John Updike was born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, in 1932. His mother was a writer, and she encouraged her precocious son’s writing. Updike attended Harvard University, where he was editor of the Harvard Lampoon, and did postgraduate work at Oxford. In the mid-1950s, Updike was hired by the New Yorker as a staff writer. The New Yorker was then, as now, a prestigious venue for new short fiction, and Updike’s work fit in well with the magazine’s urbane, witty style. “A&P,” published in 1961 and appearing in the 1962 collection Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, is in many ways a prototypical New Yorker story: a short, realistic, first-person narrative written in a distinctive voice and focusing on character study. The master of such fiction and Updike’s acknowledged early role model was J. D. Salinger, whom Updike has praised for his ability to capture life in all its messy shapelessness. Updike has long since moved out of Salinger’s shadow, however, and is renowned for his polished, descriptive prose that captures both the natural world and the cultural environment of our times. As Updike puts it, his short fiction is intended to “give the mundane its beautiful due.”
Updike has been a consistently popular and highly prolific author since 1959, when he published both his first collection of short fiction, The Same Door, and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair. Since then, he has continued to produce novels, short stories, poems, memoirs, essays, art criticism, and book reviews at an impressive clip. Updike has the unusual distinction of combining serious critical acclaim (although this has not been universal) and scholarly appreciation with a steady popularity with the reading public. Among his best-known novels are Couples (1968); The Witches of Eastwick (1984), which was made into a popular movie; and the “Rabbit” series: Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990). Much of Updike’s fiction focuses on upper-middle-class suburban life, usually in New England or the Northeast, and often centers on a marriage under stress owing to the affairs of one or both of the partners. Updike has described his primary fictional concern as “the American small town, Protestant middle class”; the “Rabbit” series perfectly highlights this concern, as it traces the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a suburban Pennsylvanian, from adolescence though old age, one decade at a time. The series has been celebrated for its evocation of America in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Updike’s work has been shaped by his Christian faith and especially by the work of the Protestant theologians Karl Barth and Søren Kierkegaard.
Although he has had one of the most successful careers of any American writers, Updike has always had his detractors and enjoyed his fair share of controversy. He has feuded publicly with the famously touchy essayist and novelist Gore Vidal, as well as with the novelist John Gardner, who described Updike’s work as “bourgeois-pornographic” fiction that glorifies adultery. Similar criticism has often been aimed at Updike’s more sexually explicit work, particularly Couples, and even the early story “A&P,” in which Updike’s interest in the dynamics of sexual attraction is clear. More recently, Updike’s negative review of a novel by Tom Wolfe drew a withering reply from Wolfe, and the subsequent war of words, waged in the pages and letters columns of several magazines, was gleefully followed by the literary world. Still producing novels, stories, and criticism regularly, Updike remains one of the most visible figures in American letters, a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize, and the rare writer who can combine literary merit with popular success.