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Yesterday & Today

A Storied Life

Literary realist John Updike used the scaffold of his own life, including his lung cancer diagnosis, to explore the shared experiences of our time. By Sue Rochman
Photo © Getty Images/Michael Brennan
Photo © Getty Images/Michael Brennan

Many writers achieve fame. John Updike attained something more: As a novelist, short story writer, poet and critic, he conquered the literary world, becoming one of only three authors to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction not once, but twice.

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Updike’s eye for detail emerged during his childhood in Shillington, Pennsylvania, a small town outside of Reading, itself about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia. Shillington was not a place of prominence. It mostly knew the day-to-day, the conversations that play out at work, with family, or with oneself. There, Updike found an emotional frontier that he shaped into stories that spoke to millions around the world. Like many fiction writers, Updike put himself on the page. But probably few have written a memoir that includes footnotes linking the real events to his portrayal of them in his writing.

Not only did he write in many forms, Updike wrote all the time, producing on average a book a year. That didn’t change after he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2008. He spent the months before he died writing poems on facing mortality, many of which were published in his collection Endpoint and Other Poems.

Updike died on January 27, 2009. The following day, his poem “Requiem” ran as an op-ed in the New York Times. It was pure Updike: His own life, retold.

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

The Hatching of a Writer
​John Updike speaks during the National Book Awards in New York City in 1998. He received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. | Photo © The Associated Press / Osamu Honda
John Hoyer Updike was born March 18, 1932. An only child, Updike spent his first 13 years in Shillington, living in a two-story white brick house that his maternal grandfather purchased in 1922, for $8,000. His father, Wesley Russell Updike, was a high school teacher. His mother, Linda, longed to be a published writer. In essays and poems, Updike described both the sound of her typewriter keys and her disappointment when the manuscripts she had sent off in large brown envelopes were returned, unaccepted.

The family planted a dogwood tree on the side of their house a year after Updike was born. In Updike’s eyes, “The tree was my shadow, and had it died, … I would have felt that a blessing like the blessing of light had been withdrawn from my life.”

In October 1945, Updike’s grandparents sold their Shillington home, the place, Updike later said, where his “artistic eggs were hatched.” His new home—the family farmhouse where his mother had been raised in the nearby village of Plowville—wasn’t far. Yet the move marked a deep loss, which he explored 20 years later in his first autobiographical essay, “The Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood.”

As his father’s car pulled away from the curb, Updike wrote later, “I twisted and watched our house recede through the rear window. Moonlight momentarily caught in an upper pane. … The silhouette of the dogwood tree stood confused. … I turned away before it would have disappeared from sight; and so it is that my shadow has always remained in one place.”
Launching a Career
After graduating as co-valedictorian of the Shillington High School class of 1950, Updike moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend Harvard College, where he had received a scholarship. While in Cambridge, he met and married his first wife, Mary E. Pennington, an art student at nearby Radcliffe College.

In 1954, after completing their bachelor’s degrees, the couple moved to England, where Updike studied art at the University of Oxford. Their daughter Elizabeth was born in 1955. From there, they moved to New York City, where, at age 23, Updike began working as a staff writer at The New Yorker. Over the next 19 months, he published 80 pieces, solidifying what would become a five-decade-long relationship with the magazine.

Shortly after Mary gave birth to their son David in 1957, the young family left New York City for the small coastal town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, about 30 miles north of Boston. Updike wrote poetry and fiction. And his family grew, with Mary giving birth to their son Michael in 1959 and their daughter Miranda in 1960.

The Updikes left New York City because they needed more space. But in an essay reflecting back on his life, Updike noted another concern: his ongoing battle with psoriasis, an autoimmune disease he had inherited from his mother. Psoriasis’s “red spots, ripening into silvery scabs” had marred his body and his sense of self since kindergarten, he wrote in his memoir Self-Consciousness, making him “prisoner and victim of my skin.” He moved to Ipswich, he explained, because it had “one of the great beaches of the Northeast, in whose dunes I could, like a sin-soaked anchorite of old repairing to the desert, bake and cure myself.”


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