Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike

"My mother had dreams of being a writer and I used to see her type in the front room. The front room is also where I would go when I was sick so I would sit there and watch her."

Novelist, short story writer and poet, John Updike was one of America's premier men of letters. As a boy growing up on a farm in Pennsylvania, he suffered from psoriasis and a stammer, ailments that set him apart from his peers. He found solace in writing, and won a scholarship to Harvard, where he edited the Lampoon humor magazine. He sold his first poem and short story to The New Yorker shortly after graduation.

He won early fame with his short stories and his novel The Centaur. With his novel Rabbit, Run (1960) came further acclaim, and Pulitzer Prizes for two of its sequels, Rabbit is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), chronicling the life of a middle class American through the social upheavals of the 1960s and beyond. Rabbit, Run and Couples (1968) both stirred controversy with their forthright depiction of America's changing sexual mores, and established his reputation as a peerless observer of the human complexity behind the facade of ostensibly conventional lives. His fiction, poetry and essays also show a persistent interest in moral and philosophical questions, informed by his lifelong interest in Christian theology.

Over the course of his career, he published over 60 books, including novels, collections of short stories, poetry, drama, essays, memoirs and literary criticism. The Early Stories, 1953-1975, published in 2004, collected the short fiction from the first two decades of his career. As large a volume as it is, it represents only a small part of his vast contribution to American literature. John Updike was one of very few Americans to be honored with both the National Medal of Arts and the National Medal for the Humanities.

I cannot say that Updike is one of my favorite authors, but I have enjoyed some of his short stories (most of the Pigeon Feathers and Music School collections which are included in The Early Stories 1953-1975) and the novels gathered in the Rabbit tetralogy. His memoirs, Self-Consciousness, and his art criticism were excellent as well. I would recommend him to anyone interested in reading about American suburban life in the second half of the twentieth century.

Rabbit Tetralogy by John Updike. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1990.
Self-Consciousness: memoirs by John Updike. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1989.
The Early Stories: 1953-1975 by John Updike. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2003.


candyschultz said...

Updike is definitely not one of my favorite authors but I have never read his stories. I will look some of them up. Thanks.

It is the passing of one of the greats. That generation is dwindling slowly. I am not sure who would make up the next one. Surely McEwan and Rushdie but they are not American.

James said...

Surely Updike was great as a chronicler of small town life in the fifties and sixties. As for the next generation, I would include Richard Powers (Galatea2.0, Gain). Most of the truly great writers of fiction are not American; in addition to the two you named I would include Jose Saramago, Orhan Pamuk and Milan Kundera, but their time may be past as well.

candyschultz said...

Oh yes Saramago. I would not say any of the three are past their time although I don't know how old Kundera is. So far I have found Pamuk unreadable. I don't know Richard Powers. I will have to look him up. Oh the TBR pile is getting high.

James said...

For Orhan Pamuk you might want to try his beautiful literary memoir: Istanbul: Memories and the City. After that you could move on to My Name is Red or The Black Book. Personally, I find Saramago more difficult to read than Pamuk; but both are more than worth the effort.
Powers can be a bit cerebral, but his writing is so intelligent I admire it immensely.

candyschultz said...

I have My Name Is Red. I will try that. I ordered a couple of Powers. I prefer cerebral. In everything. It is so rare to find. Ok I am a snob.