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Obituary: Lyrical writer of the middle class dies at 76

Obituary: Lyrical writer of the middle class dies at 76
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First Published: Wed, Jan 28 2009. 10 08 PM IST

 John Updike. Bloomberg
John Updike. Bloomberg
Updated: Wed, Jan 28 2009. 10 08 PM IST
John Updike. Bloomberg
John Updike, the kaleidoscopically gifted writer whose quartet of Rabbit novels highlighted a body of fiction, verse, essays and criticism so vast, protean and lyrical as to place him in the first rank of American authors, died on Tuesday in Danvers, Massachusetts. He was 76.
The cause was cancer, as per a statement by Knopf, his publisher. A spokesman said Updike had died at the Hospice of the North Shore in Danvers.
Of Updike’s dozens of books, perhaps none captured the imagination of the book-reading public more than those about ordinary citizens in small-town and urban settings. His best-known protagonist, Harry Rabbit Angstrom, first appears as a former high-school basketball star trapped in a loveless marriage and a sales job he hates. Through the four novels whose titles bear his nickname—Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest—the author traces the funny, restless and questing life of this middle-class American against the background of the last half-century’s major events.
“My subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class,” Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”
Updike found his subject in the everyday dramas of marriage, sex and divorce. He wrote about America with boundless curiosity and wit in prose so careful and attentive that it burnished the ordinary with a painterly gleam.
Industrious and prolific, Updike turned out three pages a day of fiction, essays, criticism or verse. He published 60 books in his lifetime; his final one, My Father's Tears and Other Stories, is to be published in June.
“I would write ads for deodorants or labels for ketchup bottles, if I had to,” he told The Paris Review in 1967. “The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink never palls for me.”
Philip Roth, one of Updike’s literary peers, said on Tuesday: “John Updike is our time’s greatest man of letters, as brilliant a literary critic and essayist as he was a novelist and short story writer. He is and always will be no less a national treasure than his 19th century precursor, Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
John Hoyer Updike was born on 18 March 1932, in Reading, Pennsylvania, and grew up in the nearby town of Shillington.
Sustained by hours of reading in the local library and by his mother’s encouragement to write, he aspired first to be either an animator for Walt Disney or a magazine cartoonist. But a sense of narrative was implanted early. Among the dozen or more novels he brought out in the next 25 years, some clicked, such as The Witches of Eastwick, celebrated as an exuberant sexual comedy and a satirical view of women’s liberation. It was made into a film starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Updike once told The Paris Review: “When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a country-ish teenaged boy finding them, have them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks in Brentano’s, are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf."
©2009/The New York Times
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First Published: Wed, Jan 28 2009. 10 08 PM IST
More Topics: Obituary | John Updike | Writer | Novels | Authors |