Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike 1932-2009

John Updike was born in Reading in Pennsylvania, but until he was 13 he lived in Shillington, a smaller city near Reading, and then he moved away to Plowville, PA. Updike's childhood was shadowed by psoriasis and stammering, but his mother encouraged him to write. In his childhood Updike lived in an isolated farm. Escaping to the world of mystery novels, he consumed books by Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr. A lot of his early reading was English. "I'm almost an English novelist manqu̩," Updike said later. However, dead authors depressed him. After high school in Shillington, where his father worked as a science teacher, Updike attended Harvard РUpdike chose the university because it was the location of the world's oldest humor magazine, the Harvard Lampoon. "My inability to read bravely as a boy had this advantage: when I went to college, I was a true tabula rasa, and received gratefully the imprint of my instructors' opinion, and got good marks." (from New York Times, July 4, 1965)

Updike majored in English in 1954, and contributed to and later edited the Harvard Lampoon. He started as a cartoonist, but then shifted to poetry and prose. With his wife Mary Pennington, the daughter of a minister of the First Unitarian Church, Updike spent the academic year 1954-1955 at Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in Oxford, England. "A soggy little island huffing and puffing to keep up with Western Europe," he recalled in Picked Up Pieces (1975). In 1955 he joined The New Yorker staff, writing editorials, poetry, stories, and criticism. After the author's first marriage was dissolved, he married in 1977 Martha Bernhard.

From the age of 23, Updike supported himself by writing. He moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he lived for seventeen years. The small town became the model for Tarbox in his novel COUPLES (1968), behind which hide Choderlos de Laclos's 18th-century novel Dangerous Liaisons. The portrait of sexual passion in darkest New England amongst a group of young suburban married couples was criticized as merely an "uptown Peyton Place". Another fictional town is Eastwich, the scene of the bestseller THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1984) and its sequel, THE WIDOWS OF EASTWICK (2008).

In 1958 Updike made his debut as a poet with the volume THE CARPENTERED HEN AND OTHER TAME CREATURES. Updike's first novel, THE POORHOUSE FAIR (1959), was inspired by Henry Green's Concluding and told about the residents of an old people's home. Basically Updike was trying to write a novel, as he once confessed, "which would serve, in its breadth, as a base for further novels."

THE CENTAUR (1963) used a mythological framework to explore the relationship of a schoolmaster father and his son. THE COUP (1979) was an exotic first-person narration by an ex-dictator of a fictitious African state. In 2000 appeared Updike's prequel to Hamlet, in which the moody prince is not the central character but the story focuses on his mother Queen Gertrude, her husband, and Claudius, her husband's younger brother. Terrorist, Updike's 22nd novel, was about an 18-year-old Islamic extremist, whose critique of American culture is literally deadly. "This kind of friendliness toward death, this feeling that it's not such a big deal to kill or die, is after my generation," Updike said in Time (June 12, 2005).

The first book about Updike's famous hero, Harry Angstrom, the natural athlete, a sexually magnetic, blue-eyed Swede, ended with the verb "Runs." Updike wrote the book in the present tense, giving it a sort of cinematic quality. In Rabbit, Redux – Redux is Latin for brought back – Harry is a middle-aged bourgeois, who finds his life shattered by the infidelity of his wife. Updike leaves the reader with a question -- O.K.? The last word in Rabbit Is Rich was 'His.' Rabbit at Rest, set in the late 1980s, paralleled the decay of society, AIDS-plagued America, and Rabbit's swollen body, his chest pains, and his feeling that there is "nothing under you but black space..." After leaving Rabbit in 1990, Updike published a 182-page novella called 'Rabbit Remembered' in LICKS OF LOVE (2000), a collection of short stories. 'Rabbit Remembered' ends with the word 'Gladly.'

Updike has lived in New England, where most of his fiction is set, and in Massachusetts, about twenty miles from Boston. He has become one of the most successful American writers. As an essayist Updike is a gentle satirist, poking fun at American life and customs, without any mean-spirited nihilism. He observes the ordinary life he sees around him, and frequently asks the reader to recognize and reconsider preconceptions. In 'The Bankrupt Man' (1983) Updike turns upside-down the common views of a bankrupt and proves that there is an afterlife: "The bankrupt man buys himself a motorcycle. He is going to hotdig it all the way to Santa Barbara and back. He has a bankrupt sister in Santa Barbara. Also, there are business details to be cleared up along the way, in Pittsburgh, South Bend, Dodge City, Santa Fe, and Palm Springs. Being bankrupt is an expansionist process; it generates even new horizons."

The majority of Updike's non-fiction has been occasional, and he considers the opportunity to produce reviews educational for himself, "for writing educates the writer as it goes along." Or: "My purpose in reading has ever secretly been not to come and judge but to come and steal." In his reviews Updike measures writing with traditional maxims: felicity in style, accuracy in presenting one's subject, precision in describing the external and inner world, and humanistic values.

In his autobiographical piece, 'The Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood', Updike called sex, art, and religion "the three great secret things" in human experience. James Yerkes has defined in his introduction to John Updike and Religion (2002), a collection of essays dealing with the religious vision of the author, "the religious consciousness in Updike may best be characterized as our sense of an unavoidable, unbearable, and unbelievable Sacred Presence." Existential questions have been in the center of Updike's work from the beginning of his career. He has also read theologians for guidance and regularly attended church for worship.

Updike has received several awards, among them Guggenheim Fellow (1959), Rosenthal Award, National Institute of Arts and Letters (1959), National Book Award in Fiction (1964), O. Henry Prize (1967-68), American Book Award (1982), National Book Critics Circle Award, for fiction (1982, 1990), Union League Club Abraham Lincoln Award (1982), National Arts Club Medal of Honor (1984); National Medal of the Arts (1989). In 1976 he became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In November 2003 Updike received the National Medal for Humanites at the White House, joining a very small group of notables who have been honored with both the National Medal of Art and the National Medal for the Humanites. His novels Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest have won Pulitzer Prizes. After Updike laid Rabbit Angstrom to rest, his alter ego, Jewish American novelist Harry Bech, is still on the literary scene.