Writing men's minds

Pulitzer Prize winner mainly focused on American male psyche

john updike 1932-2009

January 28, 2009|By Mary Rourke | Mary Rourke,Los Angeles Times

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 yesterday. He was 76.

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

In a career spanning half a century, Mr. 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 New Yorker magazine.

"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 New York Times yesterday.

By the late 1980s, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Updike's work, noted that though the novelist was capable of crafting a "beautifully economical narrative," he lacked depth, which Mr. Bloom saw as a requirement of great fiction. He viewed Mr. Updike as "a minor novelist with a major style."

Despite the critical divide, two of Mr. 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 Mr. Updike's four-book "Rabbit" series. 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 Mr. Updike's major themes.

Early in his career, Mr. Updike said that 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."

Mr. Updike took this previously unchartered 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, Mr. Updike also won the American Book Award and the National Book Award for his novel Rabbit is Rich. Mr. Updike was still 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.

Three more novels about Angstrom followed: Rabbit Redux in 1971, Rabbit is Rich in 1981 and Rabbit at Rest in 1990. The last two in the series each won a Pulitzer. As Rabbit muddles through the collapse of established sexual mores, the rise of the technological age and the beginnings of globalization, he becomes a "purposely representative" American male, Mr. Updike explained 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 expose of the frailty of the American dream," wrote literary critic Donald J. Greiner, a scholar who wrote extensively about Mr. Updike's work.

Mr. Updike said Rabbit is 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," Mr. 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 the young 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," Mr. Updike said in a 2004 interview with the Academy of Achievement, an educational center in Washington.

As a writer, Mr. Updike aimed to "sort out, particularize and extol with the proper dark beauty" those struggles, he wrote in Self-Consciousness.

Starting with his first published collection of short stories, The Same Door, in 1959, Mr. Updike was admired for his "lean and lapidary prose," as critic A.C. Spectorsky described it in the Saturday Review in 1959.

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