Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Shillington, Berks County
Born in Shillington in 1932, well known novelist and poet John Updike has received every major American writing award.
Awards: Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award
Born in 1932, John Updike, a highly awarded novelist, who stands as one of America’s greatest literary writers, spent his childhood in the city and suburbs of Reading, Pennsylvania. Many of his works, including Rabbit, Run, The Centaur, and Pigeon Feathers take place in a fictionalized Reading, Pennsylvania. He would win the Pulitzer Prize for two sequels to Rabbit, Run. Updike died in Danvers, Massachusetts of lung cancer in 2009.
In 1951, Lilly March, a Reading Eagle columnist, introduced a member of the newspaper’s summertime staff, a Harvard undergraduate student named John H. Updike. Updike, who in the article defends the New Yorker’s recent political edge, refers to himself as “the Office Boy.” March notes that John “is majoring in literature, which he regards as highly impractical, but fun.”
Seven years later, as Updike is about to publish his first work The Carpentered Hen, and Other Tame Creatures, March reexamines the two summers Updike spent as “the Office Boy” at the Eagle. She claims he is the embodiment of “talent and niceness” and feels “smug about having recognized it more or less [as an] embryo.” March probably could not have predicted the waterfall of awards that would serve as testament to Updike’s writing prowess in the next 50 years; Updike won nearly every major literary award. She notes with some sorrow that Updike moved away from Pennsylvania to somewhere in New England. However, John Updike contests in his interview with Katherine Stephen that he is, in fact, “more spiritually at home in the Pennsylvania of his origins”. He sits each day in his office, writing three or four pages a day, composing the works that will define him as America’s great literary realist. Not since Benjamin Franklin described his emergence in Philadelphia with two large loaves of bread, has anyone birthed a more carnal depiction of life in the in-between state of Pennsylvania.
John Hoyer Updike was born on March 18, 1932, in a hospital in Reading, Pennsylvania, to Wesley Russell Updike and Linda Grace Hoyer. His first home was a cozy white foursquare house in Shillington, Pennsylvania, a short drive from center city Reading. Around the time of his birth, a tree was planted in the front yard; this tree stands in this yard today. His father, Wesley, was once a cable splicer for the telephone companies, but lost his job due to the Great Depression; he then taught mathematics at the nearby Shillington High School. Wesley was an outgoing and sociable man, often embarrassing young John, especially when he stopped to speak to homeless men sitting in dusty corners on the streets of Reading. Wesley was economically frugal, mostly due to hardships encountered during the Depression. Wesley’s thriftiness taught John to cope with the often low compensation received by writers. His mother, Linda, encouraged John’s creativity. She urged him to write articles for his school’s newspaper. Updike remembered spending mornings sitting at the living room coffee table, sketching Walt Disney cartoons that he saw in The New Yorker. Drawing and painting were Updike’s first passion; it would be years before he would trade the painter’s brush for the writer’s pen.
Young John had bad teeth. This was mostly because of the starchy Pennsylvania Dutch diet that he was subjugated to as a child. Bruce R. Posten of The Reading Eagle writes that Updike, “was a gawky, sickly child who had a stammer, asthma and psoriasis.” As he grew older, he took on a complexion that some have called elf-like, and unceasingly nervous. In school, young Updike compensated for his physical unattractiveness through attractiveness of personality. In an interview with Curt Suplee, Updike admitted to having been “something of a comedian” in school. Updike stated, “It was my sexual display, insofar as I had one, to be sort of comical, and I was voted wittiest member of my high school class.”
