Dossier de John Updike en Español
NYT - CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT
- John Updike, a Lyrical Writer of the Middle-Class Man, Dies
John Updike, the kaleidoscopically gifted writer whose
quartet of Rabbit novels highlighted a body of fiction, verse,
essays and criticism so vast, protean and lyrical as to place
him in the first rank of American authors, died on Tuesday in
Danvers, Mass. He was 76 and lived in Beverly Farms, Mass.
The cause was cancer, according to a statement by Knopf, his
publisher. A spokesman said Mr. Updike had died at the Hospice
of the North Shore in Danvers.
Of Mr. Updike’s many novels and stories, perhaps none captured
the imagination of the book-reading public more than his
precisely observed tales about ordinary citizens in small-town
and urban settings.
His best-known protagonist, Harry Rabbit Angstrom, first appears
as a former high-school basketball star trapped in a loveless
marriage and a sales job he hates. Through the four novels whose
titles bear his nickname — “Rabbit, Run,” “Rabbit Redux,”
“Rabbit Is Rich” and “Rabbit at Rest” — the author traces the
funny, restless and questing life of this middle-American
against the background of the last half-century’s major events.
“My subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class,”
Mr. Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life
magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that
extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”
From his earliest short stories, he found his subject in the
everyday dramas of marriage, sex and divorce, setting them most
often in the fictional town of Olinger, Pa., which he described
as “a square mile of middle-class homes physically distinguished
by a bend in the central avenue that compels some side streets
to deviate from the grid.” He wrote about America with boundless
curiosity and wit in prose so careful and attentive that it
burnished the ordinary with a painterly gleam.
Here he is in “A Sense of Shelter,” an early short story:
“Snow fell against the high school all day, wet big-flake snow
that did not accumulate well. Sharpening two pencils, William
looked down on a parking lot that was a blackboard in reverse;
car tires had cut smooth arcs of black into the white, and
wherever a school bus had backed around, it had left an
autocratic signature of two V’s.”
The detail of his writing was so rich that it inspired two
schools of thought on Mr. Updike’s fiction: those who responded
to his descriptive prose as to a kind of poetry, a sensuous
engagement with the world, and those who argued that it was more
style than content.
The latter position was defined by James Wood in the 1999 essay
“John Updike’s Complacent God.”
“He is a prose writer of great beauty,” Mr. Wood wrote, “but
that prose confronts one with the question of whether beauty is
enough, and whether beauty always conveys all that a novelist
Astonishingly industrious and prolific, Mr. Updike turned out
three pages a day of fiction, essays, criticism or verse,
proving the maxim that several pages a day was at least a book a
year — or more. Mr. Updike published 60 books in his lifetime;
his final one, “My Father’s Tears and Other Stories,” is to be
published in June.
“I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottles,
if I had to,” he told The Paris Review in 1967. “The miracle of
turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words
into metal and print and ink never palls for me.”
His vast output of poetry, which tended toward light verse, and
his wide-ranging essays and criticism filled volume after volume.
Among them are “Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf” (1996), “Just
Looking: Essays on Art” (1989), “Still Looking: Essays on
American Art” (2005) and “Self-Consciousness: Memoirs” (1989).
One famous article was on the baseball star Ted Williams’s last
game, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” (1977), which first appeared in
The New Yorker in 1960.
As his fiction matured, Mr. Updike’s novels sometimes became
more exotic and experimental in form, locale and subject matter.
“The Coup” (1978) was set in an imaginary African country.
“Brazil” (1994) was a venture in magic realism. “Toward the End
of Time” (1997) was set in 2020, after a war between the United
States and China. “Gertrude and Claudius” (2000) was about
Hamlet’s mother and uncle. And “The Terrorist” (2006) was a
fictional study of a convert to Islam who tries to blow up the
Mr. Updike never abandoned short stories, of which he turned out
several hundred, most of them first appearing in The New Yorker.
It was here that he exercised his exquisitely sharp eye for the
minutiae of domestic routine and the conflicts that animated it
for him — between present satisfaction and future possibility,
between sex and spirituality, and between the beauty of creation
and the looming threat of death, which he summed up famously in
the concluding sentence of “Pigeon Feathers,” the title story of
his second collection (1962).
