BOSTON (Reuters) - John Updike, a leading writer of his generation who chronicled the drama of small-town American life with flowing and vivid prose, wit and a frank eye for sex, died on Tuesday of lung cancer. He was 76.
“It is with great sadness that I report that John Updike died this morning,” said Nicholas Latimer of Alfred A. Knopf, a unit of Random House. “He was one of our greatest writers, and he will be sorely missed.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author died in a hospice in Massachusetts, the state where he lived for more than half a century, prolific in his writing of novels, short stories, essays and criticism.
Updike’s stories often focused on undercurrents of tension masked by the mundane surface of suburban America, which boomed in 1960s and 1970s as his career was taking off. Ripples of sexual tension were frequent.
An early short story, “A&P,” chronicled an adolescent boy’s inner turmoil when three bikini-clad teenage girls appeared in the supermarket where he worked.
“It’s one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach,” Updike wrote, “and another thing in the cool of the A&P, under the fluorescent lights, against all those stacked packages, with her feet paddling along naked over our checkerboard green-and-cream rubber-tile floor.”
Updike’s frank focus on sex came before the profound changes in U.S. culture of the late 1960s lifted some of the taboo from the topic. His publisher rewrote portions of his second novel, “Rabbit, Run,” before its first printing out of fear of being charged with obscenity.
That novel introduced the fictional hero Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the subject of four Updike novels and a novella over four decades, which won him two Pulitzer Prizes for fiction.
Updike was acclaimed nearly as much for his short stories, poetry and critical essays as for his 28 novels.
More than 800 Updike stories, reviews, poems and articles were published in The New Yorker magazine from 1954 through 2008. Many American readers strongly associated Updike with that publication.
“Even though his literary career transcended any magazine — he was obviously among the very best writers in the world — he still loved writing for this weekly magazine, loved being part of an enterprise that he joined when he was so young,” said David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker.
“He was, for so long, the spirit of The New Yorker and it is very hard to imagine things without him.”
William Pritchard, a professor of English at Amherst College who studied and knew Updike, said Updike stood out for his versatility — writing fiction, nonfiction and verse.
“He stands, for me, at the very top of the practice of being a man of letters,” Pritchard said. “Each activity was carried on with great intelligence and wit and love.”
Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Updike studied English at Harvard University, where he contributed to, and later edited, the satirical Harvard Lampoon magazine. After a year studying at Oxford, Updike moved to New York where he worked for two years on the New Yorker’s staff.
In 1957 he moved his family to Ipswich, Massachusetts, a coastal town north of Boston, and later moved to nearby Beverly Farms.
A New England flavor features in Updike’s 1984 novel “The Witches of Eastwick,” set in a fictional Rhode Island town, which was made into a commercially successful 1987 film starring Jack Nicholson and Cher.
In a Reuters interview in 2005, he said his view of himself as a writer had changed in recent years as he produced an increasing volume of art and literary criticism and struggled with the short-story medium. When asked which genre he preferred, he paused.
“If I had been asked that 10 years ago I would have said short stories is where I feel most at home. I’m not sure I do feel totally at home any more, whether I have maybe written all my short stories,” he said.
He was candid about the need to get writing published:
“I’ve become much more of a book reviewer and an art reviewer for that matter than I ever planned to. At least there is a comfort when you sit down to write one of these that you’ll be sure that it will get printed and you’ll get paid for it. It’s not the case with a short story.”
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York, Editing by Jason Szep and Frances Kerry