an incestuous night with his daughter-in-law and escaping again, this time to his Florida condo. Eventually Rabbit, like America, is vulnerable and moribund, threatened by a poisonous indolence: he overeats, and his son has covertly become a cocaine addict and embezzler.
Updike's fictional method owes a great deal to modernist art, which he frequently acknowledges in many ways – by echoes in character names, by employment of the stream-of-consciousness technique made famous by James Joyce in Ulysses, and by allusion to Joyce and T. S. Eliot. The technique is evident in works as different as Couples (1968) and Bech: A Book (1970). For all his experimentation in style and technique and his familiarity with the great modernists as well as many of his contemporaries, Updike is primarily a realist, who writes about believable characters in well-known milieux living recognizable lives in chronological order. Although minutely attuned to social and artistic trends and aware of postmodernism in criticism and fiction, Updike is essentially a traditionalist. For example, in Memories of the Ford Administration (1992), there is an epigraph from Derrida – the noted deconstructionist – but Updike's protagonist, an academic historian, is antagonistic to deconstructionist theories that view history as merely texts.
Updike's wide-ranging mind has focused on a variety of topics that have worked their way into his novels, including – among others – Jewish writers, terrorists, dystopian communards, religious fanatics, golfers, and staffers in presidential administrations. He has a keen, observant eye for the daily life of American cities and towns as it changes from moment to moment due to the minutiae of culture and technology.
Updike's career is such that many of his works are reinvestigations of previous material. Obviously one of the recurrent figures is Rabbit, while another of a very different type is the protagonist of Updike's Bech series. In Bech: A Book the character is a Jewish American novelist viewed in mid-life, long past his early success with two novels, Travel Light and Brother Pig. He is a comic figure in a novel verging on parody and satire employed to examine the daily experience of the writer's life during a prolonged stage of decay and writer's block. Bech is an alter ego, an artist manqué who suffers exaggerated wounds that perhaps every author, including Updike, has feared. His tentative, often imagined affairs serve often as the backdrop for the commentary and analysis of personal frustration and ironic failure. The treatment also serves as a critique of superficial media reception and audience perception of a writer, as seen in his affair with an attractive young British woman that turns out to be merely a device for her to advance her career by writing an exposé-diary entry about him in a tabloid. In the final sketch, Bech “enters heaven” by being recognized at a ceremony in uptown Manhattan honoring significant others. These others, revealed through analysis and dialogue, are rather trivial human beings. And, as Bech observes after his induction into the heavenly host, “Now what?” The sketches are ironically framed – with a foreword containing a letter from Bech to Updike himself offering his blessing and commenting on the indignities America offers to its writers, and the multiple appendices purporting to be Bech's diary, a postcard, and a bibliography with essays by a number of the academy's well-known literary critics such as Alfred Kazin and George Steiner.
In Bech Is Back (1982) the Jewish writer re-embarks on foreign travels only to meet further cultural misunderstandings, and in the collection's final story, “White on White,” experiences familiar inadequacy in comparing himself to the presumed artistic achievements of a pantheon similar to that in his induction into a heavenly group in the first volume. In the last volume in the series, Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel (1998), the author finally receives the Nobel Prize, only to be troubled by gradual recognition that it is the result of political maneuver and compromise. He remains beset by existential panic in a Czech episode echoing Kafka, and throughout by the issues of infidelity and multiple sexual attractions that have led him romantically back and forth between two sisters.