At age 13, John moved from his small home in Shillington to the nearby rural town of Plowville, Pennsylvania. He lived in this home with his parents and his grandmother, a superstitious Pennsylvania Dutch woman. He went from having an abundance of friends in Shillington, to being virtually alone in Plowville. The seclusion drove Updike to read extensively. He spent days reading entire shelves of books at the Reading Public Library. The works of Twain, Poe and Melville were too pessimistic for his tastes. He enjoyed the works of mystery writers Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. He loves the works of P. G. Wodehouse, remembering that he read the library’s entire shelf on the author. He also held a certain fondness for science fiction novels, so long as they contained deep meaning behind their technicalities. In an interview on C-SPAN, Updike stated that John O’Hara, a writer he admired in his youth and also a fellow Pennsylvanian, was “proof that a Pennsylvanian could become a national writer.”
Though not abandoning his goal of becoming an artist, Updike began to take serious interest in writing by composing poetry and short stories. His mother took him to the New York University for an aptitude test to determine John’s likelihood for success in writing. The test determined that John was well fit to become a writer, but could also be an accountant, given his clerical prowess. He accepted a fully paid scholarship to Harvard University, whose satire magazine, The Harvard Lampoon, he found intriguing. Joining The Harvard Lampoon staff, he almost single-handedly managed the magazine. Updike’s first job was selling strawberries in order to pay his college expenses. He also became part of the summertime staff at Reading’s newspaper, The Reading Eagle. Columnist Lilly March commends Updike for his skill and potential as a writer. Among Updike’s first writings were his experiments in light verse poetry. During his summer job at The Reading Eagle, in 1950, John Updike submitted the following poem for Jerry Kobrin’s “Reading in Writing” article:
The census taker, resting on his mathematic oar,
Has said he thinks a thousand, seven hundred, forty-four
Inhabitants in ’40 are Readingites no more;
But why they left, he does not know.
It is not until age 22, when The New Yorker accepted one of his short stories, that John Updike fully embraced his role as a writer.
In his obituary for Updike, well-known writer Garrison Keillor praised Updike stating, “[n]othing was beneath his careful attention.” Updike contended that he formed his writing style through studying his contemporaries J.D. Salinger and Henry Green. According to Ben Chapman of the Washington Post, Updike “would typically take his experiences and give them a little spin so they weren’t recognizable.” Of the many themes John Updike would incorporate in literary works, sex was undeniably his most discussed. Updike stated in Katherine Stephen’s article in the Los Angeles Times, “There always seems to me to be something more to say about sex, and when I feel I have nothing more to say about it, I will probably try to stop writing about it.” Updike felt his goal as a writer was to bring life to the otherwise mundane, but confessed, according to William H. Pritchard in his article “Rough Magic,” “that he could write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup [sic] bottles if he had to.” His ethic was to treat writing like a standard nine-to-five job; write every single day.
In 1953, Updike married Mary E. Pennington, who travelled with him during his time studying art in Oxford, England. In Oxford, they had the first of three children, David. While in Oxford, he was offered a coveted staff-member position at The New Yorker, which he quickly accepted. After returning to the States, he worked for The New Yorker for some time, writing as a critic. However, he soon became tired of the job, claiming that there was no room for him to grow as a critic. He decided to move to New England with his family, devoting most of his time to his writing, spending at least five hours writing each day.
His first published book, in 1958, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, is an exposition of his mastery of light verse poetry. It was well-received, but Updike generally considered the book too experimental to be considered a great work. Take, for example, “To An Usherette:”
Ah, come with me, Petite chérie,
And we shall rather happy be.
I know a modest luncheonette
Where, for a little, one can get
A choplet, baby Lima beans,
And, segmented, two tangerines.
These poems were haughtily airy and Updike would later construct poetry with significantly more depth. G.D. McDonald of The Library Journal describes The Carpentered Hen collection as “witty, elegant and inventive. In his humor he employs no poison pen or arrows of sarcasm. The mood is one of amiable deflation.” This collection signified the beginning of John Updike’s prolific writing career.
