Though noted primarily for his novels, John Updike has made a significant contribution to American letters through his work as an essayist. Beginning with his a ppointment to the staff of the New Yorker magazine after returning from graduate studies in England in 1955, Updike has written speculative pieces on American society, book reviews on works by his countrymen and writers from around the world, reminiscences, travelogues, parodies, and criticism of literature and art. The bulk of his work has appeared originally in the New Yorker and other popular or highbrow American magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, New Republic, Harper’s, and the American Scholar. During the 1980s and 1990s he has contributed introductions and commentaries to anthologies and reprints of important works by other writers. In the five collections issued between 1965 and 1991, he expands his published materials to include several speeches given before local and national forums. Taken in toto, these nonfiction pieces provide a surprisingly useful gloss on the literary vision of one of America’s most prolific and successful fiction writers of the 20th century.
Clearly the majority of Updike’s nonfiction has been occasional, prompted by an invitation to contribute to a publication or for a special event. His reviews of contemporary literature run into the hundreds, and he considers the opportunity to produce reviews and essays an important corollary to his work as a novelist and shortstory writer. “One accepts editorial invitations,” he remarks in the preface to Odd Jobs (1991), “in the hopes of learning something, or of extracting from within some unsuspected wisdom. For writing educates the writer as it goes along.” How one uses the education gained through such writing is, Updike admits with wry self-deprecation, another matter: “My purpose in reading has ever secretly been not to come and judge but to come and steal.” Certainly these literary exercises have benefited Updike in his novels, but his erudition shows also in the wide range of tasks he has undertaken with facility.
Among the writers whose works he has reviewed are Americans Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Annie Dillard, Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, Joyce Carol Oates, and William Least Heat Moon; British writers Iris Murdoch, Cyril Connolly, and Margaret Drabble; Europeans Robert Pinget, Michel Tournier, Raymond Queneau, Umberto Eco, Milan Kundera, Yuri Trifonov, Evgenii Evtushenko, and Elena Bonner; Latin Americans Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Isabel Allende. Regardless of the author he reviews, Updike speaks with authority, making pertinent connections to other works by his subject and others. Throughout his career as a literary journalist, Updike follows the maxim set down by T.S.Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), that a new work should be measured against the body of literature it joins and which it changes by its appearance. In doing so, not only does he display his knowledge, but— more importantly—he reveals much of his own literary credo. In writing about his contemporaries Updike makes a clear case for his own literary values: accuracy in presenting one’s subject, felicity in style, precision in describing both external circumstance and inner feelings, and a deep understanding of and sympathy for the flawed creatures who make up the human race, regardless of national allegiance or ethnic origin.
In his less formal pieces, Updike often strikes the pose of the gentle satirist, poking fun at American life and customs; nor does he exempt himself from criticism. Whether writing about baseball, postal envelopes, or an imaginary visit to the planet Minerva, he is able to capture people, places, and events with a clarity of vision that brings them to life for readers. Even in pieces which seem to have no great moral, political, or sociological import, Updike takes great pains to see that readers share the experience about which he has chosen to write. While there may be no great lessons to impart, readers are nevertheless heartened—even delighted—to have an opportunity to find before them a little bit of the American scene, with all its foibles and idiosyncracies.
Although his subjects vary widely, Updike writes with a consistent voice throughout all his nonfiction. Seldom does he become too effusive in his praise, and even less seldom does he stoop to mean-spirited castigation. He does not begrudge others their fame or financial success. He recognizes, even celebrates, the ordinary life he sees around him. He is remarkably forgiving of mistakes by others, and he frequently asks readers to recognize and forgive his own misapprehensions, perceived or real. The “I” of Updike’s essays is genuine, direct, and sympathetic—in the original sense of the word: capable of entering into a fellow-feeling with his subjects, whatever their profession.
John Hoyer Updike. Born 18 March 1932 in Shillington, Pennsylvania. Studied at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, A.B. (summa cum laude), 1954; Knox Fellow, Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts, Oxford, 1954–55. Married Mary Pennington, 1953 (marriage later dissolved): two daughters and two sons. Staff reporter, 1955–57, and frequent contributor, the New Yorker. Married Martha Bernhard, 1977.
Awards: many, including the National Book Award, 1964; Foreign Book Prize (France), 1966; MacDowell Medal, 1981; Pulitzer Prize, 1982, 1991; American Book Award, 1982; National Book Critics Circle Award, for fiction, 1982, 1990, and for Hugging the Shore, 1984; Union League Club Abraham Lincoln Award, 1982; National Arts Club Medal of Honor, 1984; National Medal of the Arts, 1989. Member, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1976.
Essays and Related Prose
Assorted Prose, 1965
Picked-Up Pieces, 1975
Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism, 1983
Just Looking: Essays on Art, 1989
Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism, 1991
Other writings: 17 novels (The Poorhouse Fair, 1959; four Rabbit novels, 1960–90;
The Centaur, 1963; Of the Farm, 1965; Couples, 1968; A Month of Sundays, 1975;
Marry Me, 1976; The Coup, 1978; The Witches of Eastwick, 1984; Roger’s Version, 1986; S., 1988; Metnories of the Ford Administration, 1992; Brazil, 1994; In the Beauty of the Lilies, 1996), many collections of short stories and poetry, two plays, and the memoir Self-Consciousness (1987).
De Bellis, Jack, John Updike: A Bibliography, 1967–1993, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994
Bloom, Harold, editor, John Updike, New York: Chelsea House, 1987
Burchard, Rachael C, John Updike: Yea Sayings, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971
Detweiler, Robert, John Updike, Boston: Twayne, revised edition, 1984
Donoghue, Denis, “The Zeal of a Man of Letters,” New York Times Book Review, 18 September 1983:1, 30–31
Greiner, Donald J., The Other John Updike: Poems, Short Stories, Prose, Play, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981
Hamilton, Alice, and Kenneth Hamilton, The Elements of John Updike, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1970
Hunt, George W., John Updike and the Three Great Secret Things: Sex, Religion, and Art, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1980
Kenner, Hugh, “Jobs Well Done: Odd Jobs,” National Review, 17 February 1992:52–54
Macnaughton, William R., editor, Critical Essays on John Updike, Boston: Hall, 1982
Newman, Judie, John Updike, London: Macmillan, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988
Riggan, William, “Shallow Drafts: John Updike’s Hugging the Shore,” World Literature Today 58 (Summer 1984): 380–83
Schwartz, Sandford, “Top of the Class,” New York Review of Books, 24 November 1983:26–30, 35
Simon, John, “Plying a Periplus,” New Republic, 21 November 1983:34–37
Trevor, William, “Discourse Most Eloquent Musing: Odd Jobs” Spectator, 8 February 1992:29–30
Wolcott, James, “The Price of Finesse,” Harper’s 267 (September 1983):63–66
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