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John Updike, Superlative American Man of Letters, Dies at 76

One of America's best known writers, John Updike, died of cancer on Tuesday 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 more than half a century, Updike won many American prizes for literature, including two Pulitzers, the National Book Award and three National Book Critics' Circle awards. 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.

Observer of small-town life

But Robert B. Silvers, his longtime editor at the New York Review of Books, says he will be best remembered for his series of novels about the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a fictional middle-class car dealer in a small Pennsylvania town similar to the one he himself grew up in.

"Rabbit was brought up in a bit of a fog of American life, and every 10 years we returned to him and saw America changing - from the conventional 1950s to the hippie '60s, to the business-minded '70s and '80s," Silvers says. "If you look at his series in one way, you can interpret as a one Great American novel. 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."

Prolific writer of sometimes-controversial works

But Updike wrote many other novels in many different forms and settings. Coup took place in colonial Africa; his Beck series concerned a Jewish writer in Eastern Europe, and The Witches of Eastwick and The Widows of Eastwick focused on a group of women living in a small New England town. These were just a taste of "the remarkable range of different kinds of [Updike's] richly imagined worlds," adds Silvers.

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. He once said, "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."

Of his many well-received novels, one of 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," he recalled. "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."

Updike said he was also "amused by the trickiness of the book, the way the myths work in and out. It … wasn't easy to write… but when it was done, it looked good. So it sits in my mind very happily."

Critic of first rank

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

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

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

"I have very few complaints," he said. "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."

After a thoughtful pause he added, "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."