In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Updike

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographies, Biographical Essays, and Profiles
  • Tributes
  • Journals
  • Interviews, Personal Essays, and Panel Discussions
  • Correspondence
  • Religion
  • History
  • Race
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Major Writers on Updike
  • Updike and Other Writers

American Literature John Updike
James Schiff
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0032


John Updike (b. 1932–d. 2009) was an immensely versatile and prolific writer who produced more than sixty volumes, including novels, short stories, literary and art criticism, poems, children’s books, a memoir, and a play. A distinguished “man of letters,” Updike excelled at not simply one genre but three: the novel, short fiction, and criticism. Widely praised for his facility with language, visual style, and lyric love of the surface world, Updike was capable of generating scenes and images of extraordinary beauty and freshness. Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, he was educated in public schools in the nearby suburb of Shillington. Pushed toward a career in the arts by his mother, Linda, a homemaker who herself had ambitions of becoming a writer, he earned a tuition scholarship to Harvard. After Harvard and graduate study in drawing in Oxford (England), he was offered a job at the New Yorker, a magazine that he had worshiped ever since he was a boy. He and his young family spent two years in Manhattan but then left in 1957, moving to Ipswich, Massachusetts, a small town an hour north of Boston. Except for a year in London and two in Boston, he would spend the final fifty-two years of his life in small Massachusetts towns on the North Shore, composing at least one book each year. Throughout his life he maintained close ties with the New Yorker, publishing nearly eight hundred pieces (fiction, poetry, articles, reviews) in its pages. His best-known work is Rabbit Angstrom, a sequence of four novels and one novella, written at ten-year intervals between 1960 and 2000. The Rabbit books chronicle the life of everyman Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, while also documenting the history of American culture over the second half of the 20th century. In all, Updike published twenty-three novels, including The Centaur, a mythical depiction of small-town Pennsylvania life; Couples, a sadly erotic tale of suburban adultery during the Kennedy era; The Coup, the memoirs of an exiled African dictator; and his Scarlet Letter trilogy of novels (A Month of Sunday, Roger’s Version, and S.), which engage in intertextual dialogue with Hawthorne’s canonical novel. Updike was also heralded as a major writer of short fiction, publishing more than two hundred stories, including “A & P,” “Pigeon Feathers,” and “Separating.” Given his careful attention to depiction of the quotidian, some have argued that Updike’s talents were better suited to the short story. In addition, he published eleven volumes and more than five thousand pages of essays and criticism, establishing himself as the most significant critic and “man of letters” of his generation.

General Overviews

In spite of the abundance of critical commentary on Updike, no single study provides a comprehensive view of his entire oeuvre. Some of the best early studies—Detweiler 1984, Greiner 1984, Newman 1988—were published mid-oeuvre and thus do not address, roughly speaking, Updike’s final thirty volumes. Later volumes, such as Schiff 1998 and Pritchard 2000, are very good and comprehensive, dealing with the major works as well as Updike’s writings in several genres, yet these two studies, appearing roughly a decade before Updike’s death, do not deal with his final dozen books. Begley 2014, a biography, addresses the entire life and career, though its focus is on the early works. All of these general overviews, along with Baker 1991 and Olster 2006, are accessible.

  • Baker, Nicholson. U and I: A True Story. New York: Random House, 1991.

    An unconventional, clever, and humorously engaging consideration of (and homage to) Updike and literary influence, written by a prominent novelist.

  • Begley, Adam. Updike. New York: HarperCollins, 2014.

    First full-length biography. Provides an excellent introduction to the life and work. Focuses more attention on first half, prior to 1980, of Updike’s life and career, and is most interested in the short fiction.

  • Detweiler, Robert. John Updike. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

    One of the best early studies (first published in 1972) and later revised. Smart and accessible, Detweiler’s volume considers style, themes, structure, and motifs in the early fiction, from The Same Door (1959) through Bech Is Back (1982).

  • Greiner, Donald J. John Updike’s Novels. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1984.

    A good and immensely clear survey of Updike’s first ten novels and first Bech collection, by one of the earliest and finest Updike scholars. Avoiding a thesis approach, Greiner examines each novel through close reading and attention to the comments of reviewers and critics.

  • Newman, Judie. John Updike. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-19260-1

    An intelligent study by a leading British critic in American studies, covering the first eleven novels. Whereas many early critical studies of Updike stressed religious and philosophical concerns, Newman was one of the first, in a book-length manuscript, to explore political, cultural, sexual, and social themes.

  • Olster, Stacey, ed. The Cambridge Companion to John Updike. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521845327

    Excellent, wide-ranging collection of essays dealing with literary style, race, religion, gender, history, film, popular culture, and postmodernism from such familiar Updike critics as Boswell, Greiner, Miller, Olster, Plath, Schiff, Vargo, and Verduin.

  • Pritchard, William H. Updike: America’s Man of Letters. South Royalton, VT: Steerforth, 2000.

    An excellent and lucid introduction to the novels, stories, poetry, and criticism by a distinguished American critic. Pritchard is particularly adept as a close reader of sentences and language; he is also quite good in demonstrating how Updike’s oeuvre evolved over time.

  • Schiff, James A. John Updike Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.

    Provides an excellent introduction to Updike’s work, with readings of most of the major novels as well as chapters covering the literary criticism and most frequently anthologized stories.

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