JOHN UPDIKE Biography - Writers


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John Updikewas born in Reading, Pennsylvania, and spent his first years in         
nearby Shillington, a small town where his father was a high school science         
teacher. The area surrounding Reading has provided the setting for many of his     
stories, with the invented towns of Brewer and Olinger standing in for Reading     
and Shillington. An only child, Updike and his parents shared a house with his     
grandparents for much of his childhood. When he was 13, the family moved to his     
mother's birthplace, a stone farmhouse on an 80-acre farm near Plowville, eleven   
miles from Shillington, where he continued to attend school.                       
At home, he consumed popular fiction, especially humor and mysteries. His mother,   
herself an aspiring writer, encouraged him to write and draw. He excelled in       
school and served as President and co-valedictorian of his graduating class at     
Shillington High School. For the first three summers after high school, he         
worked as a copy boy at the Reading Eagle newspaper, eventually producing a         
number of feature stories for the paper. He received a tuition scholarship to       
Harvard University, where he majored in English. As an undergraduate, he wrote     
stories and drew cartoons for the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine, serving as the   
magazine's president in his senior year. Before graduating, he married fellow       
student Mary E. Pennington. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1954,     
and in that same year sold a poem and a short story to The New Yorker magazine.     
Updike and his wife spent the following year in England, where Updike studied at   
Oxford's Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. While they were in England,         
their first daughter was born and Updike met the American writers E. B. and         
Katharine White, editors at The New Yorker, who urged him to seek a job at the     
magazine. On returning from England, the Updikes settled in Manhattan, where       
John took a position as a staff writer at The New Yorker. He worked at the         
magazine for nearly two years, writing editorials, features and reviews, but       
after the birth of a son in 1957, he decided to move his growing family to the     
small town of Ipswich, Massachusetts. He continued to contribute to The New         
Yorker but resolved to support his family by writing full-time, without taking a   
salaried position. Over the years, he has maintained a relationship with The New   
Yorker, where many of his poems, reviews and short stories have appeared, but he   
has resided in Massachusetts ever since.                                           
Updike's first book of poetry, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, was   
published by Harper and Brothers in 1958. When the publisher sought changes to     
the ending of his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, he moved to Alfred A. Knopf,     
Inc., his publisher ever since. The first novel was well-received, and with         
support from the Guggenheim Fellowship, Updike undertook a more ambitious novel,   
Rabbit, Run. The novel introduced one of Updike's most memorable characters, the   
small-town athlete, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Updike's publishers feared that his   
frank description of Rabbit's sexual adventures could lead to prosecution for       
obscenity, and made a number of changes to the text. The book was published to     
widespread acclaim without legal repercussions. The original text was restored     
for the British edition a few years later, and subsequent American editions of     
the book have reflected the author's original intent. Updike's reputation as a     
leading author of his generation was established.                                   
After the birth of a third child, Updike rented a one-room office above a           
restaurant in Ipswich, where he wrote for several hours every morning, six days     
a week, a schedule he has adhered to throughout his career. In 1963, he received   
the National Book Award for his novel The Centaur, inspired by his childhood in     
Pennsylvania. The following year, at age 32, he became the youngest person ever     
elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and was invited by the       
State Department to tour eastern Europe as part of a cultural exchange program     
between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1967, he joined the author       
Robert Penn Warren and other American writers in signing a letter urging Soviet     
writers to defend Jewish cultural institutions under attack by the Soviet           
In 1968, Updike's novel Couples created a national sensation with its portrayal     
of the complicated relationships among a set of young married couples in the       
suburbs. It remained on the best-seller lists for over a year and prompted a       
Time magazine cover story featuring Updike. In Bech: A Book (1970), Updike         
introduced a new protagonist, the imaginary novelist Henry Bech, who, like         
Rabbit Angstrom, was destined to reappear in Updike's fiction for many years.       
Rabbit Angstrom reappeared in Rabbit Redux (1971).                                 
In the 1970s, Updike continued to travel as a cultural ambassador of the United     
States, and in 1974 he joined authors John Cheever, Arthur Miller and Richard       
Wilbur in calling on the Soviet government to cease its persecution of dissident   
author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Updike separated from his wife Mary in 1974 and     
moved to Boston where he taught briefly at Boston University. Two years later,     
the Updikes were divorced, and in 1977 he married Martha Ruggles Bernhard,         
settling with her and her three children in Georgetown, Massachusetts.             
Rabbit is Rich, published in 1981, received numerous awards, including the         
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1983 Updike's other alter ego, Harry Bech,           
reappeared in Bech is Back, and Updike was featured in a second Time magazine       
cover story, "Going Great at 50." Among his novels of the 1980s and 1990s are a     
trilogy retelling The Scarlet Letter from the points of view of three different     
characters, and a prequel to Hamlet, entitled Gertrude and Claudius. In 1991 he     
received a second Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit at Rest. He was only the third         
American to win a second Pulitzer Prize in the fiction category.                   
In an autobiographical essay, Updike famously identified sex, art, and religion     
as "the three great secret things" in human experience. The grandson of a           
Presbyterian minister (his first father-in-law was also a minister), his writing   
in all genres has displayed a preoccupation with philosophical questions. A         
lifelong churchgoer and student of Christian theology, the Jesuit magazine         
America awarded him its Campion Award in 1997 as a "distinguished Christian         
person of letters." He received the National Medal of Art from President George     
H.W. Bush in 1989, and in 2003 was presented with the National Medal for the       
Humanities from President George W. Bush. He is one of a very few Americans to     
receive both of these honors. The same year saw the publication of The Early       
Stories, 1953-1975. His latest novel is Villages (2004). To date he has             
published over 60 books, including novels, collections of short stories, poetry,   
drama, essays, memoirs and literary criticism. Today, he resides in Beverly         
Farms, Massachusetts, in the same corner of New England where so much of his       
fiction is set.