19 minute read

John (Hoyer) Updike Biography

John Updike comments:

Nationality: American. Born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, 18 March 1932. Educated at public schools in Shillington; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, A.B. (summa cum laude) 1954; Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts, Oxford (Knox fellow), 1954-55.Married 1) Mary Pennington in 1953 (marriage dissolved), two daughters and two sons; 2) Martha Bernhard in 1977. Career: staff reporter, New Yorker, 1955-57. Recipient: Guggenheim fellowship, 1959; Rosenthal award, 1960; National Book award, 1964; O. Henry award, 1966; Foreign Book prize (France), 1966; New England Poetry Club Golden Rose, 1979, MacDowell medal, 1981; Pulitzer prize, 1982, 1991; American Book award, 1982; National Book Critics Circle award, for fiction, 1982, 1991, for criticism, 1982; Union League Club Abraham Lincoln award, 1982; National Arts Club Medal of Honor, 1984; PEN/Faulkner award, 1988; National Medal of the Arts, 1989; Pulitzer Prize, 1991; National Book Critics Circle award, 1991; Harvard Arts medal, 1998; National Book Foundation award, Lifetime Achievement, 1998. Member, American Academy, 1976.



The Poorhouse Fair. New York, Knopf, and London, Gollancz, 1959

Rabbit, Run. New York, Knopf, 1960; London, Deutsch, 1961

The Centaur. New York, Knopf, and London, Deutsch, 1963.

Of the Farm. New York, Knopf, 1965.

Couples. New York, Knopf, and London, Deutsch, 1968

Rabbit Redux. New York, Knopf, 1971; London, Deutsch, 1972.

A Month of Sundays. New York, Knopf, and London, Deutsch, 1975.

Marry Me: A Romance. New York, Knopf, 1976; London, Deutsch, 1977.

The Coup. New York, Knopf, 1978; London, Deutsch, 1979.

Rabbit Is Rich. New York, Knopf, 1981; London, Deutsch, 1982.

The Witches of Eastwick. New York, Knopf, and London, Deutsch, 1984.

Roger's Version. New York, Knopf, and London, Deutsch, 1986.

S. New York, Knopf, and London Deutsch, 1988.

Rabbit at Rest. New York, Knopf, 1990; London, Deutsch, 1991.

Memories of the Ford Administration. New York, Knopf, 1992;London, Hamish Hamilton, 1993.

Brazil. New York, Knopf, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1994.

Rabbit Angstrom: A Tetralogy. New York, Knopf, 1995.

In the Beauty of the Lilies. New York, Knopf, 1996.

Toward the End of Time. New York, Knopf, 1997.

Bech at Bay: A Quasi-novel. New York, Knopf, 1998.

Gertrude and Claudius. New York, Knopf, 2000.

Short Stories

The Same Door. New York, Knopf, 1959; London, Deutsch, 1962.

Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories. New York, Knopf, and London, Deutsch, 1962.

Olinger Stories: A Selection. New York, Knopf, 1964.

The Music School. New York, Knopf, 1966; London, Deutsch, 1967.

Penguin Modern Stories 2, with others. London, Penguin, 1969.

Bech: A Book. New York, Knopf, and London, Deutsch, 1970.

The Indian. Marvin, South Dakota, Blue Cloud Abbey, 1971.

Museums and Women and Other Stories. New York, Knopf, 1972;London, Deutsch, 1973.

Warm Wine: An Idyll. New York, Albondocani Press, 1973.

Couples: A Short Story. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Halty Ferguson, 1976.

Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories. New York, Knopf, 1979; London, Deutsch, 1980.

Three Illuminations in the Life of an American Author. New York, Targ, 1979.

The Chaste Planet. Worcester, Massachusetts, Metacom Press, 1980.

The Beloved. Nothridge, California, Lord John Press, 1982.

Bech Is Back. New York, Knopf, 1982; London, Deutsch, 1982.

Getting Older. Helsinki, Eurographica, 1985.

Going Abroad. Helsinki, Eurographica, 1987

Trust Me. New York, Knopf, and London, Deutsch, 1987.

The Afterlife. Leamington, Warwickshire, Sixth Chamber Press, 1987.

Baby's First Step. Huntington Beach, California, Cahill, 1993.

The Afterlife and Other Stories. New York, Knopf, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1994.

Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel, "Rabbit Remembered." New York, Knopf, 2000.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Morocco," in Atlantic (Boston), November 1979.


