Dead, John Hoyer Updike on January 27, 2009 at the age of 76, he was an American novelist, poet, short story writer, art critic, and literary critic. Born in Reading, Pennsylvania March 18, 1932, the only child of Linda Grace (née Hoyer) and Wesley Russell Updike, and was raised in the nearby small town of Shillington.
The family later moved to the unincorporated village of Plowville. His mother’s attempts to become a published writer impressed the young Updike. “One of my earliest memories”, he later recalled, “is of seeing her at her desk… I admired the writer’s equipment, the typewriter eraser, and the boxes of clean paper.
Updike graduated from Shillington High School as co-valedictorian and class president in 1950 and attended Harvard with a full scholarship. At Harvard, he soon became well known among his classmates as a talented and prolific contributor to the Harvard Lampoon, of which he served as president. He graduated summa cum laude in 1954 with a degree in English.
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.
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. Updike’s memoir indicates that he stayed in his “corner of New England to give its domestic news” with a focus on the American home from the point of view of a male writer.
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.
Updike married Mary E. Pennington, an art student at Radcliffe College, in 1953, while he was still a student at Harvard. She accompanied him to Oxford, England, where he attended art school and where their first child, Elizabeth, was born in 1955.
The couple had three more children together: writer David (born 1957), artist Michael (born 1959) and Miranda (born 1960). They divorced in 1974. Updike had seven grandsons.
In 1968, Updike’s novel Couples created a national sensation with its portrayal of the complicated relationships among a set of young married couples in the suburbs. It remained on the best-seller lists for over a year and prompted a Time magazine cover story featuring Updike.
In Bech: A Book (1970), Updike introduced a new protagonist, the imaginary novelist Henry Bech, who, like Rabbit Angstrom, was destined to reappear in Updike’s fiction for many years. Rabbit Angstrom reappeared in Rabbit Redux (1971).
In an autobiographical essay, Updike famously identified sex, art, and religion as “the three great secret things” in human experience. The grandson of a Presbyterian minister (his first father-in-law was also a minister), his writing in all genres has displayed a preoccupation with philosophical questions.
A lifelong churchgoer and student of Christian theology, the Jesuit magazine America awarded him its Campion Award in 1997 as a “distinguished Christian person of letters.” He received the National Medal of Art from President George H.W. Bush in 1989, and in 2003 was presented with the National Medal for the Humanities from President George W. Bush.