John Hoyer Updike was an American novelist, poet, short-story writer, and art, golf, and literary critic and essayist. He was born on March 18, 1932, in Reading, Pennsylvania, and he spent much of his childhood in isolation, growing up on a farm in the unincorporated rural town in Plowville, Pennsylvania. He was inspired to be a writer from watching his mother attempt her own literary career. After graduating co-valedictorian of his high school class, Updike attended Harvard College, where he was the president of and chief contributor to the Harvard Lampoon, a humor periodical. After graduating in 1954 with a degree in English, Updike attended the University of Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, hoping to become a cartoonist.
During the mid-1950s, Updike moved to New York City and became a staff writer for the magazine The New Yorker, for which he continued to write for pretty much the rest of his life. He also began to write poems and short stories during this time. A few years later, Updike and his family moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, a town about an hour north of Boston. It was there that Updike began his Rabbit tetralogy, a series of four books that chronicle the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a washed-up basketball player who lives in suburban America with a dead-end job and marriage. The Rabbit series follows Rabbit from his adolescence to death, and Updike wrote the books over the course of four decades. The final two novels, Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, won Updike the 1982 and 1991 Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction, respectively.
During his lifetime, Updike was a voracious writer, and he produced 21 novels, 18 short story collections, 12 poetry collections, 4 children’s books, and 12 collections of non-fiction. In addition to the Rabbit books, Updike is also known for writing The Witches of Eastwick, a 1984 novel about three women living in a suburban Rhode Island town who are seduced by the devil, who has taken the form of a human man, into harnessing and accessing their innate magical powers to wreak havoc. Musical writing team John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe adapted The Witches of Eastwick for the stage, and it premiered in 2000 on the West End.
Updike has been praised as one of the greatest American writers of his time, and his Rabbit character has been likened with such iconic antiheroes as Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield, and Huckleberry Finn. His writing often dealt with the themes of sex, religion, America, and “middles,” and a prolific literary critic himself, he set forth maxims by which he believes all critics should abide (including to not judge an author for not accomplishing something that they did not set out to do in the first place). Updike, who married twice and had four children and seven grandchildren, died of lung cancer on January 27, 2009, in Danvers, Massachusetts.