Three Tests from Early Ipswich: A Pageant. Ipswich, Massachusetts, 17th Century Day Committee, 1968.

Buchanan Dying. New York, Knopf, and London, Deutsch, 1974.


The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures. New York, Harper, 1958; as Hoping for a Hoopoe, London, Gollancz, 1959.

Telephone Poles and Other Poems. New York, Knopf, and London, Deutsch, 1963.

Verse. New York, Fawcett, 1965.

Dogs Death. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Lowell House, 1965.

The Angels. Pensacola, Florida, King and Queen Press, 1968.

Bath after Sailing. Monroe, Connecticut, Pendulum Press, 1968.

Midpoint and Other Poems. New York, Knopf, and London, Deutsch, 1969.

Seventy Poems. London, Penguin, 1972.

Six Poems. New York, Aloe, 1973.

Query. New York, Albondocani Press, 1974.

Cunts (Upon Receiving the Swingers Life Club Memberships Solicitation). New York, Hallman, 1974.

Tossing and Turning. New York, Knopf, and London, Deutsch, 1977.

Sixteen Sonnets. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Halty Ferguson, 1979.

An Oddly Lovely Day Alone. Richmond, Virginia, Waves Press, 1979.

Five Poems. Cleveland Bits Press, 1980.

Spring Trio. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Palaemon Press, 1982.

Jester's Dozen. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1984.

Facing Nature. New York, Knopf, 1985; London, Deutsch, 1986.

A Pear Like a Potato. Northridge, California, Santa Susana Press, 1986.

Two Sonnets. Austin, Texas, Wind River Press, 1987.

Collected Poems, 1953-1993. New York, Knopf, and London, HamishHamilton, 1993.


The Magic Flute (for children), with Warren Chappell. New York, Knopf, 1962.

The Ring (for children), with Warren Chappell. New York, Knopf, 1964.

Assorted Prose. New York, Knopf, and London, Deutsch, 1965.

A Child's Calendar. New York, Knopf, 1965.

On Meeting Authors. Newburyport, Massachusetts, Wickford Press, 1968.

Bottom's Dream: Adapted from William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Nights Dream" (for children). New York, Knopf, 1969.

A Good Place. New York, Aloe, 1973. Picked-Up Pieces. New York, Knopf, 1975; London, Deutsch, 1976.

Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1977.

Talk from the Fifties. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1979.

Ego and Art in Walt Whitman. New York, Targ, 1980.

People One Knows: Interviews with Insufficiently Famous Americans. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1980.

Invasion of the Book Envelopes. Concord, New Hampshire, Ewert, 1981.

Hawthorne's Creed. New York, Targ, 1981.

Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism. New York, Knopf, 1983;London, Deutsch, 1984.

Confessions of a Wild Bore (essay). Newton, Iowa, TamazunchalePress, 1984.

Emersonianism (lecture). Cleveland, Bits Press, 1984.

The Art of Adding and the Art of Taking Away: Selections from John Updike's Manuscripts, edited by Elizabeth A. Falsey. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard College Library, 1987.

Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. New York, Knopf, and London, Deutsch, 1989.

Just Looking: Essays on Art. New York, Knopf, and London, Deutsch, 1989.

Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism. New York, Knopf, and London, Deutsch, 1991.

Concerts at Castle Hill. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1993.

The Twelve Terrors of Christmas. New York, Gotham Book Mart, 1993.

Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf, drawings by Paul Szep. New York, Knopf, 1996.

A & P, edited by Wendy Perkins. Fort Worth, Texas, Harcourt BraceCollege Publishers, 1998.

More Matter: Essays and Criticism. New York, Knopf, 1999.

Editor, Pens and Needles, by David Levine. Boston, Gambit, 1970.

Editor, with Shannon Ravenel, The Best American Short Stories 1984. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1984; as The Year's Best American Short Stories, London, Severn House, 1985.

Editor, A Century of Arts and Letters: The History of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters as Told, Decade by Decade, by Eleven Members. New York, Columbia University Press, 1998.



John Updike: A Bibliography by C. Clarke Taylor, Kent, Ohio, Kent State University Press, 1968; An Annotated Bibliography of John Updike Criticism 1967-1973, and a Checklist of His Works by Michael A. Olivas, New York, Garland, 1975; John Updike: A Comprehensive Bibliography with Selected Annotations by Elizabeth A. Gearhart, Norwood, Pennsylvania, Norwood Editions, 1978; John Updike: A Bibliography, 1967-1993, compiled by Jack De Bellis, foreword by John Updike, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1994.

