Updike's death from lung cancer was announced by Nicholas Latimer of Alfred A. Knopf, his publisher. Updike lived in Beverly Farms, Mass., but the announcement did not indicate where he died.
Updike obituary: The obituary of John Updike in Wednesday's Section A said his last published piece appeared in the Nov. 3, 2008, issue of the New Yorker. In fact, a piece by Updike is in the winter 2009 issue of the American Scholar, published this month. —
In a career spanning half a century, Updike published more than 50 books, more than 20 of them novels, and countless short stories, as well as collections of poetry. In recent years, he was best known for his art criticism and essays. His last published piece was a review of Toni Morrison's novel "A Mercy," in the Nov. 3, 2008, issue of the New Yorker.
"He had a remarkably wide range of literary interests that was never in my view superficial or casual," Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, told The Times on Tuesday. The New York Review of Books published much of Updike's art criticism.
Updike's literary criticism, Silvers said, covered nearly every major writer of the 20th century and some 19th century authors.
For Updike, a successful book review depended on whether it was "animated."
"Whether it was flat, academic, dry criticism, or did it have animation, in which the writer is participating in John's own imagination," Silvers said.
By the late 1980s, Updike had achieved what a Times writer called "the near royal status of the American author-celebrity," but critical views of his fiction were often mixed.
Lorrie Moore, writing in the New York Review of Books in 2003, said Updike was "quite possibly . . . American literature's greatest short story writer, and arguably our greatest writer."
But Harold Bloom, writing years earlier in a collection of essays on Updike's work, noted that although the novelist was capable of crafting a "beautifully economical narrative," he lacked depth, which Bloom saw as a requirement of great fiction. He viewed Updike as "a minor novelist with a major style."
Despite the critical divide, two of Updike's most memorable fictional characters, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom and Henry Bech, became emblems of the displaced American male that fascinated him as a writer. Angstrom, a man he often referred to as his alter-ego, is the disenchanted middle-class drifter in Updike's four-book series about "Rabbit." Bech is the Jewish American novelist, breaking away from his cultural roots and immigrant heritage to become a fully assimilated American. Each in his own way reflects Updike's major themes.
Early in his career, Updike said he wrote most often about the world he came from, "the American Protestant small-town middle class," as he described it in a 1966 interview with Life magazine. "It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules."
Updike took this previously uncharted territory and "made it common American ground," wrote Cynthia Ozick in a 2003 essay for the New York Times Book Review.
In addition to his Pulitzers, for "Rabbit Is Rich" and "Rabbit at Rest," Updike also won the American Book Award and the National Book Award for "Rabbit Is Rich."
Updike was in his 20s when his second novel, "Rabbit Run," brought him national attention in 1960. Several reviewers immediately saw the book's main character as an icon of his generation.
Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom was a small-town Pennsylvania boy who grew into a high school basketball star. He married young, quickly found adult life disappointing, left his wife and young son, and set off alone.
Three more novels about Angstrom followed: "Rabbit Redux" in 1971, "Rabbit Is Rich" in 1981 and "Rabbit at Rest" in 1990. As Rabbit muddled through the collapse of established sexual mores, the rise of the technological age and the beginnings of globalization, he became a "purposely representative" American male, Updike said in "Self-Consciousness," his 1989 memoir.