OPINION

Chronicler of small-town America

I LIKE THE ‘MIDDLES’: “The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink never palls for me,” said John Updike.

I LIKE THE ‘MIDDLES’: “The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink never palls for me,” said John Updike.   | Photo Credit: — Photo: AFP

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

Astonishingly industrious and prolific, John Updike turned out three pages a day of fiction, essays, criticism or verse.



John Updike, the kaleidoscopically gifted writer whose quartet of Rabbit novels highlighted a body of fiction, verse, essays and criticism so vast, protean and lyrical as to place him in the first rank of American authors, died on Tuesday in Danvers, Massachusetts. He was 76 and lived in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts.

The cause was lung cancer, according to a statement by Knopf, his publisher. A spokesman said Updike had died at the Hospice of the North Shore in Danvers.

Of Updike’s dozens of books, perhaps none captured the imagination of the book-reading public more than those about ordinary citizens in small-town and urban settings. His best-known protagonist, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, first appears as a former high-school basketball star trapped in a loveless marriage and a sales job he hates. Through the four novels whose titles bear his nickname — Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest — the author traces the funny, restless and questing life of this middle-American against the background of the last half-century’s major events.

“My subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class,” Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”

Astonishingly industrious and prolific, Updike turned out three pages a day of fiction, essays, criticism or verse, proving the maxim that several pages a day was at least a book a year — or more. Updike published 60 books in his lifetime; his final one, My Father’s Tears and Other Stories, is to be published in June.

“I would write ads for deodorants or labels for ketchup bottles, if I had to,” he told The Paris Review in 1967. “The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink never palls for me.”

Philip Roth said on Tuesday: “John Updike is our time’s greatest man of letters, as brilliant a literary critic and essayist as he was a novelist and short story writer. He is and always will be no less a national treasure than his 19th-century precursor, Nathaniel Hawthorne. His death constitutes a loss to our literature that is immeasurable.”

John Hoyer Updike was born on March 18, 1932, in Reading, Pa., and grew up in the nearby town of Shillington. He was the only child of Wesley Russell Updike, a junior-high-school math teacher of German descent, and Linda Grace (Hoyer) Updike, who later also published fiction in The New Yorker and elsewhere.

Graduating from Harvard in 1954 summa cum laude, he won a Knox Fellowship at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in Oxford. In June of that year, his short story Friends from Philadelphia was accepted, along with a poem, by The New Yorker. It was an event, he later said, that remained “the ecstatic breakthrough of my literary life.”

Following the birth of his first child, Elizabeth, the couple returned to America, and Updike went to work writing Talk of the Town pieces for The New Yorker. By 1959 Updike had completed three books — a volume of poetry, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, a novel, The Poorhouse Fair and a collection of stories, The Same Door — and placed them with Alfred A. Knopf, which remained his publisher throughout his career. From 1954 to 1959, he published more than a hundred essays, articles, poems and short stories in The New Yorker.

In Couples (1968), his fifth novel, Updike explored sexual coupling and uncoupling in a community of young marrieds. Couples, which became a best seller, was for its time remarkably frank about sex and became well-known for its lengthy detail and often lyrical descriptions of the sexual act.

Rabbit quartet

With the Rabbit quartet, Updike cast his keen eye on a still wider world. Where Rabbit, Run plays out its present-tense narrative in domestic working-class squalor, its three sequels, published in 10-year intervals, encompass the later 20th century American experience: Rabbit Redux (1971) the cultural turmoil of the 1960s; Rabbit Is Rich (1981) the boom years of the 1970s, the oil crisis and inflation; and Rabbit at Rest (1991), set in the time of what Rabbit calls Reagan’s reign, with its trade war with Japan, its AIDS epidemic and the terror bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

In 1974 Updike separated from Mary and moved to Boston, where he taught briefly at Boston University. In 1976 the Updikes were divorced, and the following year he married Martha Ruggles Bernhard.

In addition to his wife, Martha, he is survived by his sons David, of Cambridge, Mass., and Michael, of Newburyport, Mass.; his daughters Miranda, of Ipswich, and Elizabeth, of Maynard, Mass.; three stepsons, John Bernhard, of Lexington, Mass., Jason Bernhard, of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Frederic Bernhard, of New Canaan, Conn.; seven grandchildren, and seven step-grandchildren.

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