Manuscript Collection:

Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Critical Studies:

interviews in Life (New York), 4 November 1966, Paris Review, Winter 1968, and New York Times Book Review, 10 April 1977; John Updike by Charles T. Samuels, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1969; The Elements of John Updike by Alice and Kenneth Hamilton, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1970; Pastoral and Anti-Pastoral Elements in John Updike's Fiction by Larry E. Taylor, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1971; John Updike: Yea Sayings by Rachael C. Burchard, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1971; John Updike by Robert Detweiler, New York, Twayne, 1972, revised edition, 1984; Rainstorms and Fire: Ritual in the Novels of John Updike by Edward P. Vargo, Port Washington, New York, Kennikat Press, 1973; Fighters and Lovers: Theme in the Novels of John Updike by Joyce B. Markle, New York, New York University Press, 1973; John Updike: A Collection of Critical Essays by Suzanne H. Uphaus, New York, Ungar, 1980; The Other John Updike: Poems/Short Stories/Prose/Play, 1981, and John Updike's Novels, 1984, both by Donald J. Greiner, Athens, Ohio University Press; John Updike's Images of America by Philip H. Vaughan, Reseda, California, Mojave, 1981; Married Men and Magic Tricks: John Updike's Erotic Heroes by Elizabeth Tallent, Berkeley, California, Creative Arts, 1982; Critical Essays on John Updike edited by William R. Macnaughton, Boston, Hall, 1982; John Updike by Judie Newman, London, Macmillan, 1988; Conversations with John Updike edited by James Plath, Jackson, Mississippi, University Press, 1994; John Updike Revisited by James A. Schiff, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1998; John Updike and Religion: The Sense of the Sacred and The Motions of Grace, edited by James Yerkes, Grand Rapids, Michigan, W.B. Eerdmans, 1999; The John Updike Encyclopedia by Jack De Bellis, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 2000; John Updike, edited by Harold Bloom, Philadelphia, Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.

In over thirty years as a professional writer I have tried to give my experience of life imaginative embodiment in novels, short stories, and poems. Art is, as I understand it, reality passed through a human mind, and this secondary creation remains for me unfailingly interesting and challenging.

* * *

For over forty years, Updike has been regularly producing his novels about small town and suburban middle class Americans—in short, ordinary people—and their messy domestic lives. He writes with relish, caring, and precision of their marriages and remarriages, sexual trysts, and their struggles to make sense of themselves. Births, deaths, infidelities, and failures fill his pages. Violence, blessedly, is rarely present. Most often, the books chart the way his protagonists adjust their dreams to more nearly match reality. What mark, he wonders, do such people's lives finally make? He is adept at describing the day-to-day existence of suburban bridge players who cultivate their roses, trim their hedges, feed their faces, tidy their homes, maintain contact with children and grandchildren and "socioeconomically identical acquaintances," and travel to Florida and to Maine in suitable seasons, to paraphrase Updike. He also captures specific time periods in our history: the 1950s, the cold war, the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras, and Truman's America. Allegorically, the Nixon term in the White House lies behind The Coup, a novel set in Africa. Buchanan's aborted presidency and the Ford administration have also been treated. He adopts various voices, writing from a woman's perspective as well as a man's; using present tense to tell some tales; writing at once from the perspective of a Protestant, ex-basketball star, Harry Angstrom, living in rural Pennsylvania, while at other times employing the persona of his alter-ego, Henry Bech, unmarried, childless, and Jewish, suffering from writer's block and settled in Manhattan.

In his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, he took an old people's home as his subject and experimented with the form of the anti-novel. At the time, readers were startled that such a young man would write so knowingly about the old people, his grandfather's generation. In a sense, his career has come full circle. In 1997 he published Toward the End of Time, where he assumes the voice of Ben Turnbull, a sixty-six year old, twice married, retired investment counselor, living in Massachusetts in the year 2020. America has been reduced to a commonwealth, complete with new currency, brought about by a Sino-American Conflict that dissolved the government, collapsed the national economy, decimated the population, and resulted in social chaos. Only the criminal elements have the resources left to rule. Ben's journal recounts the happenings of a difficult year when he is preoccupied by sex and aging, only to find he has prostate cancer. He suffers the indignities and pain of surgery and the consequent incontinence and impotence that follow. He revisits his past, his life with his first wife, Perdita, and with his second wife, the ravishing, strong-willed, dynamic, Gloria, who is determined to have him kill the deer that are ruining her roses, yew bushes, and the euonymus hedge over by the driveway. There are blank spots in his thinking and his journal captures his daily life, often leaving the reader uncertain whether the facts he recounts are true or imagined. In typical Updike form, the novelist fleshes out Ben's mind, recounting his fascination with recent scientific theories about parallel universes that have branched from this moment of measurement. Often he seems to enter one or another of these other "many worlds." Ben also ruminates on Neanderthal man, the Biblical past, St. Paul and his crisis theology, his own personal ancestry, and looks forward into future time.

