John Updike, 1932-2009


John Updike, the prolific, venerated, and occasionally best-selling author most widely known for his Rabbit Angstrom novels and The Witches of Eastwick, has died of lung cancer at 76. Though his writing often veered into the mildly experimental, and he wrote some very odd poems (including “The Beautiful Bowel Movement“), his bread and butter was lucid prose, heavy on description, equally suitable to fiction, essays, criticism, and magazine pieces, at all of which he was highly successful.

After graduating from Harvard (where he edited the Lampoon), he briefly studied art and made his way as a magazine and short-story writer (his “A&P” is widely anthologized). He gained some attention with his first novel The Poorhouse Fair, but hit big with Rabbit, Run, the alienation epic of former basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, adrift in marriage and suburbia. Updike spooled Angstrom’s story out in three more novels and a novella, which by his own account constitute “a mega-novel… a kind of running report on the state of my hero and his nation.” Rabbit had affairs, hung with hippies and black activists, was successful in business, and died, vacillating all the while between his inherited Calvinist morality and appetites that led him away from it, a theme Updike revisited in several books.

Updike always got big play when he wrote (with apparent enthusiasm) about sex; Couples, which largely examined suburban relations through fornication, was one of his biggest sellers. But Updike also applied his rich sensory vocabulary to objects, landscapes, and people outside the bedroom, which is a large (and perhaps the greater) part of the pleasure of his books. He clearly enjoyed the effects he could get in writing, which is probably why — despite his often exotic taste in topics, from Hamlet to the Centaur myth to Islamic terrorism to Presidential history, and a penchant for big words — he caught on with general readers.

He had two Pulitzer Prizes, two Time covers, one National Book Award, the National Medal of the Arts, a Caldecott Seal for his children’s book A Child’s Calendar, and many other honors, including a popularity not often attained by authors of his ambition and intelligence.