Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 December 2012
John Updike (1932–2009) has stood as a major figure in the American literary landscape since the 1950s – of his contemporaries, only Philip Roth has been there as long. Updike emerged in his early twenties as the Wunderkind from Shillington, Pennsylvania, a gifted stylist with a lyric love of the surface world. As one reviewer wrote in 1960, “Updike frequently gives the impression that he has six or seven senses, all of them operating at full strength.” The early writing, which covered a Pennsylvania boyhood and early married life, was marked by keen visual detail, a mastery of image and metaphor, and revelation of how significance resides within the ordinary. The words also poured out rapidly. Short stories, poems, and articles by Updike were appearing in the New Yorker every few weeks.
By age forty Updike had published sixteen books, including Rabbit, Run (1960), The Centaur (1963), and Couples (1968), and he was already the subject of multiple volumes of literary criticism, something unheard of for such a young writer. A resident of Massachusetts since 1957, he had become a New Englander, as was increasingly reflected in settings and characters found in his work. His subject matter, most often aligned with family life, marriage, and domesticity, had turned more explicitly to sexuality and adultery, as well as the ways in which American culture and politics shape one’s domestic existence.