The story is about a boy, David, who is forced to shoot some
pigeons in a barn and then watches, fascinated, as their
feathers float to the ground. “He was robed in this certainty:
that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless
birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let
David live forever.”
Philip Roth, one of Mr. Updike’s literary peers, said Tuesday:
“John Updike is our time’s greatest man of letters, as brilliant
a literary critic and essayist as he was a novelist and short
story writer. He is and always will be no less a national
treasure than his 19th-century precursor, Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
John Hoyer Updike was born on March 18, 1932, in Reading, Pa.,
and grew up in the nearby town of Shillington. He was the only
child of Wesley Russell Updike, a junior high school math
teacher of Dutch descent, and Linda Grace Hoyer Updike, who
later also published fiction in The New Yorker and elsewhere.
His was a solitary childhood made more so by his family’s move
when he was 13 to his mother’s birthplace, on an 80-acre farm
near Plowville, Pa. From there both he and his father commuted
11 miles to school in town, but the isolation fired the boy’s
imagination as well as his desire to take flight from aloneness.
Sustained by hours of reading in the local library and by his
mother’s encouragement to write, he aspired first to be either
an animator for Walt Disney or a magazine cartoonist. But a
sense of narrative was implanted early, perhaps nurtured by
summer work as a copyboy for a local newspaper, The Reading
Eagle, for which he wrote several feature articles.
After graduating from high school as co-valedictorian and
senior-class president, Mr. Updike attended Harvard College on a
scholarship. Although he majored in English and wrote for and
edited The Harvard Lampoon, he continued his cartooning. In 1953
he married Mary Entwistle Pennington, a Radcliffe fine arts
Graduating from Harvard in 1954 summa cum laude, he won a Knox
Fellowship at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in
Oxford. In June of that year, his short story “Friends From
Philadelphia” was accepted, along with a poem, by The New
Yorker. It was an event, he later said, that remained “the
ecstatic breakthrough of my literary life.”
Following the birth of his first child, Elizabeth, the couple
returned to America, and Mr. Updike went to work writing Talk of
the Town pieces for The New Yorker.
Two years later, with the arrival of a second child, David, the
couple, needing more space, moved to Ipswich, Mass., an hour
north of Boston, where Mr. Updike kept his ties to The New
Yorker but concentrated on his poetry and fiction. In 1959, a
third child, Michael, was born, followed the next year by a
The move to Ipswich proved creatively invigorating. By 1959 Mr.
Updike had completed three books — a volume of poetry, “The
Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures,” a novel, “The
Poorhouse Fair” and a collection of stories, “The Same Door” —
and placed them with Alfred A. Knopf, which remained his
publisher throughout his career. From 1954 to 1959, he also
published more than a hundred essays, articles, poems and short
stories in The New Yorker.
The move to a small town also seemed to stimulate his memories
of Shillington and his creation of its fictional counterpart,
Olinger. All his early stories were set there or in a
neighboring city modeled on Reading, as were his first four
novels, “The Poorhouse Fair,” “The Centaur,” “Of the Farm” and
“Rabbit, Run.” “The Poorhouse Fair” (1959), avoiding the usual
coming-of-age tale of most beginners, established Mr. Updike’s
reputation as an important novelist. Based on an old people’s
home near Shillington, the novel explores the homogenization of
society among members of the author’s grandfather’s generation.
“The Centaur” (1963), more autobiographical, welds the Greek
myth of Chiron, the wounded centaur who gives up his immortality
for the release of Prometheus, to the story of a mocked Olinger
high-school science teacher who sacrifices himself for his son.
It won the 1964 National Book Award for fiction.
“Of the Farm” (1965), set not far from Olinger, focuses on the
mother of a farm family who fears she will die before her son,
gone into advertising in New York, will fulfill her dream of his
becoming a poet.
With “Couples” (1968), his fifth novel, Mr. Updike moved his
setting away from Pennsylvania to the fictional Tarbox, Mass.
There he explores sexual coupling and uncoupling in a community
of young married couples who, as Wilfrid Sheed wrote in The New
York Times Book Review, “wanted to get away from the staleness
of Old America and the vulgarity of the new; who wanted to live
beautifully in beautiful surroundings; to raise intelligent
children in renovated houses in absolutely authentic rural
centers.” “Couples,” which became a best seller, was for its
time remarkably frank about sex and became well known for its
lengthy detail and often lyrical descriptions of sexual acts.
