Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike R.I.P.

Writer John Updike passed on January 27 at the age of 76. The cause was cancer.

John Updike was born on March 18, 1932 in Reading, Pennsylvania. He grew up in Shillington, Pennsylvania. His father, Wesley Updike, was a junior high math teacher. His mother Linda Hoyer Updike later wrote fiction for The New Yorker and other magazines. When Updike was thirteen years old his family moved to an 80 acre farm near Plowville, Pennsylvania. As a youngster he read voraciously and wanted to grow up to either be a magazine cartoonist or an animator for the Walt Disney studio. While growing up he was a copyboy for The Reading Eagle, for which he wrote a few articles.

Updike attended Harvard College on a scholarship, where he wrote for and edited The Harvard Lampoon. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in English, then attended the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in Oxford on a Knox Fellowship. It was that same year, 1954, that Updike made his first sale, a short story to The New Yorker. Upon his return to the United States, Updike started writing "Talk of the Town" bits for The New Yorker. It was in 1959 that Updike published his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, and his first collection of stories, The Same Door. He had already published collections of poetry.

Nineteen sixty would see the publication of his first novel about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, Rabbit, Run. Angstrom started out as a 26 year old former high school basketball player selling kitchen gadgets. John Updike would write four more novels centred on Rabbit (Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, Rabbit at Rest, and Rabbit Remembered). The novels followed Rabbit as he struggled with the problem of being a middle class American male in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Updike also wrote about a character named Henry Bech. Bech was a Jewish writer who enjoyed the literary high life, even though he was not particularly prolific. He even won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Bech first appeared in the short story collection Bech: a Book and would appear in two more (Bech is Back and Bech at Bay).

Among Updike's other novels were Of the Farm, Couples, The Witches of Eastwick, Memories of the Ford Administration, and Villages. Updike ultimately published nine collections of poetry, fourteen short story collections, and ten nonfiction books on subjects ranging from golf to art.

A few of John Updike's works were adapted for the big screen, including Rabbit, Run, A & P, and The Witches of Eastwick. The telefilms The Music School, Too Far to Go, The Roommate, and Pigeon Feathers were all based on his works.

If John Updike became among the most famous of American writers of his time, it is perhaps because he was so good at making pointed observations about small town life in the United States. He once said in an interview with Life that his subject was "...the American Protestant small-town middle class." He wrote about the American Protestant, small town, middle class with loving attention to detail and not a little humour. His prose itself was very lyrical, so that while writing about the problems of the American middle class at the same time it was as if he was writing poetry. No other writer could capture the middle class quite so well and certainly not so poetically. It was an even greater testament to Updike's talent that he was prolific, writing a novel a year for much of his career. He was a writer matched by only a very few. He will certainly be remembered.

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