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John Updike: Biography, Short Stories & Books

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You might not think the novelization of your everyday life would be worth reading, but John Updike might've very well disagreed. Find out why when you read this lesson on the life and work of this prolific American author.

Everyman's Storyteller: A Brief Biography of John Updike

Do you ever have trouble reading the works of Shakespeare or Jane Austen? Many people often do nowadays, and this might be because many of their characters (i.e. royalty and gentlefolk) and the situations they find themselves in are sometimes unrelatable to today's readers. Luckily, though, there are guys like John Updike who give us stories about people pretty much anyone can relate to.

John Hoyer Updike (1932-2009), American novelist, poet, and short story writer
Photo of John Updike

John Hoyer Updike was born March 18th, 1932 in Reading, Pennsylvania. It was near there in Shillington, PA where Updike spent his childhood and where this astute observer of everyday middle-class life got his first taste of small-town living. It was also the model for the sleepy town of Olinger, where many of John's earliest short stories are set.

With a coveted full-ride scholarship to Harvard University, John pursued a degree in English. There, he also became president of the Harvard Lampoon - the school's student-run periodical devoted to humorous works, particularly parodies. Updike graduated from Harvard in 1954 with the great distinction of summa cum laude.

The next year, John began contributing poetry, short stories, and critical essays to The New Yorker, and this relationship would last practically throughout his long career. It wasn't until 1958, however, that Updike knew that writing was going to pay his bills when, in the same year, he published both his first collection of poetry (The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures) as well as his first novel (The Poorhouse Fair).

From that point on, John knew that he was meant to be a career writer. And with over 50 books and almost 200 individual short stories, he was certainly one of the most prolific of his and many other generations. Aside from his poetry, novels, and short stories, Updike also published numerous pieces on art and literary criticism. Nevertheless, John Updike - who died from lung cancer on January 27th, 2009 in Danvers, Massachusetts - is most often remembered for his treasured tales of and for the everyman. Keep reading to get a glance at some of the most famous and popular of these in Updike's huge body of work!

Books and Short Stories by Updike

Rabbit, Run

You've probably met someone similar to Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom: a basketball star who peaked in high school and now who's scared to face a world where things don't come so easily. Published in 1960, Rabbit, Run is the first novel to chronicle the decades of Rabbit's daily small-town life. In his mid-twenties, Rabbit is terrified by the prospect of being tied down in a little town when he expected so much more from life, initially leading him to run away from his responsibilities.

This novel is often considered one of Updike's best, but it was two later novels in this series, though, that won John the Pulitzer Prize: Rabbit is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990). The final installment (Rabbit Remembered) was published in 2001 and actually focuses on people's memories of the protagonist who's now deceased.

'A&P'

Everybody can relate to a story about going grocery shopping, right? Most should, especially when that story happens to be set in (and named after) a real supermarket like Updike's short story, 'A&P.' This staple of real New England life is where fictional teenage check-out clerk Sam encounters three girls shopping in bathing suits and makes some adult decisions to defend them - but of course for some adolescent reasons.

John submitted 'A&P' to The New Yorker in 1961, and it was first collected with other short stories in Updike's Pigeon Feathers from 1962. Since then, its popularity has made it one of the most frequently anthologized of all John's stories.

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