John Updike - Career As A Writer

Career As A Writer

Updike stayed at The New Yorker as a full staff writer for only two years, writing "Talk of the Town" columns and submitting poetry and short stories to the magazine. In New York, Updike wrote the poems and stories that came to fill his early books like The Carpentered Hen (1958) and The Same Door (1959). These works were influenced by Updike's early engagement with The New Yorker. This early work also featured the influence of J. D. Salinger ("A&P"), John Cheever ("Snowing in Greenwich Village"), and the Modernists Marcel Proust, Henry Green, James Joyce, and Vladimir Nabokov.

During this time, Updike also underwent a profound spiritual crisis. Suffering from a loss of religious faith, he began reading Søren Kierkegaard and the theologian Karl Barth. Both deeply influenced his own religious beliefs, which in turn figured prominently in his fiction. Updike remained a believing Christian for the rest of his life.

Later, Updike and his family relocated to Ipswich, Massachusetts. Many commentators, including a columnist in the local Ipswich Chronicle, asserted that the fictional town of Tarbox in Couples was based on Ipswich. Updike denied the suggestion in a letter to the paper. Impressions of Updike's day-to-day life in Ipswich during the 1960s and 1970s are included in a letter to the same paper published soon after Updike's death and written by a friend and contemporary. In Ipswich, Updike wrote Rabbit, Run (1960), on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and The Centaur (1963), two of his most acclaimed and famous works; the latter won the National Book Award.

Rabbit, Run featured Rabbit Angstrom, a former high school basketball star and middle-class paragon who would become Updike's most enduring and critically acclaimed character. Updike wrote three additional novels about him. Rabbit, Run was featured in Time's All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels.

Updike's career and reputation were nurtured and expanded by his long association with The New Yorker, which published him frequently throughout his lifetime of writing, despite the fact that he had departed the magazine's employment after only two years. The New Yorker, particularly in the 1930s through the 1980s, reached a wide and literate audience with emphasis on writers, artists and thinkers on the east coast, where most of its readers also resided. The magazine was for many decades one of the preeminent publishing forums for the American short story, a genre at which Updike excelled, and it continued to publish shorter fiction long after many other publications had ceased to express any interest. Until the 1960s, there were dozens of popular magazines which published short fiction. As magazines directed their attention to "targeted" or special interest audiences of prime interest to advertisers, short fiction began to fall by the wayside. As the number of venues declined rapidly, the importance of appearing in The New Yorker rose. Updike's short story output found a welcome home at The New Yorker, which, in turn, introduced him to a wide and alert reading public.

In 1971, Updike published a sequel to Rabbit, Run called Rabbit Redux, his response to the 1960s; Rabbit reflected much of Updike's confusion and ambivalence towards the social and political changes that beset the United States during that time. In 1980 he published another novel featuring that character, Rabbit Is Rich, which won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction—all three major American literary prizes. The novel found "Rabbit the fat and happy owner of a Toyota dealership." Updike found it difficult to end the book, because he was "having so much fun" in the imaginary county Rabbit and his family inhabited. In 1990, he published the last Rabbit novel, Rabbit At Rest, in which his main character died. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Over 500 pages long, the novel is among Updike's most celebrated. In 2000, Updike included the novella "Rabbit Remembered" in his collection Licks of Love, drawing a final close to the Rabbit saga. His Pulitzers for the two final Rabbit novels make him one of only three writers to have won two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction, the other two being William Faulkner and Booth Tarkington.

In 1995, Everyman's Library collected and canonized the four novels as the omnibus Rabbit Angstrom, for which Updike wrote an introduction in which he described Rabbit as "a ticket to the America all around me. What I saw through Rabbit's eyes was more worth telling than what I saw through my own, though the difference was often slight." Updike later called Rabbit "a brother to me, and a good friend. He opened me up as a writer."

Updike's early Olinger period was set in the Pennsylvania of his youth; it ended around 1965 with the lyrical Of the Farm. After his early novels, Updike became most famous for his chronicling infidelity, adultery, and marital unrest, especially in suburban America, and for his controversial depiction of the confusion and freedom inherent in this breakdown of social mores. He once wrote that it was "a subject which, if I have not exhausted, has exhausted me." The most prominent of Updike's novels of this vein is Couples (1968), a novel about adultery in a small fictional Massachusetts town called Tarbox. It garnered Updike an appearance on the cover of Time magazine with the headline "The Adulterous Society." Both the magazine article and, to an extent, the novel struck a chord of national concern over whether American society was abandoning all social standards of conduct in sexual matters.

