By Hillel Italie
He was often praised for his poetic style.
NEW YORK — John Updike, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, prolific man of letters and erudite chronicler of sex, divorce and other adventures in the postwar prime of the American empire, died Tuesday at age 76.
Updike, a resident of Beverly Farms, Mass., died of lung cancer, according to a statement from his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.
A literary writer who frequently appeared on best-seller lists, the tall, hawk-nosed Updike wrote novels, short stories, poems, criticism, the memoir “Self-Consciousness” and even a famous essay about baseball great Ted Williams. He was prolific, even compulsive, releasing more than 50 books in a career that started in the 1950s. Updike won virtually every literary prize, including two Pulitzers, for “Rabbit Is Rich” and “Rabbit at Rest,” and two National Book Awards.
Although himself deprived of a Nobel, he did bestow it upon one of his fictional characters, Henry Bech, the womanizing, egotistical Jewish novelist who collected the literature prize in 1999.
His settings ranged from the court of “Hamlet” to postcolonial Africa, but his literary home was the American suburb. Born in 1932, Updike spoke for millions of Depression-era readers raised by “penny-pinching parents,” united by “the patriotic cohesion of World War II” and blessed by a “disproportionate share of the world’s resources,” the postwar, suburban boom of “idealistic careers and early marriages.”
He captured, and sometimes embodied, a generation’s confusion over the civil rights and women’s movements, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Updike was called a misogynist, a racist and an apologist for the establishment. On purely literary grounds, he was attacked by Norman Mailer as the kind of author appreciated by readers who knew nothing about writing.
But more often he was praised for his flowing, poetic writing style. Describing a man’s interrupted quest to make love, Updike likened it “to a small angel to which all afternoon tiny lead weights are attached.” Nothing was too great or too small for Updike to poeticize. He might rhapsodize over the film projector’s “chuckling whir” or look to the stars and observe that “the universe is perfectly transparent: we exist as flaws in ancient glass.”
In the richest detail, his books recorded the extremes of earthly desire and spiritual zealotry, whether the comic philandering of the preacher in “A Month of Sundays” or the steady rage of the young Muslim in “Terrorist.” Raised in the Protestant community of Shillington, Pa., where the Lord’s Prayer was recited daily at school, Updike was a lifelong churchgoer influenced by his faith, but not immune to doubts.
“I remember the times when I was wrestling with these issues that I would feel crushed. I was crushed by the purely materialistic, atheistic account of the universe,” Updike told The Associated Press during a 2006 interview.
“I am very prone to accept all that the scientists tell us, the truth of it, the authority of the efforts of all the men and woman spent trying to understand more about atoms and molecules. But I can’t quite make the leap of unfaith, as it were, and say, ‘This is it. Carpe diem (seize the day), and tough luck.”’
He received his greatest acclaim for the “Rabbit” series, a quartet of novels published over a 30-year span that featured ex-high school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom and his restless adjustment to adulthood and the constraints of work and family. To the very end, Harry was in motion, an innocent in his belief that any door could be opened, a believer in God even as he bedded women other than his wife.
“The tetralogy to me is the tale of a life, a life led an American citizen who shares the national passion for youth, freedom, and sex, the national openness and willingness to learn, the national habit of improvisation,” Updike would later write. “He is furthermore a Protestant, haunted by a God whose manifestations are elusive, yet all-important.”
Other notable books included “Couples,” a sexually explicit tale of suburban mating that sold millions of copies; “In the Beauty of the Lilies,” an epic of American faith and fantasy; and “Too Far to Go, which followed the courtship, marriage and divorce of the Maples, a suburban couple with parallels to Updike’s own first marriage.