John Updike
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Literary Arts

John Updike

Past Event: Wednesday, November 16, 1988

Note: Seattle Arts & Lectures does not possess an electronic version of the bio done for John Updike’s first appearance with SAL, November 16, 1988. What follows is the material created for his November 12, 2008 engagement and thereafter.

Sex, art and religion, Updike famously declared in an autobiographical essay, remain the three secrets of the human experience. With bold language and imagination he has explored them all in his writing, which includes more than sixty books of poetry, criticism, essay, and prose. He is known in his essays and criticism for his sharp eye and unflinching opinion; for unambiguous lines; and for reviews that actually review, not just summarize. In his fiction he has been bold, exposing the inner workings of middle class life in a way that cracked the careful veneer of a certain kind of America.

The Los Angeles Times called Updike “an…imposing stance on the literary landscape,” as he’s earned “virtually every American literary award, repeated bestsellerdom and the near-royal status of the American author-celebrity.” His accolades include the National Book Award, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Arts Club Medal of Honor, the National Medal for the Humanities, and two Pulitzer Prizes: in 1982 for Rabbit is Rich and in 1990 for Rabbit at Rest.

Perhaps his most famous works, the four Rabbit novels star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a twenty-six year old former high school basketball star in the shadow of his glory days. Updike was twenty-seven when he began writing Rabbit Run with a soft pencil. At the time, he says in the introduction to the four-volume set, published in 1995, that he had “no thought of a sequel.” He wrote furiously in the present tense for nine months, typed the draft and sent it off to Knopf and, after a few weeks, heard it had been well received. Every ten years for the next three decades, he produced another novel in the series.

“The religious faith that a useful truth will be imprinted by a perfect artistic submission underlies these Rabbit novels,” he later wrote. Indeed, with these books and the work between and after, Updike has pushed against and into America’s Puritan sensibilities, his own Lutheran upbringing, and the current events of his time. With each addition to the series, Rabbit, Updike, and America grew up together.

Born in 1932 in Reading and raised in Shillington, Pennsylvania, Updike was the only child of middle class parents—his father a high school teacher, his mother a writer. He earned his B.A. in English from Harvard University in 1954, the same year he met and married his first wife, Mary E. Pennington, and sold a poem and a short story to The New Yorker. The following year, the Updikes traveled to England where he studied at Oxford and met Katherine and E.B. White. The Whites encouraged Updike to take a job at The New Yorker upon his return to the States, which he did, beginning his career-long relationship with the magazine. Two years later, he moved with his wife and newborn son to Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he sat down to write Rabbit Run. After another two children, Updike divorced in 1974, moved to Boston, and took a position at Boston University. He married Martha Ruggles Bernhard three years later and settled with her and her three children in Massachusetts, where the couple still resides.

From Updike’s obituary in The New Yorker, 2009
In John Updike’s long and prolific life as a writer, he gifted and challenged readers with broadly ranging ideas about existential angst; the role of paradox in our lives; electromagnetic fields and quantum theory; domestic fierceness; the sexual proclivities, experimentations, and frustrations of young and old, female and male; witchcraft; social existence as sacrifice; the human soul, longing for goodness but driven by confused passions; what he terms “our heart’s stubborn amoral quest for something once called grace;” and the staggering beauty of nature and of art.

In 1987, Updike said “…a mark of a great writer, as Walt Whitman observed, is that a nation absorbs him, or her, in its self-knowledge and self-image. The confident writer assumes that his own sensibility is a sufficient index of general conditions, and that the question ‘Who am I?,’ earnestly enough explored, inevitably illuminates the question ‘Who are we?’”

Updike certainly focused his writing on who we Americans are. “The whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled America” as Updike termed it, is a focus of the four Rabbit novels, from the essential nature of the characters and the landscape they inhabit, to the formal structure of the writing: “The present tense was a happy discovery for me,” Updike remarked. “In the present tense, thought and act exist on one shimmering plane; the writer and reader move in a purged space, on the travelling edge of the future, without vantage for reflection or regret or a seeking of proportion.”

As he presented the American character and its shifts and struggles over the years, he also was dedicated to showing ordinary life, its daily rhythms, rituals, and objects, as being worth writing about, “to giving the mundane its beautiful due.” “The world,” he said, “wants describing, the world wants to be observed and hymned and there’s a kind of hymning undercurrent that I feel in my work. With writing, or generally with art, we show the world our admiration and express our thanks that we are here. …it’s my intention to describe the world as the Psalmists did.”

