- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2009


John Updike, 76, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist; prolific man of letters; and erudite chronicler of sex, divorce and other adventures in the postwar prime of the American empire, died Tuesday of lung cancer. He lived in Beverly Farms, Mass.

A literary writer who frequently appeared on best-seller lists, the tall, hawk-nosed Mr. Updike wrote novels, short stories, poems, criticism, the memoir “Self-Consciousness” and even a famous essay about baseball great Ted Williams. He was prolific, even compulsive, releasing more than 50 books in a career that started in the 1950s. Mr. Updike won virtually every literary prize, including two Pulitzers, for “Rabbit Is Rich” and “Rabbit at Rest,” and two National Book Awards.

Although he was deprived of a Nobel Prize, he did bestow it upon one of his fictional characters, Henry Bech, the womanizing, egotistical Jewish novelist who collected the literature prize in 1999.

His settings ranged from the court of “Hamlet” to post-colonial Africa, but his literary home was the American suburb. Born in 1932, Mr. Updike spoke for millions of Depression-era readers raised by “penny-pinching parents,” united by “the patriotic cohesion of World War II” and blessed by a “disproportionate share of the world’s resources” and 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 and opposition to the Vietnam War. Mr. 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.

More often, he was praised for his flowing, poetic writing style. Describing a man’s interrupted quest to make love, Mr. Updike likened it “to a small angel to which all afternoon tiny lead weights are attached.” Nothing was too great or too small for Mr. Updike to poeticize. He might rhapsodize over the film projector’s “chuckling whir” or look to the stars and observe that “the universe is perfectly transparent: we exist as flaws in ancient glass.”

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, Mr. Updike was a lifelong churchgoer influenced by his faith but not immune to doubts.

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. To the very end, Harry was in motion, an innocent in his belief that any door could be opened, a believer in God even as he bedded women other than his wife.

Other notable books include “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 the courtship, marriage and divorce of the Maples, a suburban couple with parallels to Mr. Updike’s own first marriage.

Plagued from an early age by asthma, psoriasis and a stammer, he found creative outlets in drawing and writing. He was born in Reading, Pa. His mother was 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.

For Mr. Updike, the high life meant books. While studying on a 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 bachelor of arts degree summa cum laude. He divorced her in 1975 and was remarried two years later to Martha Bernhard.

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