John Updike, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and erudite chronicler of sex, divorce and other adventures in the postwar prime of the American empire, died of lung cancer Tuesday at a hospice near his home in Beverly Farms, Mass. He was 76.
News of his death came in a statement from his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.
Updike was prolific, even compulsive, releasing more than 50 books in a career that started in the 1950s. He won virtually every literary prize, including two Pulitzers, for “Rabbit Is Rich” and “Rabbit at Rest,” and two National Book Awards.
The most notable film based on his work was 1987’s “The Witches of Eastwick,” based on his comic fantasy novel. “Rabbit Run” was adapted into a 1970 film starring James Caan.
His settings ranged from the court of “Hamlet” to post-colonial Africa, but his literary home was the American suburb. Updike spoke for millions of Depression-era readers raised by “penny-pinching parents,” united by “the patriotic cohesion of World War II,” blessed by a “disproportionate share of the world’s resources” and living in the postwar, suburban boom of “idealistic careers and early marriages.”
He captured, and sometimes embodied, a generation’s confusion over the civil rights and women’s movements, as well as opposition to the Vietnam War. Updike was called a misogynist, a racist and an apologist for the establishment. On purely literary grounds, he was attacked by Norman Mailer as the kind of author appreciated by readers who knew nothing about writing.
But more often he was praised for his flowing, poetic writing style.
In the richest detail, his books recorded the extremes of earthly desire and spiritual zealotry, whether the comic philandering of the preacher in “A Month of Sundays” or the steady rage of the young Muslim in “Terrorist.”
Raised in the Protestant community of Shillington, Pa., where the Lord’s Prayer was recited daily at school, Updike was a lifelong churchgoer influenced by his faith but not immune to doubts.
“I remember the times when I was wrestling with these issues that I would feel crushed. I was crushed by the purely materialistic, atheistic account of the universe,” Updike told the Associated Press during a 2006 interview.
He received his greatest acclaim for the “Rabbit” series, a quartet of novels published over a 30-year span that featured ex-high school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom and his restless adjustment to adulthood and the constraints of work and family.
Other notable books included “Couples,” a sexually explicit tale of suburban mating that sold millions of copies; “In the Beauty of the Lilies,” an epic of American faith and fantasy; and “Too Far to Go,” which followed suburban couple the Maples and was adapted into a 1979 TV movie.
Plagued from an early age by asthma, psoriasis and a stammer, he found creative outlets in drawing and writing. Updike was born in Reading, Pa., his mother a department store worker who longed to write, his father a high school teacher remembered with sadness and affection in “The Centaur,” a novel published in 1964.
While studying on full scholarship at Harvard, he headed the staff of the Harvard Lampoon and met the woman who became his first wife, Mary Entwistle Pennington, whom he married in June 1953, a year before he earned his A.B. degree summa cum laude. (Updike divorced Pennington in 1975 and was remarried two years later, to Martha Bernhard.)
While studying painting at Oxford, his literary idol, E.B. White, offered him a position at the New Yorker, where he served briefly as foreign books reviewer. Many of Updike’s reviews and short stories were published in the New Yorker, often edited by White’s stepson, Roger Angell.
By the end of the 1950s, Updike had published a story collection, a book of poetry and his first novel, “The Poorhouse Fair,” soon followed by the first of the Rabbit books, “Rabbit, Run.”
In 1957, he left New York, with its “cultural hassle” and melting pot of “agents and wisenheimers,” and settled with his first wife and four kids in Ipswich, Mass., a “rather out-of-the-way town” about 30 miles north of Boston.
His lyric first-hand account of Ted Williams’ final home run in Fenway Park in the last at-bat of Williams’ career, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” published in the New Yorker in 1960, became the stuff or regional lore, and is regarded by many as the best essay about baseball.
— Associated Press