With the Rabbit quartet, Mr. Updike cast his keen eye on a still
wider world. Where “Rabbit, Run” plays out its present-tense
narrative in domestic squalor, its three sequels, published in
10-year intervals, encompass the later 20th century American
experience: “Rabbit Redux” (1971) the cultural turmoil of the
1960s; “Rabbit Is Rich” (1981) the boom years of the 1970s, the
oil crisis and inflation; and “Rabbit at Rest” (1991), set in
the time of what Rabbit calls “Reagan’s reign,” with its trade
war with Japan, its AIDS epidemic and the terror bombing of Pan
Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Rabbit lies dying in a hospital at the end of the last volume,
overweight, worn-out, felled by a coronary infarction during a
one-on-one basketball game. With his life over, many critics
judged that Rabbit had entered the pantheon of signal American
literary figures, joining Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, Holden
Caulfield and the like.
“Rabbit Redux” was considered the weakest of the set, but
“Rabbit Is Rich” and “Rabbit at Rest” both won Pulitzer Prizes
and other awards. Reissued as a set in 1995, “Rabbit Angstrom: A
Tetralogy” was pronounced by some to be a contender for the
crown of great American novel.
As a small-town businessman of limited scope, Rabbit is
obviously very different from his creator. Yet the two of them
share a middle-American view of the world, with the difference
that Mr. Updike was exquisitely self-conscious. Against the
grain of his calling and temperament, he strove, like the German
writer Thomas Mann, for a burgherly life.
He took up golf, which he played with passionate enthusiasm and
also a writer’s eye, noting the grace notes in others’ swings
and tiny variations in the landscape. He was a tall, handsome
man with a prominent nose and a head of hair that Tom Wolfe once
compared to “monkish thatch.” It eventually turned white, as did
his bushy eyebrows, giving him a senatorial appearance. And
though as a youth he suffered from both a stutter and psoriasis,
he became a person of immense charm, unfailingly polite and
gracious in public.
As a citizen of Ipswich, he participated in local affairs,
serving on the Congregational Church building committee and the
Democratic town committee and writing a pageant for the town’s
17th-Century Day. For a while he worked downtown, in an office
above a restaurant. Although politically liberal, he was
virtually alone among American writers to declare himself in
support of the Vietnam War.
In 1974 he separated from Mary and moved to Boston, where he
taught briefly at Boston University. In 1976 the Updikes were
divorced, and the following year he married Martha Ruggles
Bernhard, settling with her and her three children first in
Georgetown, Mass., and then in 1984 in Beverly Farms, both towns
in the same corner of the state as Ipswich.
In addition to his wife, Martha, he is survived by his sons
David, of Cambridge, Mass., and Michael, of Newburyport, Mass.;
his daughters Miranda, of Ipswich, and Elizabeth, of Maynard,
Mass.; three stepsons, John Bernhard, of Lexington, Mass., Jason
Bernhard, of Brooklyn, and Frederic Bernhard, of New Canaan,
Conn.; seven grandchildren, and seven step-grandchildren.
A Book a Year
With the storehouse of his youthful experience emptying and his
material circumstances enriched — the bestselling “Couples” put
its author’s face on the cover of Time magazine — he
nevertheless determined to keep publishing a book a year.
“Writing’s gotten to be a habit,” he told Michiko Kakutani in an
interview with The Times in 1982, a year after “Rabbit Is Rich”
was published. “Sometimes the books do seem kind of silly and
very papery, but there are moments when a sentence or a series
of sentences clicks.”
Among the dozen or more novels he brought out in the next
quarter century, some clicked, like “The Witches of Eastwick”
(1984), celebrated by some as an exuberant sexual comedy and a
satirical view of women’s liberation. It was made into a film
starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle
He returned to the witches in another novel, “The Widows of
Eastwick,” published in October, portraying them as widows
revisiting the town. No longer preying on men as they once did,
they are now “ordinary women,” Ms. Kakutani wrote in her review,
“haunted by the sins of their youth, frightened of the looming
prospect of the grave and trying their best to get by, day by
day by day.”
