John Updike, chronicler of American loves and losses, dies at 76

• Literary powerhouse kept on going until the very end
• Writing career began at the New Yorker in the 1950s

John Updike, the prolific writer who was an enduring presence in post-war literature and a chronicler of the loves and losses of small-town America, has died of lung cancer aged 76.

His publishing house, Alfred Knopf, announced the death in a hospice in Massachusetts, saying Updike was "one of our greatest writers and he will be sorely missed."

In a writing career that began in the early 1950s at the New Yorker magazine, and kept on going like a literary powerhouse until the very end, Updike conjured up more than 50 books and explored virtually every form open to him. On top of a steady stream of essays, literary criticism and short stories, in addition to the more than 20 novels, beyond the poetry, there was a play Buchanan Dying and a memoir Self- Consciousness.

Since his first book, a poetry collection, was published in 1958, there has only been five years without a new Updike book on the shelves.

Despite the quantity, Updike maintained a quality in his work daunting even to much less prolific writers. He had a love of words, and the precision of language, that resonated through everything he produced.

"The author, in his boyish innocence, is calling, like the sorcerer's apprentice, upon unseen powers," he wrote just last November, "the prodigious potential of this flexible language's vast vocabulary."

His most famous series of work, the Rabbit series, also resonates with his fascination with memory and the grounding of his own childhood in suburban Pennsylvania. His four Rabbit books were set in Brewer, a fictional representation of his own childhood town of Shillington, now a part of Reading, where he grew up until the age of 11.

Harry Rabbit Angstrom, his most famous character, embodied the angst and the emotional inability of post-war suburban America. A former high-school basketball star, he is incapable of committing, stuck in the success of his past, frightened of the future.

He received Pulitzer prizes for two in the series: Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest. Martin Amis said of Rabbit at Rest that "this novel is enduringly eloquent about weariness, age and disgust, in a prose that is always fresh, nubile and unwitherable".

By contrast, he was deprived the title of Nobel laureate. In typical Updike fashion, he turned the snub to his advantage, creating another running character called Henry Bech who, though lacking Updike's own astonishing productivity, is eventually rewarded with the Nobel badge of pride.

Updike, as the Bech story implies, had a self-deprecation that also runs through his writing. He once said: "I believe that writers should be read and not seen."

At times he was inevitably dragged into more glamorous settings. His 1984 novel The Witches of Eastwick was translated to the big screen with a star cast of Jack Nicholson, Cher and Michelle Pfeiffer. Updike later complained it "basically distorted or ignored the book itself".

Last year he applied his fondness for sequels to this work, with The Widows of Eastwick which revisited the sorceresses Alexandra, Jane and Sukie and the magic pall they cast over a fictitious Rhode Island village.

His childhood was troubled by illnesses including psoriasis, and he sought comfort in reading. When young he read Proust, Shakespeare, Philip Roth, John Cheever, with a splattering of Kierkegaard. "Read the classics until you are excited by them," he once advised would-be writers. "The basic teaching tool writers must use are other people's books; the classics."

He studied English at Harvard University, where he contributed to, and later edited, the satirical Harvard Lampoon Magazine. He later joined the writing staff of the New Yorker magazine where his professional writing career took off.

Over the next half-century he kept returning to the imagined world of his childhood. In 200 he was asked what Shillington meant to him. "A kind of respect for middle class, ordinary life, a belief that there was something worth saying about it, that there was struggle and morals to be gained, that there was beauty in it. I think a sense of beauty, in a funny way."


Ed Pilkington in New York

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Author John Updike dies
Pulitzer prize-winning novelist dies from lung cancer aged 76

Helen Pidd

27, Jan, 2009 @7:13 PM

Jeet Heer: John Updike was a great writer who ranks alongside Melville, Hemingway and Fitzgerald

Jeet Heer: The best of Updike's fiction was autobiographical, so it's hard for his readers not to take his death personally

Jeet Heer

28, Jan, 2009 @4:00 AM

Editorial: In praise of ... John Updike

Editorial: In short stories as well as novels he made familiar the melancholy, sometimes the terror, of ordinary lives


27, Jan, 2009 @10:12 PM

John Updike: extract from Rabbit, Run

Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires

27, Jan, 2009 @7:19 PM

Article image
Obituary: American author John Updike

Obituary: Acclaimed writer with an unerring feel for the poetry of ordinary American life

Eric Homberger

27, Jan, 2009 @7:55 PM

Guardian review: Rabbit At Rest, by John Updike

James Wood: In the final novel of his great suburban epic, Updike turns America and everything in it into a vast foodstuff, instantly and deliciously consumable

James Wood

25, Oct, 1990 @7:00 AM

More Matter by John Updike

Another year, another John Updike. The man is indefatigable, inescapable. A new novel, Gertrude and Claudius, is due shortly, and his 50th book, More Matter, appeared in time for Christmas. Although, as Peter Walker pointed out in the Financial Times, Santa would have needed quite a large sack.

05, Jan, 2000 @4:15 PM

Article image
A life in pictures: John Updike, 1932-2009

American author and Pulitzer Prize winner John Updike has died aged 76. Celebrate his life in pictures

27, Jan, 2009 @8:08 PM

Article image
Top 10 John Updike short stories

His biographer chooses the best of the great American author's short fiction, 'the chief glory' of his prolific work

Adam Begley

07, May, 2014 @10:00 AM

The Maples Stories by John Updike | Book review
John Updike's 18 short stories beautifully chart the arc of Richard and Joan Maple's relationship, writes Natasha Tripney

Natasha Tripney

10, Jul, 2010 @11:05 PM