John Updike’s first attempt at a novel is 1959’s Poorhouse Fair. The story is odd, describing a miniature coup d’état of elderly people in a poorhouse setting, for the aged, based on the poorhouse in Shillington, PA. For the most part, Updike’s novels focus upon individuals of his own age, however, this novel differs in that the protagonist is old and somewhat helpless. Updike was praised heavily for his writing skill, winning the Hilda Rosenthal Foundation Award, but not all were impressed. J.H. Johnson of The New Statesman suggested that Updike’s Poorhouse Fair “is too whimsical. It is too much of a stunt. It is too earnest an attempt to get away from the great American terror of the Familiar.” Perhaps it was this honest critical review that drove John Updike to seek beauty within the everyday, rather than musing over invented aesthetics. His next novel would be a turning point.
Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the hero of Updike’s Rabbit books, a tetralogy of novels, is Updike’s embodiment of the standard middle-class American male. He lives an unhealthy lifestyle— embracing the starchy diet Updike witnessed in his youth— he is often swept up in politics, and sex constantly passes through his brain. 1960’s Rabbit, Run, the first of the four novels, was “written blindly,” according to Updike. He did not intend to write follow-ups to this novel. Updike wanted to create a story about a once locally famous high-school athlete who has fallen on hard times. The prototype for Angstrom is found in his often anthologized poem “Ex-Basketball Player”:
Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ‘46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.
He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,
But most of us remember anyway.
His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.
The story of Rabbit, Run takes place in the spring of 1959 in the city of Brewer; a fictionalized Reading, Pennsylvania. Harry Angstrom leaves his wife Janice after becoming frustrated with her and the general outcome of his life thus far. Angstrom begins to sporadically wander; having an affair and questioning his own existence, determining that life must have some intrinsic and important meaning. Reviews are lukewarm. Critics complained that the story has a meaningless ending. Others, like The Springfield Republican’s Richard McLaughlin, contended, “for all its skillful parts, is as a whole a dismally sordid saga of an American heel.” However, critics like Whitney Balliett, of The New Yorker, praised Updike for his “X-ray imagination.” Despite the harsh criticism the work initially received, Rabbit, Run is considered by many to be Updike’s opus. William H. Pritchard quotes book critic Jonathan Raban saying that the Rabbit works “can set beside the work of Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Joyce, and not feel the draft.”
Updike renewed the Rabbit series every ten years, writing three subsequent books; Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and finally Rabbit at Rest. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for both Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest. Rabbit, Run also began a string of short stories and novels Updike would write that take place in a fictionalized Reading, Pennsylvania; known as either Alton or Brewer.
His next collection, Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, is a powerful grouping of 19 short stories compiled in the chronological order of their composition. The stories, taking place for the most part in fictionalized Reading, PA, delve into the human mind and contemplate the serious drudgeries and emotional defaulting Updike witnesses in his exploration of the mundane life of his young adulthood. Murder, sex, religion, parenting, relationships, materialism and gluttony are all discussed without falling into cliché patterns or a lecturing tone. One of the collection’s highly regarded stories, “A&P,” questions civility and the tantalization of sex, while never breaking free of the story’s reality of an angst-filled young convenience store clerk that quits his job to impress scantily clad female customers despite knowing fully the repercussions of doing so. Arthur Mizener, of The New York Times, stated, “it shows us that Mr. Updike’s fine verbal talent … is beginning to serve his deepest insight.”
Updike’s next novel, The Centaur, was considered by some to be a sequel to Rabbit, Run, because this novel also takes place in a fictionalized Reading, PA. This story is about George Caldwell, a school teacher, and his son Peter, a student who is as enthusiastic about art as he is about women. The story is largely biographical, and discourse between Peter and George often parallels John Updike’s relationship with his father. At one point, Peter becomes embarrassed and scared when his father has a discussion with a homeless person; a clear autobiographical excerpt as Updike’s father had often done the same thing. As an apparent ode to James Joyce’s Ulysses, Updike allowed The Centaur to fluctuate between a reality in Pennsylvania and a separate reality in Greek Myth, following Chiron— a Centaur that represents George Caldwell. Some critics view this technique as overzealous, ambitious parallelism between John Updike and James Joyce. Time magazine’s criticism for The Centaur states, “Updike’s enormous, unbalanced metaphor eventually topples off the edge of audacity into preciousness.” Nonetheless, Updike won the National Book Award in fiction for this effort. According to a literary blogger known only to his readers as “Chiron,” “Chiron” recalls meeting John Updike and expressing his praise of The Centaur. Updike’s reply to the blogger’s praise was, “Well, yes, it is the warmest book I wrote.”