Other later Updike novels seemed schematic, like the author’s
three takes on Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter”: “Roger’s Version”
(1986), “S” (1988) and “A Month of Sundays” (1975). “Memories of
the Ford Administration” (1992), linking personal guilt to
history; “Seek My Face” (2002), an improvisation on the life of
Jackson Pollock; and “Villages” (2004), about small-town
adultery, also found lukewarm receptions.
Some readers complained about his portrayal of women. In an
interview with The Times in 1988, Mr. Updike acknowledged the
criticism that “my women are never on the move, that they’re
always stuck where the men have put them.” His “only defense,”
he said, “would be that it’s in the domesticity, the family, the
sexual relations, that women interest me. I don’t write about
too many male businessmen, and I’m not apt to write about too
many female businessmen.”
Yet in trying to address this criticism by creating what he
called “active and dynamic” women in “The Witches of Eastwick”
and “S,” he may have made things worse. Some reviewers detected
behind the author’s apparent respect for these female dynamos
more ambivalence than anything else.
Meanwhile, the essays, book reviews, art criticism,
reminiscences, introductions, forewords, prefaces, speeches,
travel notes, film commentary, prose sketches, ruminations and
other occasional jottings poured forth inexhaustibly, as if the
experiences of his five senses only became real once recorded on
The novelist Martin Amis sketched Mr. Updike plausibly in a 1991
review of a collection for The Times Book Review: “Preparing his
cup of Sanka over the singing kettle, he wears his usual
expression: that of a man beset by an embarrassment of delicious
drolleries. The telephone starts ringing. A science magazine
wants something pithy on the philosophy of subatomic
thermodynamics; a fashion magazine wants 10,000 words on his
favorite color. No problem — but can they hang on? Mr. Updike
has to go upstairs again and blurt out a novel.”
Over the decades, the assorted nonfiction filled six thick
volumes, “Assorted Prose” (1965), “Picked-Up Pieces” (1975),
“Hugging the Shore” (1983), “Odd Jobs” (1991), “More Matter”
(1999) and “Due Considerations” (2007). The impression they left
most indelibly was their author’s vast range in time, space and
discipline as a reader, and his deep capacity to understand,
appreciate, discriminate, explain and guide. As he once said: “I
think it good for an author, baffled by obtuse reviews of
himself, to discover what a recalcitrant art reviewing is, how
hard it is to keep the plot straight, let alone to sort out
one’s honest responses.”
And whatever his flaws as a novelist, his mastery of the short-story
form at least for a time continued to grow. Reviewing Mr.
Updike’s sixth collection of stories, “Museums and Women and
Other Stories” (1972), Anatole Broyard wrote in The Times, “His
former preciousness has toughened into precision.” He concluded,
“His language, which was once like a cat licking its fur, now
stays closer to its subject, has become a means instead of an
end in itself.”
Not incidentally, it was in a story collection — his fifth,
“Bech: A Book” (1970) — that Mr. Updike created a counter-self
living a counter-life in the character Henry Bech. Bech is an
unmarried, urban, blocked Jewish writer immersed in the swim of
literary celebrity — “a vain, limp leech on the leg of
literature as it waded through swampy times,” as Bech himself
put it in the third volume devoted to him, “Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel”
(1998), which followed “Bech Is Back” (1982).
As Mr. Updike’s opposite, Henry Bech not only entertained his
readers in a voice very different from his creator’s — world-weary,
full of schmerz and a touch of schmalz — he also undertook
certain tasks that Mr. Updike avoided, like attending literary
dinners, tsk-tsking over a younger generation’s minimalist prose
and maximal tendency to write memoirs, working off grudges,
murdering critics and interviewing John Updike for The New York
Times Book Review.
Bech even wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, something that
Mr. Updike never did, to the consternation of many Western
writers and critics.
By contrasting so sharply with his creator, Henry Bech also
defined Mr. Updike more distinctly, particularly his
determination to stick to the essentials of his craft. As Mr.
Updike told The Paris Review about his decision to shun the New
“Hemingway described literary New York as a bottle full of
tapeworms trying to feed on each other. When I write, I aim in
my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to
the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves,
without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teenaged boy
finding them, have them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks in
Brentano’s, are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on