For more than 50 years, Updike narrated the common American life

American writer John Updike was a legendary contributor to the pantheon of American literature. In the span of his 50-year career, he wrote 21 novels, 18 short stories, 12 collections of poetry, four children’s books, and 12 collections of non-fiction. That level of output made him Updike of the country’s most valued 20th-century authors.

Background and early years

Updike was born in 1932 in Shillington, PA. His father, Wesley, was a junior high math teacher. Mom, Linda, was a saleswoman with a Master’s degree in English Literature. She herself published two collections of stories, in 1971 and 1990.

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In a 2008 interview with the National Endowment for the Humanities, Updike said his first exposure to art came in the form of comic strips. He’d even send away to comic strip artists and ask for original strips… and receive them. Beyond the art of the comic strip, he had additional early exposure to art at a museum within walking distance of the home where he was raised.

Updike wrote for his high school paper – the Chatterbox – and obtained a scholarship to study English at Harvard. At Harvard, he contributed to and was later President of the satire and parody magazine, the Harvard Lampoon. Following graduation, he attended Oxford in England to study at the Ruskin School of Drawing, returning to America in 1955.

The New Yorker

Updike’s professional career in letters began upon meeting Katherine White, whose husband EB White was a writer with the New Yorker. White offered Updike a job writing the “Talk of the Town” column. As Updike’s obituary in The Guardian says,

This professional placement was more than fortuitous, it was the culmination of a lifelong connection Updike had with the magazine. The New Yorker describes how it had long been a big part of Updike’s life:

The magazine had been a major influence on Updike. At 12 he was given a subscription and he fell in love with its understated typography and cosmopolitan wit. At his mother’s suggestion, he had been submitting contributions to the New Yorker for years before a poem and a story were accepted in June 1954, the month he graduated from Harvard.

Updike would go on to contribute fiction, poetry, essays, and criticism to The New Yorker for half a century. His contributions are currently listed on the New Yorker’s website.

Updike’s published material

The list of work that Updike published throughout his career was extensive. His first book, a collection of poetry called The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures was published in 1958. In the words of Brittanica, it was a collection of “intellectual, witty pieces on the absurdities of modern life.”  Four years later, he published his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair and in 1960, Updike published Rabbit, Run, described in Brittanica as the story of “…a former star athlete who is unable to recapture success when bound by marriage and small-town life so he flees responsibility.”

Brittanica includes the following among Updike’s “notable works”: Pigeon Feathers; Rabbit, Run; The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures; The Witches of Eastwick (yes – the movie starring Jack Nicholson); Rabbit at Rest; Gertrude and Claudius; Endpoint, and Other Poems; In the Beauty of the Lilies; Rabbit Remembered; and The Widows of Eastwick.

The accolades

Of all modern American writers, Updike comes closest to meeting Virginia Woolf’s demand that a writer’s only job is to get himself, or herself, expressed without impediments – National Endowment for the Humanities.

To great acclaim, Updike would spend decades with the characters he created in Rabbit, RunHis work including Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest, and Rabbit Remembered were published in 1971, 1981, 1990, and 2001 respectively. All those novels followed the same character – Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom – at different periods in his life.

In 1981, Updike won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with Rabbit is Rich. He won it again for Rabbit at Rest in 1990. Only two other Americans have won the Pulitzer Prize twice. They would not be the only awards he would win. Updike also won: the PEN/Faulkner award in 2004; the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 1981, 1983 and 1991; and the National Book Award.

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101: