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John Updike

The author of the Rabbit series of books--the only such series we know of that doesn't feature a talking rodent--John Updike was born on March 18, 1932, in Reading, Pennsylvania.  He spent his first 13 years growing up in nearby Shillington before the family moved to his mother's birthplace, a stone farmhouse on an 80-acre farm near Plowville, 11 miles from Shillington. 

Scarred by psoriasis and a bad stammer, young Updike drew strength from his mother, herself an aspiring writer, who encouraged her son to take up writing and art.  Contrary to loving farm life, Updike spent his teenage years dreaming of the day he would escape from its provincial dominance over him.  In the meantime, he amused himself by reading the escapist literature of contemporary authors such as Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and P. G. Wodehouse. 

Updike proved to be an apt student, above average in nearly every grade-school subject, which he once explained away easily: "My inability to read bravely as a boy had this advantage: when I went to college, I was a true tabula rasa (blank tablet), and received gratefully the imprint of my instructors' opinion, and got good marks."

After attending high school in Shillington, where his father worked as a science teacher, Updike entered Harvard.  He majored in English and contributed to and eventually became editor of the Harvard Lampoon.  He married classmate Mary Pennington, and the two spent their 1954-1955 academic year at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in Oxford, England.  Upon their return to the states, he joined the staff of The New Yorker, where he wrote editorials, poetry, short stories, and critiques. 

Two years later, Updike left the magazine to begin writing full time.  He and his wife moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, where they would live for the next 17 years.  The town became the model for Tarbox in his novel, Couples (1968), a portrait of sexual passion and renewal among a group of young, hip suburban married couples.

The author wrote the first book featuring his famous hero, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a sexually charged, blue-eyed small-town Swedish athlete, and followed that up with Rabbit, Redux.  In the second book, Rabbit is a middle-aged, middle-income man who finds his life shattered by his wife's infidelity.  Two more Rabbit novels followed--Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, the latter set in the late 1980s.  It parallels the decay of society, an AIDS-plagued America, and Rabbit's steadily degenerating body, now sore and swollen from the ravages of old age.

In 2000, Updike wrote a prequel to Hamlet in which the sullen prince plays a secondary character to the focus of the story, his mother (Queen Gertrude), her husband, and Claudius, her husband's younger brother.

Throughout his literary career, Updike has been a keen observer of ordinary life around him.  Often, he tempts his readers to reevaluate their preconceived notions of life.  In The Bankrupt Man (1983), he turns topsy-turvy the common views of bankruptcy and proves that there is an afterlife: "The bankrupt man buys himself a motorcycle.  He is going to hotdog it all the way to Santa Barbara and back.  He has a bankrupt sister in Santa Barbara.  Also, there are business details to be cleared up along the way, in Pittsburgh, South Bend, Dodge City, Santa Fe, and Palm Springs.  Being bankrupt is an expansionist process; it generates ever new horizons."

John Updike, who once said, "Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better," lives and works in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, in the same small New England town where he has set so much of his contemporary fiction.

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