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Writer John Updike Dies at 76

One of America's best known writers, John Updike, has died of cancer at the age of 76. His stories, poems, essays and novels have been widely read and admired around the world.

In a literary career that spanned over half a century, John Updike won many American prizes for literature, including the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics' Circle Award. His first published work, a collection of poems called "The Carpentered Hen," appeared in 1958. Ultimately, Updike published more than 25 novels, and a dozen short story collections. Most of his stories first appeared in the New Yorker Magazine, which carried his byline 862 times.

Best remembered for novels about Harry Rabbit's life

But according to Robert B. Silvers, his longtime editor at the New York Review of Books, Updike will be best remembered for his series of novels about the life of Harry Rabbit Angstrom, a fictional middle class car dealer in rural Pennsylvania.

"Updike himself came from the small town of Shillington, in Pennsylvania," noted Silver. "He created this lower middle class character, 'Rabbit,' who was brought up in a bit of a fog of American life, and who every ten years we returned to him and saw America changing - changing from the conventional 1950s to the hippie 60s, to the business-minded 70s and 80s. In all these books, what you find is a particular elegance [and] clarity. There's probably no other novelist who had that range of observation."

Indeed, Updike once said that his true subject was the Protestant small town middle class. But that did not mean his stories lacked drama. "I like middles," he once told an interviewer. "It's in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules."

"But we must remember he wrote many other novels in many different forms and settings," Silver added. "One about colonial Africa; one about a Jewish writer in Eastern Europe; one about women in a New England town. These were a remarkable range of different kinds of imagined worlds."

Was Updike anti-women?

Feminist critics often complained that Updike's portrayal of women was negative, and that he concentrated too much on strong male figures. Updike himself denied this.

"You grow up with women. For one thing, you're the son of a mother," he noted. "And I didn't have sisters but I did go to school with girls. Then you marry some of the girls. I have two daughters. so I have been surrounded my whole life with women. And furthermore I'm in a trade in which women are very conspicuous. So I've always imagined that I was on fairly good terms with the opposite sex and a great appreciator of it and its many virtues."

Among writer's favorites: The Centaur

Of all his many well-received novels, one of John Updike's own favorites was The Centaur, a contemporary father-son conflict set within the framework of Greek mythology It won the National Book Award in 1963.

"It was quite a loving book. I'm not sure all my books could be called loving, but certainly it is in a way a skewered tribute to my father and his peculiar male American anguish," he said. "I also was amused by the trickiness of the book, the way the myths work in and out. It was a book that wasn't east to write… but when it was done it looked good. So it sits in my mind very happily."

Several of Updike's stories and books, including The Witches of Eastwick, were adapted for television and motion pictures. His many poems also earned him plaudits and many admirers. But according to Robert B. Silvers, Updike also should be remembered as a critic of the first rank, who wrote over 70 pieces of literary and artistic criticism for the New York Review of Books alone.

"It was the question of an expository clarity, clarity of analysis, [and] clarity of expression, which would not only describe but would have always a rather elegant critical edge which was never, ever too blunt, never, ever derogatory in any vulgar sense. That was a balance he struck between brilliant description and the intimation of a critical position," Silver expplained.

Updike was modest man

Updike lived in a small Massachusetts town cherishing his privacy, his family and his golf game, in spite of his fame. In this archival interview he was careful not to overrate his success or appear arrogant.

"I have very few complaints. I've been allowed to 'sing my song,' as it were, and I've tried to sing it in an orderly way and have worked hard at it," Updike said. "Whatever failings my work as a whole shows, I think, are limitations within me. And I just couldn't do better than I've done."

John Updike: poet, critic, essayist, short story writer and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist - died of lung cancer on January 27 at the age of 76.