Writing men's minds

The Baltimore Sun

John Updike, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction whose novels and short stories exposed an undercurrent of ambivalence and disappointment in small-town, middle-class America, died yesterday. He was 76.

Mr. Updike's death from lung cancer was announced by Nicholas Latimer of Alfred A. Knopf, his publisher. Mr. Updike was a resident of Beverly Farms, Mass., but the announcement did not indicate where he died.

In a career spanning half a century, Mr. Updike published more than 50 books, more than 20 of them novels, and countless short stories, as well as collections of poetry. In recent years, he was best known for his art criticism and essays. His last published piece was a review of Toni Morrison's novel A Mercy in the Nov. 3, 2008, issue of New Yorker magazine.

"He had a remarkably wide range of literary interests that was never in my view superficial or casual," Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, told The New York Times yesterday.

By the late 1980s, Mr. Updike had achieved what a Times writer called "the near royal status of the American author-celebrity," but critical views of his fiction were often mixed.

Lorrie Moore, writing in the New York Review of Books in 2003, said Mr. Updike was "quite possibly ... American literature's greatest short-story writer, and arguably our greatest writer." But Harold Bloom, writing years earlier in a collection of essays on Mr. Updike's work, noted that though the novelist was capable of crafting a "beautifully economical narrative," he lacked depth, which Mr. Bloom saw as a requirement of great fiction. He viewed Mr. Updike as "a minor novelist with a major style."

Despite the critical divide, two of Mr. Updike's most memorable fictional characters, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom and Henry Bech, became emblems of the displaced American male that fascinated him as a writer. Angstrom, a man he often referred to as his alter-ego, is the disenchanted middle-class drifter in Mr. Updike's four-book "Rabbit" series. Bech is the Jewish-American novelist, breaking away from his cultural roots and immigrant heritage to become a fully assimilated American. Each in his own way reflects Mr. Updike's major themes.

Early in his career, Mr. Updike said that he wrote most often about the world he came from, "the American Protestant small-town middle class," as he described it in a 1966 interview with Life magazine. "It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules."

Mr. Updike took this previously unchartered territory and "made it common American ground," wrote Cynthia Ozick in a 2003 essay for the New York Times Book Review.

In addition to his Pulitzers, Mr. Updike also won the American Book Award and the National Book Award for his novel Rabbit is Rich. Mr. Updike was still in his 20s when his second novel, Rabbit, Run, brought him national attention in 1960. Several reviewers immediately saw the book's main character as an icon of his generation.

Three more novels about Angstrom followed: Rabbit Redux in 1971, Rabbit is Rich in 1981 and Rabbit at Rest in 1990. The last two in the series each won a Pulitzer. As Rabbit muddles through the collapse of established sexual mores, the rise of the technological age and the beginnings of globalization, he becomes a "purposely representative" American male, Mr. Updike explained in Self-Consciousness, his 1989 memoir.

Many critics found "a great divide between Updike's exquisite command of prose and ... the apparent no-good vulgar nothing he expended it on," wrote critic Eliot Fremont-Smith about Rabbit in a 1981 article for the Village Voice.

Others saw Rabbit's story as "a subtle expose of the frailty of the American dream," wrote literary critic Donald J. Greiner, a scholar who wrote extensively about Mr. Updike's work.

Mr. Updike said Rabbit is a typical man, weighed down by the pressures and disappointments of adulthood that few men spoke of in his generation.

"I knew I had things to say about it, things I thought, that nobody else was saying," Mr. Updike told Time magazine in 2006.

He got his first inkling of this literary theme as a boy watching his father, Wesley Updike, a teacher. They rode back and forth to school together, and the young Updike listened to his father worry about their old car and the family bills.

"I saw that it's not easy to be an American male," Mr. Updike said in a 2004 interview with the Academy of Achievement, an educational center in Washington.

As a writer, Mr. Updike aimed to "sort out, particularize and extol with the proper dark beauty" those struggles, he wrote in Self-Consciousness.

Starting with his first published collection of short stories, The Same Door, in 1959, Mr. Updike was admired for his "lean and lapidary prose," as critic A.C. Spectorsky described it in the Saturday Review in 1959.

Looking at Mr. Updike's influences, critic Louis Menand pointed out three in particular. Ernest Hemingway taught Mr. Updike and many other young fiction writers "the importance of suppressing information, and the use of dialogue to convey significance," Mr. Menand wrote in a 2003 article for the New Yorker.

Another influence, Vladimir Nabokov, modeled "almost religious commitment to linguistic hyper-clarity." And there was James Joyce. "Everywhere you find the eucharistic metaphor that was at the heart of Joyce's aesthetics," Mr. Menand wrote.

Most of Mr. Updike's short stories appeared first in the New Yorker, where he was briefly a staff writer and, for decades, a regular contributor.

John Hoyer Updike was born in Shillington, a suburb of Reading, Pa., on March 18, 1932. He was a gawky, sickly child who had a stammer, asthma and psoriasis, which he describes in meticulous detail in Self-Consciousness. Through high school, he was more interested in drawing and painting than in writing. He attended Harvard University, where he was a cartoonist for the Harvard Lampoon. He also took creative-writing classes and wrote short stories, light verse and essays. By the time he graduated, summa cum laude, he had decided to be a professional writer.

He married Mary Pennington in 1953. The marriage ended in divorce in 1976. A year later, he married Martha Ruggles Bernhard. Survivors include his wife and three stepchildren; four children from his first marriage; and several grandchildren.

In 2004, he said he was ready to slow his pace, but that he would not stop writing. "Writing makes you more human," he said.



The Poorhouse Fair, 1959

Rabbit, Run, 1960

The Centaur, 1963

Of the Farm, 1965

Couples, 1968

Bech, a Book, 1970

Rabbit, Redux, 1971

A Month of Sundays, 1975

Marry Me, 1977

The Coup, 1978

Rabbit is Rich, 1981

Bech is Back, 1982

The Witches of Eastwick, 1984

Roger's Version, 1986

S., 1988

Rabbit At Rest, 1990

Memories of the Ford Administration, 1992

Brazil, 1994

In the Beauty of the Lilies, 1996

Toward the End of Time, 1997

Bech At Bay, 1998

Gertrude and Claudius, 2000

Seek My Face, 2002

Villages, 2004

Terrorist, 2006

The Widows of Eastwick, 2008

Short Stories

"The Same Door," 1959

"A&P;," 1961

"Pigeon Feathers," 1962

"The Music School," 1966

"Museums And Women," 1972

"Problems," 1979

"Trust Me," 1987

"The Afterlife," 1994

"My Father's Tears and Other Stories," 2009


"Ex-Basketball Player," 1957

"Telephone Poles," 1963

"Tossing and Turning," 1977

"Facing Nature," 1985

Collected Poems: 1953-1993, 1993

Americana: and Other Poems, 2001


Assorted Prose, 1965

Self-Consciousness, 1989

Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf, 1996

Still Looking: Essays on American Art, 2005

Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism, 2007

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