John Updike, Prolific Novelist, Critic and Poet

John Updike is one of America’s most beloved authors, known for “The Witches of Eastwick,” the “Rabbit” novel series and his final work, “The Widows of Eastwick,” published just months before his death on January 27, 2009.

John Updike’s Early Days

John Hoyer Updike was born in Reading, Pennsylvania on March 18, 1932. An only child, he was raised by his mother, Linda Grace Hoyer Updike, an aspiring writer, and his father, Wesley Russell Updike, a high school science teacher. The three lived with his grandparents in Shillington, Pennsylvania for much of his childhood. When he was 13 years old, the family moved to nearby Plowville and lived in his mother’s birthplace, a farmhouse on an 80-acre farm.

As a youth, Updike was an avid reader of “popular fiction, especially humor and mysteries,” according to his Academy of Achievement biography. His mother encouraged to him draw and write. He was president and co-valedictorian of his class at Shillington High School and earned a tuition scholarship to Harvard University. There, he contributed stories and cartoons to the humor magazine The Harvard Lampoon, and spent summers working as a copy boy for the Reading Eagle. He met his first wife, Mary E. Pennington, at Harvard; they married before graduation in 1954.

Sources in this Story

Updike’s Notable Accomplishments

After Harvard, Updike and his wife Mary moved to the United Kingdom, where Updike studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford University. While there, Updike met E.B. and Katharine White, editors at The New Yorker, who encouraged Updike to take a position at the magazine. In 1956, the couple returned to Manhattan with their first child, and Updike became a staff writer at The New Yorker. After two years, the family, now numbering four, moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, where Updike resolved to earn his family an income through freelance writing.

He published his first book of poetry, “The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures,” in 1958, followed by his first novel, “The Poorhouse Fair,” also in 1958. His early work “cover[ed] childhood, parental conflict, small towns and adolescence,” writes David Lipsky in Salon. Despite seeking a quieter life, Lipsky notes that Updike became famous from his bold studies of 1960s suburban relationships, most notably in “Rabbit, Run” (1960) and “Couples” (1968).

In the 1970s, Updike was drawn to the style of Vladimir Nabokov and was, as Lipsky writes, “jazzed up” by this influence, as well as by his divorce from his first wife and remarriage to Martha Ruggles Bernhard.

Of his decision to make the story of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom a series, Updike told Charles McGrath in The New York Times, “I had written ‘The Poorhouse Fair,’ but that was an experimental, Henry Green-y kind of thing and I still didn’t know if I was a novelist. With ‘Rabbit, Run,’ using the present tense proved to be liberating, and I had no trouble filling 300 pages.”

Responding to readers’ curiosity and a dry spell of writing, Updike decided to take up the character of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom again. He adopted this same approach with Henry Bech of the “Bech” series and with the women of Eastwick, who appeared in “The Witches of Eastwick” (1984) and the last novel published during his lifetime, “The Widows of Eastwick” (2008).

Updike discussed his decision to kill off Rabbit in a 1997 video interview with Charlie Rose, calling the character’s death “kind of a relief,” even though he was “a brother to me” and “opened me up as a writer.”

The Man and His Work

The Rest of the Story

Throughout his prolific career, Updike maintained a schedule of working for several hours each morning, six days a week. He was a tireless contributor to The New Yorker and other publications and also served as a “cultural ambassador” of the United States alongside authors such as Robert Penn Warren. He received dozens of prestigious literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. One of the few awards that eluded him was the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Updike lived out his life in Massachusetts, spending his final days in a hospice. He died of lung cancer on January 27, 2009. The announcement was made by Nicholas Latimer of his longtime publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.

Updike continued to write until his final months, publishing a review of Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy” in the November 3, 2008 edition of The New Yorker and a short story, “Nessus at Noon,” in the winter 2009 issue of The American Scholar.

The New Yorker’s “Remembering Updike” section has contributions from dozens of authors, including Tobias Wolff, E.L. Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates, ZZ Packer and Jeffrey Eugenides, who each define Updike’s writing style and strengths, and explore the influence he had on their own work.

This article was originally written by Liz Colville; it was updated January 31, 2017.