John Updike: A look back

"Early on I set a modest quota," John Updike once said of his literary output. "I thought if I worked three hours a day and completed three pages a day at least, that should move matters along, and so it's been." So it has been, indeed.

After a career that spanned 60-some years and more than 50 books (including novels, short stories, poems, criticism, children's books, essays, and a memoir) and almost every literary prize (including two Pulitzers and two National Book Awards), John Updike died today at the age of 76.

Born in Reading, Pa., in 1932, Updike was the only child of a mother who dreamed of being a writer and a father who taught high school and struggled with an inferiority complex.  He attended Harvard University on a scholarship and briefly worked at The New Yorker before moving to the suburbs north of Boston.

Updike's best known works were the four "Rabbit" books, which, over a period of 30 years, told the story of the loves and losses of  one-time high school basketball star Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom.

Updike is often thought of as the chronicler of suburban adultery. He was "suburbia's ironist-in-residence, the prosepoet of its small despairs, minor aches and pains, muted heartbreaks," wrote a Monitor reviewer in 1972. "The mingled couples drink, dance, converse, ogle...."

But Updike was perhaps more profoundly an interpreter of the way that the tender and the tortured intertwine in domestic relationships.

"He persuades us that he knows every nuance of a boy's embarrassment and pride in his father, his playful league with his mother against him," wrote Monitor book editor Roderick Nordell in a 1963 review of "The Centaur."

There are glimpses of the transcendent in the writings of Updike, but it is mingled with sadness that things and people are never quite as splendid as they should be. Perhaps Rabbit Angstrom said it best in "Rabbit is Rich" (1981) when he lamented, "What a threadbare thing we make of life! Yet what a marvelous thing the mind is, they can't make a machine like it; and the body can do a thousand things. There isn't a factory in the world can duplicate the motion."

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