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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 praised for his ability to capture life in all its messy shapelessness. Updike soon moved out of Salinger’s shadow, however, and was renowned for his polished, descriptive prose that captured both the natural world and the cultural environment of its times. As Updike put it, his short fiction is intended to “give the mundane its beautiful due.”
Updike was a consistently popular and highly prolific author starting in 1959, when he published both his first collection of short fiction, The Same Door, and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair. After that, he continued to produce novels, short stories, poems, memoirs, essays, art criticism, and book reviews at an impressive clip. Updike had the unusual distinction of combining serious critical acclaim (although not universal) and scholarly appreciation with a steady popularity with the reading public. Among his best-known novels were 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 focused on upper-middle-class suburban life, usually in New England or the Northeast, and often centered on a marriage under stress owing to the affairs of one or both of the partners. Updike was described his primary fictional concern as “the American small town, Protestant middle class”; the “Rabbit” series perfectly highlighted this, as it traced the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a suburban Pennsylvanian, from adolescence though old age, one decade at a time. The series was celebrated for its evocation of America in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Updike’s work was shaped by his Christian faith and especially by the work of the Protestant theologians Karl Barth and Søren Kierkegaard.
Although he had one of the most successful careers of any American writers, Updike always had his detractors and enjoyed his fair share of controversy. He feuded publicly with the essayist and novelist Gore Vidal (although he was far from alone in that regard), 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 was already clear. In the 1990s, 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. Eventually, the very public feud drew in writers Norman Mailer and John Irving as well, leading one critic to observe that the literary melee was, “possibly more entertaining that anything the four of them actually published in the 1990s.”
Updike remained one of the most visible figures in American letters and continued producing novels, stories, and criticism regularly up until his death from lung cancer on January 27, 2009, at the age of 76. At the time of his death, he was working on a novel about St. Paul and the early days of Christianity.