True also to form, Updike offers an unblinking account of the processes of aging and Ben's numerous infirmities, capturing his fears and joys, the toll age exacts and the hopes it awakens. Ben insists that his wife is worried about whether she or he will die first, priming him with vitamins by day while by night, dreaming of his death. Later he marvels at her loyalty and bravery in the face of his illness, at the same time he refuses to minimize his discomforts—his "rumbling, spurting bowels" and his diapers—or her level-headed, self-centered and self-protective ways. His olfactory sense is heightened—all stinks and messes are minutely described. He fears for the sanity of his mind and wonders how much he has forgotten. In one of his fantasies that seems to be real, he purchases the favors of a young prostitute, relishing the numerous ways he can take her, the cunnilingus and fellatio they can practice, his desire to slap her too decisively in the midst of sex, the pleasure he takes in talking crudely to her, addressing her as his "bitch," "whore," and "working-class doxy," but bringing her into his house as his so-called "wife" during a period of time when he claims that his wife has disappeared and he seems uncertain whether he has shot her in his attempt to get rid of the deer, or whether she is simply misplaced or has left him.

This novel and his latest book, Gertrude and Claudius, compare with other "last works" of such great writers as Shakespeare or Yeats in that the vision shifts, mellows, while the writer employs new forms and an altered style to reflect the wisdom and insights that come with age. Shakespeare completed his life with three "last plays," Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest. In each, he abandons the form of the tragedy, replacing it with romance. In The Winter's Tale the central action of an entire tragedy is compressed into the opening act. Later, sixteen years passes, a child grows up, a statue comes to life, and Leontes, the jealous king of the first act regains a wife. In later poetry of Yeats, the poet continues his celebration of the world of artifice and Byzantium, but acknowledges in "The Circus Animals' Desertion" that all inspiration starts in "the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart." Updike also relies more on romance and myth in his latest novels while at the same time reveling in the powers of the body and sex and probing philosophical questions about the nature of life, time, and religion. Even as the physical body visibly decays, the protagonist's hunger is not only undiminished, it is heightened, and the spirit of experimentation and a craving for plenty is abundant. Many of the passages explicitly describing sex recall the excesses of sexuality expressed in "The Wild Old Wicked Man" and other late poems by Yeats. The bizarre grotesqueries that also figure in Toward the End of Time have an oddness akin to the monstrous scene in Cymbeline where Imogen cradles the headless body of Cloten in her arms, mistaking him for her beloved Posthumous. The manner in which Updike condenses material that earlier had engrossed him, and lingers on descriptive passages of a bucolic texture while taking extreme liberties with time also make the comparison apt.

Updike has often drawn on myth and fairy tales in his novels and reworked the stories of others. The St. Stephen story figures prominently in The Poorhouse Fair and reappears in Toward the End of Time. The Centaur uses the Chiron version of the Hercules myth, alternately telling the tale of George Caldwell, a teacher and the Chiron figure, and the Centaur. The subject of Rabbit, Run, the first novel in his tetralogy, is based on Beatrix Potter's Tale of Peter Rabbit. In The Witches of Eastwick, Updike looks at the lives of three modern day divorcées, seeing the similarities between their predicament and those of witches and their covens. Darryl Van Horne is the devil in this work. Therefore, it is not unexpected to find him theorizing in Toward the End of Time that several worlds and different time periods may exist simultaneously and offering glimpses into these alternate worlds or earlier times.

His habit of rewriting stories from the perspectives of different characters is also one of his trademarks. He has written a trilogy of novels based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's, The Scarlet Letter. In Updike's case, A Month of Sundays tells the story of the adulterous minister, Marshfield, from his point of view and offers a parody of the triangle in Hawthorne's tale; in Roger's Version we are given the betrayed husband's perspective and Updike explores the theme of the unknowability of God; S. completes the trilogy providing the view of the adulterous woman, Hawthorne's Hester Prynne.

