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John Updike

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Arguably one of the most accomplished and influential and certainly among the most prolific of late 20th and early 21st century belletrists, John Updike left behind a vast and illuminating body of work, with 61 published novels, collections of short stories, and essay compilations at the time of his death from lung cancer in January 2009. Though his novels and stories were topically and thematically somewhat diverse, many shared a preoccupation with the vicissitudes of day-to-day life among middle-class American Protestants during the post-WWII years and undertook more than a passing glance at their conflicting mores and sexual hypocrisies. The majority, as well, eschewed uplift for a dark and brooding pessimism about human nature, offset by Updike's wicked sense of humor, the magic of his word choice, and the richness of his imagery. Over the course of his career, such titles as the Rabbit tetralogy, Poorhouse Fair, The Witches of Eastwick, The Centaur, and many other tomes quickly and justly became staples of the American literary canon. Born in Reading, PA, in 1932, Updike came of age in the nearby community of Shillington as the son of a math teacher and aspiring writer; the family relocated to a farm in 1945. Though he harbored ambitions to become a cartoonist or a Disney animator early in life, a love of literature took the front seat, supplanted by writing when the young man accepted a job with a local newspaper, The Reading Eagle, and authored several well-received feature stories for it. After graduating from high school as co-valedictorian of his class, he attended Harvard on a scholarship, where he majored in English and steadily worked on the university periodical The Harvard Lampoon (juggling the roles of editor and writer). Updike graduated in 1954, shortly after marrying for the first time, and that June also witnessed his literary breakthrough: the month when the 22 year old had a short story and poem accepted by The New Yorker in what would become one of the most fruitful and enduring partnerships between a novelist and a periodical in U.S. history.Updike completed graduate work at Oxford and subsequently relocated to New England with his growing family in the late '50s; it took around 10 years, but the setting of his work eventually shifted to correspond to this change, from the Pennsylvania environs of his youth (with much of the early work set in Shillington) to the small-town New England of his adult life. Beginning in the late '50s, he also started to amass what grew into a sprawling collection of accolades for his bestselling novels, including the Rosenthal Foundation Award (for Poorhouse in 1959), the National Book Award for Fiction (for The Centaur in 1964), and, eventually, Pulitzer Prizes for the installments in his Rabbit cycle Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990). That cycle arguably remains the single most vital group of works that Updike turned out, with its ongoing chronicle about Rabbit Angstrom, who evolves from a high school basketball player to a harried and ineffectual small-town businessman who ultimately dies of a coronary infarction in a hospital. In later years, Updike drifted increasingly though not consistently away from realism and into flights of literary fantasy, a trend that peaked with his 1994 foray into magic realism, the roman Brazil. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the author's incredibly dense behavioral insights, fondness for a deliberate pace, small-scale (yet rich) revelations, and love of the "ordinary," his works have been infrequently adapted to the screen; two major exceptions were the 1970 cinematization Rabbit, Run (starring James Caan, directed by Jack Smight, and generally regarded as unsuccessful) and the 1987 horror comedy The Witches of Eastwick, starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer. Though an enormous hit, Eastwick reportedly represented an unhappy experience for director George Miller, and the script drifted far away from its thematic preoccupations originally set forth in the Updike novel of three years prior. ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi



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