The Maple short stories, collected in Too Far To Go (1979), reflected the ebb and flow of Updike's first marriage; "Separating" (1974) and "Here Come the Maples" (1976) related to Updike's divorce. Those stories were the basis for the television movie also called Too Far To Go, broadcast by NBC in 1979. Two other novels from this period, A Month of Sundays (1975), the first in Updike's so-called Scarlet Letter trilogy, and Marry Me: A Romance (1976), are also meditations on suburban adultery.

The Coup (1978), a lauded novel about an African dictatorship inspired by a visit he made to Africa, found Updike working in new territory. After writing Rabbit is Rich, Updike published The Witches of Eastwick (1984), a playful novel about witches living in Rhode Island. He described it as an attempt to "make things right with my, what shall we call them, feminist detractors." One of Updike's most popular novels, it was adapted as a film and included on Harold Bloom's list of canonical 20th-century literature (in The Western Canon). In 2008 Updike published The Widows of Eastwick, a return to the witches in their old age. It was his last published novel.

In 1986 he published the unconventional novel Roger's Version, the second volume of the so-called Scarlet Letter trilogy, about an attempt to prove God's existence using a computer program. Author and critic Martin Amis called it a "near-masterpiece." The novel S. (1989), uncharacteristically featuring a female protagonist, concluded Updike's reworking of Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter.

Updike enjoyed working in series; in addition to the Rabbit novels and the Maples stories, a recurrent Updike alter ego is the moderately well-known, unprolific Jewish novelist and eventual Nobel laureate Henry Bech, chronicled in three comic short-story cycles: Bech, a Book (1970), Bech Is Back (1981) and Bech At Bay: A Quasi-Novel (1998). These stories were compiled as The Complete Henry Bech (2001) by Everyman's Library. Bech is a comical and self-conscious antithesis of Updike's own literary persona: Jewish, a World War II veteran, reclusive, and unprolific to a fault.

After the publication of the Pulitzer-winning Rabbit at Rest, Updike spent the rest of the 1990s and early 2000s publishing novels in a wide range of genres; the work of this period was frequently experimental in nature. These styles included the historical fiction of Memories of the Ford Administration (1992), the magical realism of Brazil (1994), the science fiction of Toward the End of Time (1997), the postmodernism of Gertrude and Claudius (2000), and the experimental fiction of Seek My Face (2002).

In the midst of these, he wrote what was for him a more conventional novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), a historical saga spanning several generations and exploring themes of religion and cinema in America. It is considered the most successful novel of Updike's late career. Some critics have predicted that the novel may be considered by posterity to be a "late masterpiece overlooked or praised by rote in its day, only to be rediscovered by another generation", while others thought it overlong and depressing. In Villages (2004), Updike returned to the familiar territory of infidelities in New England. His twenty-second novel, Terrorist (2006), the story of a fervent young extremist Muslim in New Jersey, garnered media attention but little critical praise.

In 2003, Updike published The Early Stories, a large collection of his short fiction spanning the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. More than 800 pages long, with over one hundred stories, it has been called "a richly episodic and lyrical Bildungsroman . . . in which Updike traces the trajectory from adolescence, college, married life, fatherhood, separation and divorce." It won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2004. This lengthy volume nevertheless excluded several stories found in his short-story collections of the same period.

Updike worked in a wide array of genres, including fiction, poetry (most of it compiled in Collected Poems: 1953–1993, 1993), essays (collected in nine separate volumes), a play (Buchanan Dying, 1974), and a memoir (Self-Consciousness, 1989).

Updike won an array of awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction, two National Book Awards, three National Book Critics Circle awards, both the 1989 National Medal of Arts and 2003 National Humanities Medal, and the Rea Award for the Short Story for outstanding achievement. The National Endowment for the Humanities selected Updike to present the 2008 Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. government's highest humanities honor; Updike's lecture was entitled "The Clarity of Things: What Is American about American Art."

At the time of his death, Updike was working on a novel about St. Paul and early Christianity.

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