American Voices: John Updike

American Voices: John Updike

The authors featured in our exhibit American Voices represent the evolution and flourishing of American writing. Writers of the 1600s and 1700s borrowed forms and themes from Europe, applying them to New World settings and issues. Then, over the course of the 1800s, a new, democratic style emerged, rooted in the way Americans talked and thought. Previously underrepresented  voices began to be heard, culminating with an explosion of perspectives in the modern era. Taken together, this rich literary heritage reflects America in all of its complexity: its energy, hope, conflict, disillusionment, and creativity.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

John Updike

John Updike grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, which inspired the setting for his four Rabbit novels. In his adolescence, he seriously considered a career as a cartoonist but instead turned to writing, beginning with a staff position at The New Yorker. He left after two years but maintained a lifelong relationship with the magazine, which frequently published the famously prolific writer’s short stories, criticism, and essays.

Balancing precision and realism with lyricism and humor, Updike’s fiction plumbed the emotional depths of what he called the “American Protestant small-town middle class.” Noting that Updike was also a brilliant essayist and critic, author Philip Roth once called him “our time’s greatest man of letters.”

Photo of John Updike in 1962. (Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos)
John Updike in 1962. (Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos)

“I think of my books not as sermons or directives in a war of ideas but as objects, with different shapes and textures and the mysteriousness of anything that exists. My first thought about art, as a child, was that the artist brings something into the world that didn’t exist before, and that he does it without destroying something else… That seems to me its central magic, its core of joy.”

—John Updike, as interviewed by Charles Thomas Samuels for The Paris Review (Winter 1968)

Fast Facts about John Updike

John Updike circa 1955. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
  • His most well-known works are the Rabbit novels, beginning with Rabbit, Run.
  • He is one of only four writers to win more than one Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His wins were in 1982 for Rabbit is Rich and 1991 for Rabbit at Rest.
  • He received medals from two Bush Presidents. In 1989, George H.W. Bush presented him with the National Medal of Arts, and in 2003 George W. Bush presented him with the National Medal of Humanities.
  • He also published eight volumes of poetry beginning with The Carpentered Hen (1958) and the posthumous Endpoint (2009).

John Updike circa 1955. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“A virtuoso, he was never content with virtuosity. He sang like Henry James, but he saw like Sinclair Lewis. The two sides of American fiction—the precise, realist, encyclopedic appetite to get it all in, and the exquisitist urge to make writing out of sensation rendered exactly—were both alive in him. He was at once conjurer and chronicler, and it is this that makes the great Updike novels masterpieces properly so called: they get it all in and they get it all right.”

—Adam Gopnik, “John Updike,” The New Yorker (February 9, 2009)

Selected Works by John Updike

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