Becoming John Updike

Becoming John Updike: Critical Reception, 1958-2010

Laurence W. Mazzeno
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 272
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt284tfb
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  • Book Info
    Becoming John Updike
    Book Description:

    When John Updike died in 2009, tributes from the literary establishment were immediate and fulsome. However, no one reading reviews of Updike's work in the late 1960s would have predicted that kind of praise for a man who was known then as a brilliant stylist who had nothing to say. What changed? Why? And what is likely to be his legacy? These are the questions that "Becoming John Updike" pursues by examining the journalistic and academic response to his writings. Several things about Updike's career make a reception study appropriate. First, he was prolific: he began publishing fiction and essays in 1956, published his first book in 1958, and from then on, brought out at least one new book each year. Second, his books were reviewed widely - usually in major American newspapers and magazines, and often in foreign ones as well. Third, Updike quickly became a darling of academics; the first book about his work was published in 1967, less than a decade after his own first book. More than three dozen books and hundreds of articles of academic criticism have been devoted to Updike. The present volume will appeal to the continuing interest in Updike's writing among academics and general readers alike. Laurence W. Mazzeno is President Emeritus of Alvernia University. Among other books, he has written volumes on Austen, Dickens, Tennyson, and Matthew Arnold for Camden House's Literary Criticism in Perspective series.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-845-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    These four statements lay out the central problem I wish to tackle in Becoming John Updike: Critical Reception, 1958–2010. Both early and late in his career, Updike was a controversial figure in American letters: for some, a major voice in fiction, for others a pretentious mannerist who substituted florid stylistic flourishes for substantive insight. A cursory examination of a random selection of reviews listed in Jack De Bellis and Michael Broomfield’s John Updike: A Bibliography of Primary & Secondary Materials, 1948–2007 (2007) will confirm these generalizations. Certainly Updike is not the first writer to provoke widely divergent judgments among...

  5. 1: Developing a Style, Experimenting with Form (1958–1967)
    (pp. 6-26)

    John Updike had the distinction of being reviewed early and often.¹ It may be debated whether that was good or bad for a budding writer feeling his way through multiple genres to discover his voice and his message. It seems likely, however, that early notices of The Poorhouse Fair and Rabbit, Run made Updike realize he had chosen the right profession. It may also have convinced Knopf to continue as his publisher—no mean feat, when so many aspiring writers who land a contract with a major publisher discover to their chagrin that poor sales of a first book ends...

  6. 2: Making a Name on the National Scene (1968–1975)
    (pp. 27-49)

    In retrospect, the period between 1968 and 1975 might be described as the “breakthrough years” during which Updike became a major novelist, introduced or returned to important recurring characters and themes into his fiction, and continued his exploration of the American scene. Of course, before 1968 Updike was well-known to a select group of readers and critics, many of whom had high regard for his work. While his audience among the general readership was considerable, it did not rival that of contemporary popular giants—writers like Leon Uris, Mary Renault, James Clavell, Irving Wallace, Mary Stewart, and Arthur Hailey. The...

  7. 3: Launching New Ventures (1976–1980)
    (pp. 50-66)

    During the second half of the 1970s, Updike carried out further exploration of familiar themes, especially in short stories and the 1976 novel Marry Me. He also made what was for him a decidedly bold move. Although he had occasionally written of locales and people other than those from his native Pennsylvania and his adopted home in New England, his 1978 novel The Coup marked his first attempt to render an extended treatment of another region of the world and deal with characters whose creation tested his imaginative powers in ways his earlier fiction had not. Reviewers made much of...

  8. 4: Pulitzer Prize Winner, Vilified Misogynist (1981–1985)
    (pp. 67-89)

    While there may be no annus mirabilis in Updike’s career, it seems fair to say that the decade of the 1980s was not only one of his most productive but also, perhaps, his most noteworthy. The first five years were ones of significant accomplishment. He began by publishing the third novel in the Rabbit series, following that highly acclaimed work with a sequel to his 1970 book on Henry Bech. A year later he issued a hefty collection of his nonfiction before making a bold foray into feminist literature with The Witches of Eastwick. Consistent with his publishing practice, in...