Whether John Updike referred to it as Alton, Brewer, or Olinger, his fictionalized composite of Reading, Pennsylvania and its suburbs have always been John Updike’s most vivid and human setting. Garrison Keillor insists “that ‘The Centaur’ and the Rabbit Angstrom books are permanent masterpieces and also his Olinger stories.” As one drives through Reading on a warm day, perhaps the first day the windows can be rolled down while driving, it is possible to see The Reading Art Museum where Peter Caldwell studied art with his mother, The giant Pagoda set above Mt. Penn where Harry Angstrom took his wife Janice on a fancy date, the Governor Mifflin High School where George Caldwell taught his arrow-wielding students, and the cozy white house where John Updike first saw an issue of the New Yorker. John Updike, even in old age, asked his friend David Silcox to mail newspapers and other informational tidbits about Reading to his New England home. In an interview with Katherine Stephen, Updike admitted that he is “more spiritually at home in the Pennsylvania of his origins.” Through his stories about Reading, John Updike forged a masterpiece of realism, a life unseen by some, from the somewhat defunct area. Although the trains do not come by as often, and the crowds at the shopping outlets are becoming thinner, and the faint smell of a nearby mushroom factory hovers over the city for parts of the day, the heart of John Updike’s writing, perhaps some of the greatest writing this country can offer, still beats in Reading, Pennsylvania.
By the mid-1960s, John Updike no longer had to prove himself. His writings were universally regarded with high esteem. He felt it was time to experiment.
In 1967, he wrote Couples, a racy book about a group of couples in New England who experiment with sex in the 1960s. Critics felt generally indifferent about the release; however, the sexual content of the book gave the work some notoriety and became John Updike’s first great commercial success.
1970 saw the introduction of John Updike’s second-most recurring character, Henry Bech, in his collection of short stories Bech, A Book. Bech, a non-practicing Jew who gained fame as a writer, but has since failed to match the success of his first great book, is trapped in a writing limbo, incapable of resuming his literary career. Writing about Bech would seem to be a difficult task for Updike, who hadn’t strayed too far away from White Anglo-Saxon Protestant characters; however, Bech’s attitude and insights seem more akin to Updike’s than even Harry Angstrom’s. The book itself is a compilation of short stories that depict Bech travelling overseas on a book tour. The stories are generally sardonic and humorous, which is in great contrast to most of Updike’s previous writing ventures. Barbara Nelson of the Library Journal contends, “Updike admirers are going to be just plain disappointed.” In 1982 and 1998, Updike revived the Bech series with Bech is Back and Bech at Bay.
John Updike had a fascination with James Buchanan, the only Pennsylvanian president, who was generally seen as a failure as a man and a president for bringing about the Civil War through his poor leadership. In 1974, Updike wrote a play constructing the final days of a haunted Buchanan in Buchanan Dying: A Play, however this became Updike’s first critical failure. Critics, such as P.S. Prescott of Newsweek, states “No wonder John Updike presents his new book to us much as a father would introduce an ill-formed child.” Updike’s characters are generally flattened in this novel, perhaps because he committed such an immense amount of research in forming this work, stifling his own imaginative aptitude in molding these individuals around factual basis. This would not be the last time Updike would try his hand at writing about James Buchanan. In 1992, his character, Alfred Clayton in his novel Memories of the Ford Administration, is obsessed with his own biography of James Buchanan and Updike’s Buchanan research frequently resurfaces in the novel. John Updike’s original manuscripts for Buchanan Dying: A Play can be found in the Special Collections section of the Paterno Library at the Pennsylvania State University.
