John Updike 1932—
IT IS NOW possible to say of John Updike what he wrote about Vladimir Nabokov in his 1965 essay “Grand-Master Nabokov” collected in Assorted Prose: he is “the best writer of English prose at present holding American citizenship, [and] the only writer… whose books, considered as a whole, give the happy impression of an oeuvre, of a continuous task carried forward variously, of a solid personality, of a plenitude of gifts exploited knowingly.” No other American writer of the later twentieth century has been so prolific, so consistent, so conscious a designer of his own oeuvre complete, nor so possessed of a plenitude of literary gifts as John Updike. If he was able to appreciate that Nabokov “writes prose the only way it should be written—that is, ecstatically,” he was—it turns out thirty years later—only describing himself. Updike seems to have known from the time his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1959 what his future work would be about (doubt, faith, transience), how it would be written (elegantly, confidently), and even how it would look—typeset in Janson and bound elegantly by the Haddon Craftsmen of Scranton, Pennsylvania, as if it were the first volume of a uniform edition. Appearances, in his case, have not been deceiving. As one reviewer foresaw in 1972, “He is putting together a body of work which in substantial intelligent creation will eventually be seen as second to none in our time.” When he published his first short story in the New Yorker at the age of twenty-three, he seemed a prodigy. Now after some forty books he has become simply prodigious.
At the structural center of his work is the figure of Updike himself, or what might best be called the narrative shape of his own life. Much of his best fiction draws upon his boyhood and adolescence, on the experiences of his parents and family, the places in southeastern Pennsylvania where he grew up, his marriage and adult life in northeastern Massachusetts, and on the intimate details of his infidelities, divorce, and remarriage. Yet Updike’s autobiographical impulse has been curiously dispassionate, not confessional or narcissistic. He has no wish to perform or flaunt himself, but rather to be, as he explained in “Why Write?” (1974), “a means whereby a time and place make their mark.” He sought, that is, selflessness: “Beginning with the wish to make an impression, one ends wishing to erase the impression, to make of it a perfect transparency, to make of oneself a point of focus purely, as selfless as a lens.” Confident that his own time and place had to be significant and would express themselves through the lens of a scrupulous eye, Updike set about the investigation of his own life.
John Updike was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on March 18,1932, the only child of Linda Grace Hoyer and Wesley Russell Updike, a junior high school teacher of mathematics. For the next thirteen years the family lived...