Updike even reinvestigates the seemingly fixed characters created by other writers, re-examining classic works by both Shakespeare and Hawthorne. In Gertrude and Claudius (2000a), Updike is sympathetic to Hamlet's mother and stepfather and portrays Hamlet himself as not only moody but also antagonistic to his own father. Updike emphasizes this process of artistic reworking by organizing his narrative around three different source materials for the Hamlet legend. As the reader moves through the novel's three parts, Hamlet's mother changes from the adolescent Gerutha on the verge of marriage – from the historian Saxo Grammaticus – to the adulterous Geruthe of Histoires tragiques, to Shakespeare's Gertrude in the days before Shakespeare's play is set. Hamlet's father, Hamlet Sr. (the ghost in Shakespeare), is a significantly more fleshed-out character in Updike's novel, at first Horwendil, a conquering hero ominously nicknamed by his brother Feng the “Hammer,” more sexually aggressive and less sympathetic than Shakespeare's ghostly figure, far more commanding, but also cold and officious. Feng, a promiscuous adventurer and an exciting alternative for an often neglected Geruthe, is the figure who becomes Claudius. These characters are set in a medieval Denmark with an archaic and formal English, but observed in scenes and interior monologues that disclose contemporary needs and attitudes.
Updike has similarly reinvented the classic Scarlet Letter in a trilogy: Month of Sundays (1975), Roger's Version (1986), and S. (1988). Updike comically reconfigures the three primary characters, Dimmesdale, Roger (Chillingworth), and S., a relative of Hester. The three exist in a modern world of universities, motels, computers, and ashrams that questions the minister's religious seriousness amid an interest in sexual dalliance, that reworks the scientist prying into the lives of others, and that offers a contemporary feminist who is a rebel and escapist.
One of Updike's primary concerns is the potential for religious transformation as articulated by a serious Christian theology. He writes in a literary era often characterized by critiques of religious orthodoxy that find belief in God absurd, as one can see in Heller's Catch-22 (1961) and DeLillo's White Noise (1985). While Heller and DeLillo seem to endorse a comic atheism, many of Updike's characters are searching for or modeling a path to God. While Rabbit regularly assaults the moral values and mores of his communities, he also seeks for “something that wants me to find it.” Similarly, Piet Hanema in Couples (1968), despite his adulteries, is the only adult member of his family found regularly praying – by himself – in a Catholic church.
Updike died of lung cancer on January 27, 2009.
SEE ALSO: The City in Fiction (AF); DeLillo, Don (AF); Heller, Joseph (AF); Social-Realist Fiction (AF)
- Bloom, H. (ed.) (1987). John Updike: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House.
- John Updike's Rabbit Tetralogy: Mastered Irony in Motion. Columbia: University of Missouri Press. (2001).
- Can a Nice Novelist Finish First? Life, 74 (Nov. 4). (1966).
- John Updike and the Three Great Things: Sex, Religion, and Art. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. (1980).
- Updike: Man of Letters. South Royalton, VT: Steerforth. (2000).
- John Updike's “Rabbit at Rest”: Appropriating History. New York: Peter Lang. (1998).
- John Updike Revisited. New York: Twayne. (1998).
- The Poorhouse Fair. New York: Knopf. (1959).
- Rabbit, Run. New York: Knopf. (1960).
- The Centaur. New York: Knopf. (1963).
- Couples. New York: Knopf. (1968).
- Bech: A Book. New York: Knopf. (1970).
- Rabbit Redux. New York: Knopf. (1971).
- Month of Sundays. New York: Knopf. (1975).
- Rabbit Is Rich. New York: Knopf. (1981).
- Bech Is Back. New York: Knopf. (1982).
- The Witches of Eastwick. New York: Knopf. (1984).
- Roger's Version. New York: Knopf. (1986).
- S. New York: Knopf. (1988).
- Self-Consciousness. New York: Knopf. (1989).
- Rabbit at Rest. New York: Knopf. (1990).
- Memories of the Ford Administration. New York: Knopf. (1992).
- Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf. New York: Knopf. (1996).
- Bech at Bay. New York: Knopf. (1998).
- More Matter. New York: Knopf. (1999).
- Gertrude and Claudius. New York: Knopf. (2000a).
- Rabbit Remembered. New York: Knopf. (2000b).
- Terrorist. New York: Knopf. (2006).
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