In the ten years after publishing Buchanan Dying: A Play, John Updike divorced his wife, Mary Pennington, and married Martha R. Bernhard, with whom he stayed until his death. He wrote the second installment to his Bech books; Bech is Back, and the third installment of the Rabbit series; Rabbit is Rich, and continued to uphold his legacy as one of America’s premier writers. Books like The Coup were highly regarded by critics and showed Updike’s versatility as a writer. He also began a trilogy of books that retell Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter with his novel A Month of Sundays.
In 1984, Updike’s novel The Witches of Eastwick tells the story of three women who have recently escaped their previous marriages. The book dabbles with magical elements, something new for John Updike. Updike stated, in an interview with Don Swaim, that his own grandmother was the basis of much of the superstition in this novel. She was a Pennsylvania Dutch woman who concocted strange stories about the supernatural. He also claimed Jules Michelet’s book, Satanism and Witchcraft served as a great influence to the book. He was attracted to “true diabolism,” the idea that women did indeed view themselves as witches and embraced the role. The book became a best-seller and was adapted to film with an all-star cast in 1987.
John Updike’s first great passion was art. Although he never became well-known for his paintings, his essays about art, compiled in Just Looking: Essays on Art in 1989 and Still Looking: Essays on American Art in 2005 display John Updike’s intense passion for artistry and ability to capture a painting or a sculpture’s beauty in his own masterful prose. Arthur C. Danto of The New York Times, in his article “What MOMA Done Told Him,” praises Updike’s ability to tactfully embrace his reflections of an artwork, stating “the psychological concerns of the novelist drive the eye from work to work in an exhibition until a deep understanding of the art emerges.” Geoff Dyer, a critic of Still Looking: Essays on American Art and author of The Ongoing Moment, a study of photography, feels slighted by John Updike’s “symptoms of adjectival weariness and superlative exhaustion,” as Updike, at times, uses non-specific descriptors including “marvelous” and “crisp” to delineate certain artworks. In an interview with Edward Nawaotka, Updike insists that he is an amateur critic of art as he infrequently attends galleries and maintains “a certain innocence, about as much as an average showgoer.”
Updike commenced the 1990s with the conclusion to his Rabbit tetralogy with Rabbit At Rest, in which he dispatches Harry Angstrom, who has become fat and lazy in his older age. Fearing that he may not live another ten years to write another Rabbit book, Updike forced Harry Angstrom into a premature death. He wrote several other novels in the ‘90s, including Brazil and In The Beauty of the Lilies. In 1998, he finished the third of his Bech Books, Bech at Bay. He concluded the decade with Gertrude and Claudius, an ambitious reworking of the story of Hamlet using various sources used to create the original story.
In the last 20 years of his life, Updike is figuratively showered with awards, winning the PEN/Faulkner award in 1988, the National Medal of Arts in 1989, The Premio Scanno in 1991, the Ambassador Book Award in 1996, the Harvard Arts First Medal in 1997, the National Book Foundation Medal for distinguished contribution to American Letters in 1998, and the Caldecott Honor Book in 2000, just to name a few. Although he never received the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was awarded, in 2008, the Bad Sex in Fiction: Lifetime Achievement Award.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, John Updike was inspired to write a new novel, titled Terrorist. He describes the life of Ahmad Mulloy, a half-Egyptian, half-Irish, boy from New Jersey who becomes tied into an extremist mosque. The story revolves around Ahmad’s spiral into terrorism. Though Ahmad never becomes an ideologue, it is his unwavering innocence and trust in God that allows him to set off a truck bomb. The story is an arduous challenge for Updike. His partially synthesized semantics of Islamic radicalism is supplemented by his hefty experience with American realism, making Ahmad Mulloy surprisingly akin to characters such as The Centaur’s Peter Caldwell. Jonathan Raban insists, “Ahmad is a very Updikean adolescent: painfully polite, self-conscious, intelligent, and a world-class noticer.”
