Biography of John Updike

Born on March 18, 1932 in Reading, Pennsylvania, John Updike was the only child of a high school science teacher father and a mother who aspired to be a writer. It was apparently his mother who instilled in young John the passion to write and draw. Updike was a huge fan of humorist books and mysteries throughout his youth and he was prone to consuming them in mass quantities. He aspired to become a cartoonist. He excelled in school, becoming co-valedictorian of Shillington High and receiving a scholarship to attend Harvard. At Harvard, he majored in English and wrote and drew for the Lampoon; his beginnings were thus principally in the mode of humor writing.

Before graduating summa cum laude from Harvard, Updike married Mary A. Pellington, a student at Radcliffe, and in 1954, the year of his commencement, he sold a short story and a poem to The New Yorker. Updike moved with his wife to England to study at Oxford's Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, during which time Mary gave birth to their first daughter, Elizabeth. When they returned to the United States, they settled in New York City, where Updike landed a job as a staff writer for The New Yorker. In 1957, after the birth of their first son, David, the family moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts - where Updike spent the rest of his life. Maintaining ties with The New Yorker but resolving himself to write full-time, Updike began work on his first book of poetry, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, which was published by Harper and Brothers in 1958.

Next came The Poorhouse Fair (1959), Updike's first novel, which was well-received and widely regarded to show true promise. He fulfilled that promise with his second novel, Rabbit, Run (1960), published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Updike published through Knopf for the rest of his career. Rabbit, Run was a huge success, and Updike added further laurels to his crown with The Centaur, which won him the National Book Award in 1963. By the age of thirty-one, he was already one of the country's leading literary voices.

In 1964, he was admitted to the National Institute of Arts and Letters; he remains the youngest person ever to have received this honor. His 1968 novel Couples inspired a Time cover story on the novelist. The 1970s witnessed both the creation of a new recurring protagonist, Henry Bech - in Bech: A Book (1970) - and the reappearance of Harry Angstrom in Rabbit Redux (1971). In 1974, Updike, long an activist on causes involving the Soviet Union, joined Arthur Miller, Richard Wilbur, and John Cheever in demanding that the Soviet government stop persecuting Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He divorced his wife Mary in 1976, and married Martha Ruggles Bernhard the following year.

Subsequent works include Rabbit is Rich (1981), for which Updike won the Pulitzer Prize, Bech is Back (1982), The Witches of Eastwick (1984), Rabbit at Rest (1991), for which he received a second Pulitzer, and Gertrude and Claudius (2000), a prequel to Hamlet. His last novel, Terrorist, was published in 2006. He passed away on January 27th, 2009.


Study Guides on Works by John Updike

This selection of stories includes John Updike's most popular and critically debated short works. "Ace in the Hole," "A & P," and "Pigeon Feathers" are all characteristic of Updike's early style; indeed, 1953's "Ace" was the 21-year-old...

Rabbit, Run was, to put it bluntly, the book that made John Updike - a mere twenty-eight years old at the time - a star. When it was published in 1960, Rabbit, Run heralded a distinctly new voice in American literature. The blending of precision...