Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author John Updike Dies At 76

Author John Updike, the relentless chronicler of postwar America, has died. He was 76. Updike is best known for his four Rabbit novels. Updike also contributed stories, essays, poems and book reviews to The New Yorker. David Remnick, the magazine's editor, talks to Renee Montagne about how Updike will be remembered.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Author John Updike, the relentless chronicler of postwar America, has died. In his vast body of work, Updike probed the ordinary dramas that unfold in suburban and small-town America. He described his creative process in a 1984 interview with Book Beat Radio's Don Swaim.

(Soundbite of 1984 interview)

Mr. JOHN UPDIKE (Author): The moment of excitement really comes before you actually sit down at all at the desk. It's when you get the idea and you feel it inside you as something wanting to be born, wanting to be said. And then you see the book more or less whole. Then you are inspired, if ever, and feel excited about it. And the rest is work of a kind.

MONTAGNE: And in John Updike's case, the rest was a lot. In addition to his many novels, he wrote more than 800 stories, essays, poems and book reviews for the New Yorker magazine. Joining us now is David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker. Good morning.

Mr. DAVID REMNICK (Editor, New Yorker Magazine): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: John Updike once said, "I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules." Lovely sentiment. How did that play out in his work?

Mr. REMNICK: Well, in many ways. But I think one of the things that he was, was determinedly the chronicler of the middle of American life. He was not a writer about kings and queens, nor was he someone who, like Claude Brown or writers we have who've experienced the worst of urban life, that chronicler. He was someone whose great hero in the Rabbit novels was someone who sold used Toyotas.

MONTAGNE: And that was Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom.

Mr. REMNICK: That's right. Which is not, if you think about it, what you'd expect the hero of "Remembrance of Things Past" or "War and Peace" to be. But he was very much of the middle, as you...

MONTAGNE: This car salesman, at the center - you know, but also a high school sports hero - what did he get from him that spoke to that world, that suburban, small-town world?

Mr. REMNICK: Well, Julian Barnes is a wonderful novelist himself and an admirer of John's. Described coming to America for a book tour, you know, lots of time on his hands, lots of time on planes and trains. And in London, he bought the first Rabbit novel, and as he criss-crossed the country, he read all of them. And he realized that he just saw so much of American life, whether it's just the small sadnesses of, as you say, the high school athlete who suddenly realizes that his glories are all behind him, or the transactions between husband and wife and wife and husband, and parent and child. Infidelities...

MONTAGNE: And betrayals, yeah.

Mr. REMNICK: Everything, everything of American life is in that quartet of novels. And I should say, as an editor of the New Yorker, and somebody who grew up as a kid reading him, a really young kid reading him, at first, to be the manager of this - to be privileged to be the manager of this thing is suddenly like having Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio leave - although he was a great Red Sox fan.

MONTAGNE: although for you too, you knew him. What does it mean - what is your thought, just in the few seconds we have?

Mr. REMNICK: I'm bereft. The entire magazine is - feels that way. He meant everything to us. You know, the historical accounts of the magazine have Thurber and E.B. White as these big, large, mythological figures at the beginning of the magazine. He meant everything to the magazine, not for three or four or five years, but for half a century, and with an intensity and a level that's just impossible to imagine, and certainly impossible to replace.

MONTAGNE: David, thanks very much.

Mr. REMNICK: Sure.

MONTAGNE: David Remnick is editor-in-chief of the New Yorker, remembering author John Updike, who died yesterday at the age of 76.

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Novelist, Essayist John Updike Dead At 76

Updike For 'This I Believe'

John Updike, circa 1955 i i

Updike, shown here circa 1955, published his first short story in The New Yorker when he was 22. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
John Updike, circa 1955

Updike, shown here circa 1955, published his first short story in The New Yorker when he was 22.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Updike, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, prolific man of letters and erudite chronicler of sex, divorce and other adventures in the postwar prime of the American empire, died Tuesday of lung cancer. He was 76.

Updike once claimed that he was 15 before he read his first novel, but thereafter, the author wasted little time in mastering the art of fiction. He published his first short story, "Friends from Philadelphia," in The New Yorker when he was 22, and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, five years later.

A literary writer who frequently appeared on best-seller lists, the tall, hawk-nosed Updike vowed early in his career to write a book each year. Working at this clip, he published more than than 25 novels and more than a dozen short story collections, as well as poems, criticism, a memoir and even a famous essay about baseball great Ted Williams.

Updike created his best-known character, a former high school basketball star named Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, in the 1960 novel Rabbit, Run and later returned to the character in three more novels and a novella.

The "Rabbit" books deal with the character's struggles with growing up, losing his star status, a troubled marriage, adultery and children. Updike won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1982 for Rabbit is Rich and another Pulitzer in 1991 for Rabbit at Rest. He also received the National Book Award in 1964 for his novel The Centaur, which follows a depressed school teacher and his anxious son in rural Pennsylvania.

In 1998 Updike received the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a lifetime achievement award issued by the National Book Awards.

Throughout his career, the author never seemed to lose sight of the power of words. In a 2005 "This I Believe" essay he wrote: "I seem most instinctively to believe in the human value of creative writing, whether in the form of verse or fiction, as a mode of truth-telling, self-expression and homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness."

From NPR staff and AP reports

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