Throughout his adulthood, John Updike wrote literary criticism for publications such as The New Yorker. He contends in an interview on C-SPAN that his goal as a critic is to help the reader, not the writer. Therefore much of Updike’s literary criticism is overbearingly honest for some, and has, on occasion, put John Updike in trouble. A “literary feud” broke out when John Updike, along with Norman Mailer and John Irving, attacked Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel A Man In Full. In the interview Updike insists “Wolfe’s novels… had a whipped up, overblown quality.” Though Updike contended that he was sorry for the feud, he maintained that his biggest regret was “the time it took to read” Wolfe’s book.
In 2008, Updike produced his final novel, The Widows of Eastwick, a sequel to 1984’s The Witches of Eastwick. His last published writing is a literary review of A Mercy, a novel by Toni Morrison in The New Yorker. Close friend of Updike, David Silcox, recalls not hearing back from John Updike after sending him some newspaper clippings from The Reading Eagle. Silcox recalls, “I had heard that he had returned from a book tour in California. The reports I got indicated he came home with pneumonia.”
John Updike’s death did not involve theatrics. No guns were involved. There was no outstanding debt to his name. No hidden lovers out for revenge. The fact is John Updike liked to smoke, just as he liked the starchy Pennsylvanian diet of his youth. John Updike died of lung cancer on January 27, 2009 in Danvers, Massachusetts. The Reading Eagle’s obituary for John Updike remembers Updike for his humble attitude and questions if he truly knew how well liked he was in the area. His stories depict real life and tweeze at the grotesque husk of prosaic American existence to obtain abraded beauty. In dying, the world lost a great writer.
On December 1, 2009, James Plath of the John Updike Society announced that the John Updike Society, a group devoted to the upkeep of Updike’s literary legacy, had reached 100 members. The same year, a posthumous release of Updike’s short stories was released, My Father’s Tears and Other Stories. Perhaps 2010 will be the first year in decades that does not see a John Updike release. Though he has passed away, there are hundreds of letters and essays Updike composed that have yet to be made public. As the years pass, John Updike’s legacy will become concrete, and the extent of his influence fully realized.
Rabbit, Run. New York: Knopf, 1960.
The Centaur. New York: Knopf, 1963.
The Witches of Eastwick. New York: Knopf, 1984.
Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories. New York: Knopf, 1962.
Bech, A Book. New York: Knopf, 1970.
My Father’s Tears and other stories. New York: Knopf, 2009.
The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958.
A Child’s Calendar. New York: Knopf, 1965.
Americana and Other Poems. New York: Knopf, 2001.
Other Notable Publications
Buchanan Dying: A Play. New York: Knopf, 1974.
Just Looking: Essays on Art. New York: Knopf, 1989.
Still Looking: Essays on American Art. New York: Knopf, 2005.
Balliett, Whitney. “Review of Rabbit, Run.” The New Yorker. 5 Nov. 1960.
Posten, Bruce R. “Berks-born Author John Updike Dies.” Reading Eagle. 28 Jan. 2009. State and regional section.
Posten, Bruce R. “A time to remember: The four adult children of the late author John Updike have fond memories of the vacations they spent and the Plowville home of their grandparents. Their father’s death brings back images of those summer days spent in Pennsylvania.” Reading Eagle. 15 Mar. 2009. Lifestyle.
Prescott, Peter S. “Immobile President.” Rev. of Buchanan Dying: A Play. Newsweek. 24 June 1974. 82, 85-86.
Pritchard, William H. “Among John Updike’s many gifts was the ability to transmute the mundane into art.” The Boston Globe. 1 Feb. 2009. 5C+.