John Updike won the 1964 National Book Award for his third novel, The Centaur. The strangely compelling mixture of contemporary 1947 Pennsylvania and ancient Greek mythological figures like Chiron, Prometheus, Venus and Zeus enticed some critics completely into accepting Updike into the ranks of the America’s serious writers. The book also left a minority still questioning whether Updike was truly young, gifted, and profound or merely too clever by half. The ensuing decades made the reception given to The Centaur something akin to a microcosm of Updike’s entire career.
At the thematic heart of The Centaur is Updike’s contention that education American reader of his generation were more familiar with the Greek myths than the Biblical stories and thus could use them to analogize their lives to a greater degree. Through the allegorical symbolism centering upon one of the lesser known mythical figures—Chiron—Updike has fashioned a tale grounded in the accessibility the American high school experience to examine the sacrificial concepts bereft of Christian iconoclasm. In so doing, he not only exposes his fervent belief in the demythologizing of Christianity in 20th century America, but embeds his distinctly non-mythic characters and plot into a long-standing academic tradition.
Thus, the ascension of Updike via The Centaur into the upper echelon of American letters with a novel that is, ultimately, about a high school teacher who has given up on his own dream and psoriasis-afflicted son with dreams of becoming the American Vermeer.