  9. 5: Crowning Achievements (1986–1990)
    (pp. 90-113)

    Updike managed to grab and hold the national spotlight with the publication of Rabbit Is Rich in 1981 and The Witches of Eastwick in 1984. Viewed in hindsight, however, his work between 1981 and 1985 was prelude to what was arguably the most important five-year period in his life as a creative writer. In this period he completed his Scarlet Letter trilogy, released a collection of short stories that reinforced his reputation as one of the most skilled practitioners in that genre, and published a self-deprecating memoir that sparked lively commentary. The appearance of Rabbit at Rest in 1990 garnered...

  10. 6: Keeping Up the Pace (1991–1995)
    (pp. 114-130)

    After the success of Rabbit at Rest, few would have held it against Updike if he would have eased up on the grinding publication schedule he had set for himself more than three decades earlier. Yet in 1991 his name graced the spine of another hefty collection of nonfiction, Odd Jobs, and a year later he published a new novel, Memories of the Ford Administration. If there was a break, it came in 1993 when he collected the poetry he had been publishing since the 1950s into a surprisingly large volume. He brought out another novel in 1994, Brazil, and...

  11. 7: America and Updike, Growing Old Together (1996–1999)
    (pp. 131-147)

    Any thought that Updike, approaching sixty-five, might slow down as the century moved toward its close was quickly dispelled by the publication in 1996 of what some have come to regard as his finest single novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies. That work was followed in succeeding years by another novel, a new collection about Henry Bech, and a fourth compendium of nonfiction. At the same time, however, a new generation of reviewers, raised after the post-war years of American prosperity and the angst-ridden years of the Cold War, was beginning to describe Updike as a literary dinosaur. Throughout...

  12. 8: New Experiments in the New Century (2000–2004)
    (pp. 148-167)

    The continuing debate over Updike’s status at the beginning of the twenty-first century can be illustrated by the following three assessments. In his lengthy History of American Literature (2004), Richard Gray describes Updike as a master craftsman whose novels deal with problems posed by the “entropic vision” that characterizes modern life (615). But Jay Prosser (2001b) insists that, whatever Updike’s supporters say about his talents, the decline in his reputation, though not “spectacular,” has been “significant.” Prosser believes this falling off is inevitable, because in his view Updike was never “America’s most representative contemporary author”; instead, if he “was ever...

  13. 9: Facing the Unthinkable, Contemplating the Inevitable (2005–2008)
    (pp. 168-181)

    During what would turn out to be the last years of his life, Updike continued the grueling pace he had set for himself, producing two collections of nonfiction and two novels: The Widows of Eastwick, a sequel to his controversial Witches of Eastwick, and Terrorist, a fictional portrayal of a Muslim extremist prompted by the events of September 11, 2001. The latter generated some of the most polarizing reviews ever written about his fiction. Despite the divergence of opinion expressed about these novels, however, the general acclaim for Updike’s accomplishments tended to drown out—but not eliminate—criticism of individual...

  14. 10: Final Volumes, Fresh Assessments (2009–)
    (pp. 182-194)

    John Updike died on January 27, 2009. Before succumbing to lung cancer, he had been moved to a hospice in Danvers, Massachusetts, just a few miles from his home. While details of these last months may be made available in Adam Begley’s forthcoming biography (Neyfakh 2009), what is remarkable for the purposes of this study is that, despite being terminally ill, Updike apparently continued to write. Within months after he died, Knopf issued a new collection of his short stories and a new volume of poetry. Two years later, editor Christopher Carduff assembled what is likely to be a final...

  15. Major Works by John Updike
    (pp. 195-196)
  16. Works Cited
    (pp. 197-244)
  17. Index
    (pp. 245-260)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 261-261)