John Hoyer Updike was one of the most gifted writers of the late 1900’s and the early 2000’s; an American author, poet, short story writer, art and literary critic. Updike filled his work with characters who he described as “frequently experiencing personal turmoil and must respond to crises relating to religion, family obligations, and marital infidelity” (Updike), problems faced by many people everyday, problems that are usually not the main focus of a literary piece.
This made his books relatable and also open for criticism of the perhaps “boring nature” of his themes. He is one of only three writers to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction more than once. Two books from the “Rabbit” series, Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest were awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Updike was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on March 18, 1932, the only child of Linda Grace Hoyer and Wesley Russell Updike.
His father was a high school math teacher and his mother was also an aspiring author. Updike’s mother had literary dreams of her own; one of the reasons Updike decided to become an author was due to his mother’s attempts at becoming published. In high school, he worked on the school newspaper and did very well in his academics. He graduated from his high school as co-valedictorian and class president, as well as with a full scholarship to Harvard University. At Harvard, he majored in English, although he much more enjoyed spending developing his skills as a graphic artist and cartoonist for the Lampoon, the college’s satire magazine. During his junior year in college, Updike married Mary Pennington.
After they both graduated, they moved to London together, due to him winning a fellowship to study at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. During his time at art school, his first child, Elizabeth, was born. Updike and Mary had three more children together: David, Michael, and Miranda; however the marriage didn’t end up working the way they wanted it to and the couple divorced in 1974. In 1977, Updike married Martha Ruggles Bernhard with whom he spent the rest of this life with in Massachusetts. The amazingly gifted writer, whose works placed him among the highest ranks of American authors, died on January 27, 2009 in Danvers, Massachusetts at the age of seventy-six.
The cause of his death was lung cancer according to his publisher. Updike began his writing career when he published his first story “Friends from Philadelphia,” in the New Yorker, fulfilling a major dream of his. Updike returned to the United States in 1955 and took a job as a staff writer at the New Yorker, but after two years of writing many “Talk of the Town” columns, he left New York to devote himself full time to his own writing up in New England. Updike’s reputation rests on all of his works, his most famous works and what got him recognized as a major American author is his Rabbit series. The first novel Rabbit Run chronicles the life of Harry Angstrom, a typical American with typical American problems. The novels go in chronological order, from him being the youngest in the first book, all the way until his death in the fourth book. The second novel in the series, Rabbit Redux (1971), takes up the same story ten years later.
Updike continues Rabbit’s story against a background of current events. The novel begins on the day of the moon landing. This amazing American achievement is juxtaposed against feelings towards race riots, antiwar protests, and the drug culture of the 1960’s. This is in coordination with his novels being about American people as they are. He takes his character, a “real life american” and puts him in “real life america.” The next book in the series is Rabbit Is Rich (1981). The last book of the series, Rabbit at Rest (1990) brings Rabbit into the 1980s to confront even more problems: acquired immune deficiency syndrome, cocaine addiction, and terrorism.
In these four novels, we realize that this life of Harry has become the story of our common American experience recorded over three decades. The life of a regular American through the lens of the time period and the author. In a lengthy interview Updike gave to Zvonimir Radeljkovi? and Omer Hadžiselimovi?, professors of English who specialized in American literature at the University of Sarajevo, he discussed his writing process and the thought that goes behind his novels and their topics and characters. He talks about problems he faces when writing a novel, such as keeping the reader’s attention, something he has gotten criticized about numerous times. Another problem he faces is trying “to find a subject of sufficient importance and universality to be able to write a great book about it.” Updike likes to write about mundane, everyday themes, such as divorce, marriage, etc.
Being an author that writes about such topics, things that people don’t find eye catching or surprising and enthralling enough, has its ups and downs. Updike states, “Divorce seems almost to be part of the American life cycle as presently constituted, and as such is a little less traumatic, although it is traumatic still, and no one has described it more traumatically than myself. I wouldn’t minimize the trauma involved.
But—from where I sit and try to write—my wish, especially at this stage in my writing career, having written amply about wives, children, marriages, is to find other subjects without falsifying the texture of life as it comes to me.” Updike believes that life and novels are not strictly aligned. There are key differences between characters in a book and actual people. One of the goals that Updike has taken it upon himself to do is to take regular life and all the regular life things that come with it such as eating, caring about health issues and economic issues, and write a novel out of it. He has described his style as an attempt “to give the mundane its beautiful due”.