His decision to write a novel about the lives of Gertrude, Claudius, Hamlet Senior, and Hamlet immediately prior to where the action opens in Shakespeare's play is almost expected. I should hasten to mention that the central figures appear under different names in different parts of the book, a topic that bears further comment later.

Updike has long marveled at the talents of James Joyce, understanding his need to write his own variant of Shakespeare's story and the Hamlet material in his masterwork, Ulysses. Joyce uses Stephen to spin his erudite explanation of Shakespeare's relationship to his creations, both the real children he bore in life and those he invented in his writings. He is familiar with Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, also based on the Hamlet legend. Updike, ever the researcher and inventive in the interests of his art, fashions his novel in three parts and presents Gertrude's story. In Part I of his book, he turns to a late-twelfth-century Latin account of the ancient Hamlet legend in Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus that was first printed in Paris in 1514. In Part II, he uses alternate spellings of the central figures' names, drawing on another version of the Saxo tale, François de Belleforest's, Histoires tragiques, that appeared prior to Shakespeare's Hamlet and was republished in English in 1608, probably as a result of the popularity of Shakespeare's play. In Part III, he concludes his novel, drawing on the so-called Ur-Hamlet, generally attributed to Thomas Kyd that was acquired by Shakespeare's company and served as the source of his play. Updike achieves a marvelous sense of ancient history and times, largely by dint of employing the ancient spellings of the names of the central characters and by imitating the style of an old Danish legend in his writing. For example, Gerutha is Gertrude in Part I, Horwendil is Hamlet Senior, Feng is Claudius, and Corambis is Polonius, coming originally from a German variant of the ancient tale. Hamlet first emerges as Amleth. He recounts the tale whereby Rorik (Gertrude's father) pledges Gerutha to Horwendil, co-governor of Jutland, who has slain the tormentor of Denmark's coast, the feared King Koll of Norway, giving him the funeral he required while butchering the slain man's sister, as his brother, Feng (read Claudius) is fighting on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor and whoring in far away lands. Updike takes sheer delight in writing this ancient saga with a thoroughly contemporary twist, and his stylistic touches show him at his best.

The book also seems to be a vehicle to answer some of his feminist critics who have faulted Updike for the way he treats women. He has been accused of constantly treating women as broads, air-heads, often amoral. Some feminists loathed The Witches of Eastwick, resenting Updike's treatment of the three female women, their philosophies of life, their forays into lesbianism, their fascination with and seduction by Horne. In Gertrude and Claudius Hamlet is depicted as a cold, unloving son and Gertrude's affair with Claudius is traced to her ambivalence towards Hamlet Senior, a man whom she was obliged to marry by her father after he had conquered the King Koll.

Updike's style in this book is beguiling: he adopts the tone of an earlier age, proffering the story from Gertrude's perspective and capturing her domesticity, her boredom, her yearning to be truly needed by her husband and lord, not simply taken by him through his authority and used to produce heirs. His treatment of Gertrude's sense of guilt once she has taken her husband's brother to her bed and her desire to remain ignorant of Claudius's ultimate crime while harboring the truth just below her levels of consciousness is convincing. His grasp of Polonius, Hamlet, and Ophelia also seems fresh. Given how much has been written about this play of Shakespeare's, it is hard to imagine that a writer could offer another plausible reading, appropriate to the late twentieth century. Updike has managed to do this in a manner that will delight the reader.

One of the virtues of Updike's talent is that so many of his books are memorable. The tetralogy of books that take Harry Angstrom as their protagonist, namely Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest, assured Updike his place as one of America's best contemporary writers. He aspires to a quality of writing he finds in Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Henry Green, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth and it is fair to say that he has achieved that goal. The freshness of his characters, the truth of his vision, and his ability to describe exactly events, places, people, and feelings are all evident in this very American collection. In Couples, his wildly popular novel of wife-swapping among suburbanites, he ensured that his audience would remember him as one of the very finest describers of sex, belonging alongside Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Henry Miller, and Jack Kerouac, writers whom he invokes when he discusses how sex is depicted in this pornographic age of ours. Of course, D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce are the writers that first convinced him that sex must assume a central place in any writing that purports to capture life. His books on Bech, too, show us a writer in his prime, and they have the virtue of permitting him to write in the character and mind of someone like himself, although very dissimilar in certain ways, rather than constraining him to have to imagine the consciousness of a less well-educated, less privileged Middle-American. Finally, his recent writing, although continuing in veins he opened earlier, continues to surprise and please their reader.

—Carol Simpson Stern

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Theodosius I to David Watmough Biography - David Watmough comments: