John Updike dies at 76; Pulitzer-winning author

Among many other literary awards, Updike won Pulitzer Prizes for "Rabbit Is Rich" and "Rabbit at Rest."
Among many other literary awards, Updike won Pulitzer Prizes for “Rabbit Is Rich” and “Rabbit at Rest.”
(Random House / EPA)

John Updike, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction whose novels and short stories exposed an undercurrent of ambivalence and disappointment in small-town, middle-class America, died Tuesday. He was 76.

Updike’s death from lung cancer was announced by Nicholas Latimer of Alfred A. Knopf, his publisher. Updike lived in Beverly Farms, Mass., but the announcement did not indicate where he died.

Updike obituary: The obituary of John Updike in Wednesday’s Section A said his last published piece appeared in the Nov. 3, 2008, issue of the New Yorker. In fact, a piece by Updike is in the winter 2009 issue of the American Scholar, published this month. —

In a career spanning half a century, Updike published more than 50 books, more than 20 of them novels, and countless short stories, as well as collections of poetry. In recent years, he was best known for his art criticism and essays. His last published piece was a review of Toni Morrison’s novel “A Mercy,” in the Nov. 3, 2008, issue of the New Yorker.

“He had a remarkably wide range of literary interests that was never in my view superficial or casual,” Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, told The Times on Tuesday. The New York Review of Books published much of Updike’s art criticism.

Updike’s literary criticism, Silvers said, covered nearly every major writer of the 20th century and some 19th century authors.

For Updike, a successful book review depended on whether it was “animated.”

“Whether it was flat, academic, dry criticism, or did it have animation, in which the writer is participating in John’s own imagination,” Silvers said.

By the late 1980s, Updike had achieved what a Times writer called “the near royal status of the American author-celebrity,” but critical views of his fiction were often mixed.

Lorrie Moore, writing in the New York Review of Books in 2003, said Updike was “quite possibly . . . American literature’s greatest short story writer, and arguably our greatest writer.”

But Harold Bloom, writing years earlier in a collection of essays on Updike’s work, noted that although the novelist was capable of crafting a “beautifully economical narrative,” he lacked depth, which Bloom saw as a requirement of great fiction. He viewed Updike as “a minor novelist with a major style.”

Despite the critical divide, two of Updike’s most memorable fictional characters, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom and Henry Bech, became emblems of the displaced American male that fascinated him as a writer. Angstrom, a man he often referred to as his alter-ego, is the disenchanted middle-class drifter in Updike’s four-book series about “Rabbit.” Bech is the Jewish American novelist, breaking away from his cultural roots and immigrant heritage to become a fully assimilated American. Each in his own way reflects Updike’s major themes.

Early in his career, Updike said he wrote most often about the world he came from, “the American Protestant small-town middle class,” as he described it in a 1966 interview with Life magazine. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”

Updike took this previously uncharted territory and “made it common American ground,” wrote Cynthia Ozick in a 2003 essay for the New York Times Book Review.

In addition to his Pulitzers, for “Rabbit Is Rich” and “Rabbit at Rest,” Updike also won the American Book Award and the National Book Award for “Rabbit Is Rich.”

Updike was in his 20s when his second novel, “Rabbit Run,” brought him national attention in 1960. Several reviewers immediately saw the book’s main character as an icon of his generation.

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom was a small-town Pennsylvania boy who grew into a high school basketball star. He married young, quickly found adult life disappointing, left his wife and young son, and set off alone.

Three more novels about Angstrom followed: “Rabbit Redux” in 1971, “Rabbit Is Rich” in 1981 and “Rabbit at Rest” in 1990. As Rabbit muddled through the collapse of established sexual mores, the rise of the technological age and the beginnings of globalization, he became a “purposely representative” American male, Updike said in “Self-Consciousness,” his 1989 memoir.

Many critics found “a great divide between Updike’s exquisite command of prose and . . . the apparent no-good vulgar nothing he expended it on,” wrote critic Eliot Fremont-Smith about Rabbit in a 1981 article for the Village Voice.

Others saw Rabbit’s story as “a subtle exposé of the frailty of the American dream,” wrote literary critic Donald J. Greiner, a scholar who wrote extensively about Updike’s work.

Updike said Rabbit was a typical man, weighed down by the pressures and disappointments of adulthood that few men spoke of in his generation.

“I knew I had things to say about it, things I thought, that nobody else was saying,” Updike told Time magazine in 2006.

He got his first inkling of this literary theme as a boy watching his father, Wesley Updike, a teacher. They rode back and forth to school together, and Updike listened to his father worry about their old car and the family bills.

“I saw that it’s not easy to be an American male,” Updike said in a 2004 interview with the Academy of Achievement, an educational center in Washington, D.C.

Starting with his first published collection of short stories, “The Same Door” in 1959, Updike was admired for his “lean and lapidary prose,” critic A.C. Spectorsky wrote in Saturday Review in 1959.

Most of Updike’s short stories appeared first in the New Yorker, where he was briefly a staff writer and, for decades, a regular contributor.

As a young writer, his view of aging and mortality was ominous. Novels and stories allude to “the fear of death, the fact of decay and the inevitable collapse into nothingness,” wrote critic Tony Tanner in an essay included in “Modern Critical Views, John Updike” in 1987.

Updike’s first novel, “The Poorhouse Fair” (1959), published when he was 27, is about senior citizens in a retirement home, cut off from the world except during their annual fair.

Updike referred to the book as an example of his “shadowy vision” of adult life.

Some reviewers praised the novel for its precisely observed details and lush prose. “The Poorhouse Fair” is “a work of art,” the New York Times said in 1959.

Others found the story to be thin and the style “overly lyrical, bloated like a child who has eaten too much candy,” wrote Norman Podhoretz in Commentary magazine.

Updike’s third novel, “The Centaur” (1963), which won a National Book Award, is about a high school science teacher and his teenage son. The novel draws parallels between the teacher and Chiron, the wisest of the centaurs, in Greek mythology. Updike said the book was a tribute to his father.

Updike returned to myth and fantasy in several other novels and stories. Far more often, however, he made religion a theme. In “Music School,” a short story from 1966 now considered a classic, a man sits in a church basement contentedly waiting for his daughter to finish her piano lesson. His thoughts drift to the random violence and deathly illness his acquaintances have suffered. It leads him to a revelation: “The world is the host; it must be chewed.”

“Updike’s world is secular, its mundane beauty God-made, a gift to be lived, to be ‘chewed,’ ” Greiner wrote in a 2006 essay. In “Couples,” a 1968 novel, restless spouses in small-town New England try to build a paradise of sexual freedom. The novel’s titillating subject matter kept it on the bestsellers list of Publishers Weekly for 36 weeks.

Several reviewers commented on the book’s undertow of religious longing. In “Couples,” the characters’ attempts “to spiritualize the flesh” feel familiar “since for many in our time, the ‘flesh’ may be all that remains of religious experience,” Joyce Carol Oates wrote in 1987.

But Updike’s style threatened to overtake substance, in some critics’ view. He “can brilliantly describe the adult world without conveying its depth and risks,” Alfred Kazin wrote in a 1968 critique. Updike took note of the comment and later quoted it in his memoir, saying that Kazin was not alone in his view.

At times, Updike moved outside his familiar territory to write about other worlds: an imaginary African nation (“The Coup,” 1978), interracial love in the tropics (“Brazil,” 1994), a futuristic war between the U.S. and China (“Toward the End of Time,” 1997), Danish royalty (“Gertrude and Claudius,” 2000), radical Islam in New Jersey (“Terrorist,” 2006), all to mixed reviews.

He was perhaps more successful in his 20 or so stories about Bech, the famous Jewish American novelist who suffers from writer’s block and gets by on his past literary glories.

Updike joked that he invented Bech to grab some of the attention away from his major competitors. When he started his Bech stories in 1964, that list included Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, all acclaimed Jewish American writers.

“I created Henry Bech to show that I was really a Jewish writer also,” Updike teased in a 1982 interview with Time magazine.

He said that Bech was loosely based on J.D. Salinger, who wrote “Catcher in the Rye” to blazing praise in 1951 but stopped publishing altogether in 1965. “Bech: A Book,” in 1970, was followed by “Bech Is Back” in 1982 and “Bech at Bay” in 1998. Three years later, all the stories were compiled in “The Complete Henry Bech.”

Ozick complained that Updike cut Bech off at the roots. A secular Jew, married to a WASP, Bech was “pathetically truncated,” she wrote in her essay “Bech, Passing,” reprinted in her book “Art and Ardor” (1983).

But Updike got some things right about his character, she allowed. “Bech is a stupid Jewish intellectual,” Ozick wrote. “I know him well.”

Several of Updike’s novels were made into movies. “The Witches of Eastwick” (1984), where realism spins off into fantasy, shows what happens when bored suburban women capable of witchery meet one devilish man.

If Updike proves to be like other novelists who wrote a lot but left behind only “a single, remarkable book,” Bloom observed, “in my experience of reading Updike, that book is ‘Witches of Eastwick.’ ”

Updike’s final novel, “Widows of Eastwick,” published last year, was a sequel to “Witches.”

Late in his career, the author compiled “John Updike: The Early Stories” (2003). The book revealed that Updike’s main male characters, despite their different names, seemed to be the same person at various stages of life; a mid-20th century white, middle-class American boy, teenager, bachelor, husband, father, divorcé.

Several of the earliest stories in the book -- “Pigeon Feathers” (1960), “A&P” (1961) and “Museums and Women” (1967) -- are considered classics.

His torrent of fiction never seemed to slow Updike’s output of essays and book reviews. He often critiqued new fiction by his famous contemporaries, including Roth, Oates and Gabriel García Márquez, usually with a generous eye.

There was one famous exception. Updike was 29, still a fairly new name among New Yorker writers, when he reviewed “Franny and Zooey” by Salinger, by then a legendary contributor to the magazine.

Updike’s 1961 review for the New York Times was blunt and precise and has since been included in several critical anthologies.

He complained of one “interminably rendered conversation” between two of the characters. He questioned the “impossible radiance” of the characters’ beauty and intelligence and regretted Salinger’s efforts to “instill in the reader a mood of blind worship” of the Glass family, the novel’s central figures.

He suggested that Salinger ought to move on from his beloved Glass family and write about other lives.

“Salinger was irrevocably pissed off,” Updike wrote in a letter to Greiner. But Salinger the recluse didn’t retaliate in public.

Updike’s interest in the art world continued throughout his career. In an essay on Edward Hopper, Updike went to the essence of the American painter’s best-known work, “Nighthawks,” a lonely diner scene of 1942. “The quality might be called largeness -- a largeness of patience and peripheral vision.”

“He was one of the most brilliant and talented art critics,” said Silvers of the New York Review of Books. “He had a very close critical feeling about actual techniques of art, of talent and of drawing. . . . He was fascinated by the development of concepts of art over the years. This was a marvelous gift for us.”

Updike’s poetry almost seemed an aside. For many years, he wrote light verse that he referred to as “cartooning with words” and a “kind of verbal exercise” in his preface to “Collected Poems, 1953-1993.”

John Hoyer Updike was born in Shillington, a suburb of Reading, Pa., on March 18, 1932. He was a gawky, sickly child who had a stammer, asthma and psoriasis, which he describes in meticulous detail in “Self-Consciousness.” The skin disorder later kept him from military service.

He attended Harvard University, where he was a cartoonist for the Harvard Lampoon. He took creative-writing classes and wrote short stories, light verse and essays.

By the time he graduated, summa cum laude, he had decided to be a professional writer.

He married Mary Pennington in 1953, the year before he graduated from college. They divorced in 1976.

A year later, he married Martha Ruggles Bernhard. She had three children from a previous marriage.

Survivors include his wife and stepchildren; four children from his first marriage, sons David and Michael and daughters Miranda and Elizabeth Cobblah; and several grandchildren.

In 2004, with decades of writing and more than 50 books to his credit, Updike said he was ready to slow his pace. He would reduce “product,” as he called his fiction, but not stop.

“Writing makes you more human,” he said.

Rourke is a former Times staff writer.

Times staff writer Elaine Woo contributed to this report.