In his lyrical particularity, his fascination with the mundane so lovingly and exquisitely described by Updike, the shimmering presence of faith is present. Indeed, “Fiction,” he said, “is rooted in an act of faith: a presumption of an inherent significance in human activity, that makes daily life worth dramatizing and particularizing. There is even a shadowy cosmic presumption that the universe—the totality of what is, which includes our subjective impressions as well as objective data—composes a narrative and contains a poem, which our own stories and poems echo.” For Updike, fiction was meant “to give us the human soul with its shadows, its Rembrandtesque blacks and whites, its chiaroscuro; this sense of ourselves, as creatures caught in the light, whose decisions and recognitions have a majestic significance.”

The visually rich language used to depict people, places, and things throughout John Updike’s stories, novels, and poems, extended seamlessly to his writing about visual art. As a boy, Updike loved comics and his main passion was drawing, a love that prompted him, after he graduated from Harvard, to attend the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts at Oxford. In the 1950s, artists found their way into Updike’s poetry, such as Ad Reinhardt, Frank, Stella, and Clyfford Still in: Gradations of Black: Third Floor, Whitney Museum. He wrote numerous critical essays on American artists such as John Singleton Copley, Saul Bellow, Richard Serra, and Edward Hopper, and on European artists including Gustav Klimt, Max Beckmann, and Jan Vermeer.

From “Museums and Women,” The New Yorker, November 18, 1967
She was the friend of a friend, and she and I, having had lunch with the mutual friend, bade him goodbye and, both being loose in New York for the afternoon, went to a museum together. It was a new one, recently completed after the plan of a recently dead American wizard. It was shaped like a truncated top and its floor was a continuous spiral around an overweening core of empty vertical space. From the leaning, shining walls immense rectangles of torn and spattered canvas projected on thin arms of bent pipe. Menacing magnifications of textural accidents, they needed to be viewed at a distance greater than the architecture afforded. The floor width was limited by a rather slender and low concrete guard wall that more invited than discouraged a plunge into the cathedral depths below. Too reverent to scoff and too dizzy to judge, my unexpected companion and I dutifully unwound our way down the exitless ramp, locked in a wizard’s spell. Suddenly, as she lurched backward from one especially explosive painting, her high heels were tricked by the slope, and she fell against me and squeezed my arm. Ferocious gumbos splashed on one side of us; the siren chasm called on the other. She righted herself but did not let go of my arm. Pointing my eyes ahead, inhaling the presence of perfume, feeling like a cliff climber whose companion has panicked on the sheerest part of the face, I accommodated my arm to her grip and, thus secured, we carefully descended the remainder of the museum. Not until our feet touched the safety of street level were we released. Our bodies separated and did not touch again.

Excerpt from The Widows of Eastwick (2008)
“How quickly, Alexandra thought, they had slipped back into being a trio, a trinity coming together to form a cone of power. It was not that she liked the other two women better than her leathery, bohemian, long-haired, jeans-clad female friends in Taos—comparatively, Sukie and Jane had narrow, Northeastern horizons—but in their company she felt more powerful, more deeply appreciated, more positively enjoyed. They had known her at the height of her desirability, in a society that, isolated from urban narcissism and yet partaking of the sex-centered excitement of the times, had valued desirability above all else. Compared with Sukie she had not been promiscuous—rather, lazily loyal to her hopeless husband and her long-term lover, the would-be husbandly Joe Marino. Compared with Jane she had been motherly and conventionally observant of traditional decencies. Yet she somehow reigned over the others, as a broader conduit into the subterranean flow of Nature, that dark countercurrent to patriarchal tyranny which witchcraft drew upon. It was chemistry: without her as catalyst, the dangerous, empowering reaction did not occur.”

Selected Work:

The Widows of Eastwick (forthcoming, fall 2008)
Toward the End of Time (1997)
The Afterlife and Other Stories (1994)
Rabbit at Rest (1990)
Bech Is Back (1983)
Problems and Other Stories (1981)
Rabbit is Rich (1981)
Marry Me (1976)
Rabbit Redux (1971)
Bech: A Book (1970)
Couples (1968)
Rabbit, Run (1960)

Americana and Other Poems (2001)
Collected Poems 1953-1993 (1993)
Facing Nature (1985)
Tossing and Turning (1977)
Seventy Poems (1972)
Midpoint and Other Poems (1969)
The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958)

Academy of American Achievement biography
Salon interview
New York Times reviews of and by John Updike
Work for The New York Review of Books
John Updike, a Lyrical Writer of the Middle-Class Man, Dies at 76
A Relentless Updike Mapped America’s Mysteries