John Hoyer Updike: Biography and Literary Works

Introduction

John Hoyer Updike is a famous American writer, author of novels and books: collections of short stories, poems, essays. He is the recipient of the Rea Award, a significant award for short story writers. Updike has written several collections of short stories that have become classics of American prose. Among John Updike’s many awards is the National Book Award for The Centaur. It is a landmark book without which modern, postmodern prose might not have found its final, familiar form. For the first time in English-language literature, it is a book that introduced the technique of “semantic complexity.” It transforms the humble teacher into the “mentor of heroes” of ancient mythology and the small town into a kaleidoscope of visions (Updike). The author did a brilliant thing: he turned an ordinary story into a legendary one and drew readers’ attention to many hidden and apparent problems. Updike made an essential contribution to the art of storytelling and has always remained faithful to the canons of the genre.

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American author John Updike was born on 18 March 1932 in Pennsylvania. His father taught school, and Updike’s mother wrote short stories (Svoboda). The writer graduated from Harvard University in 1954, where he studied English literature while also taking art classes at the Reskin School. He once wanted to be a Walt Disney artist: like the hero of his autobiographical novel The Centaur, Peter Caldwell. The writer was very good at drawing, hesitated between creativity and art history, and studied for a year in Britain because America was too traditional in terms of painting – or, conversely, too avant-garde. Updike trained in Britain and graduated from Harvard, one of the most important universities: he was such an able boy that he was accepted without financial aid (Svoboda). He then developed a passion for literature, and for a long time, he chose between art, art history, and literature and eventually chose literature.

As a student, Updike married Mary Pennington, who became the mother of his four children. They divorced in 1974 after 21 years of marriage: a painful experience reflected in “Too Far to Go,” published in 1979. By then, Updike had married his old sweetheart Martha Bernard, raising her three children from a previous marriage. While at university, the writer was editing a local satirical print publication. After graduation, Updike returned to the United States to work for The New Yorker, where he published his first work (Heaman). Two years later, Updike became head of the magazine’s criticism department. Typical of him was an increased focus on the sensual side of gender relations and Christian themes. Updike died on 27 January at 76 in a US hospital in Beverly Farms (Heaman). The writer had lung cancer, which caused his death. Updike has been called the last classic of American literature; he gave everyday life its beauty in his novels.

John Updike is one of America’s most influential writers; he became a classic during his lifetime. Although he was never a cult writer, unlike his contemporary Jerome David Salinger: his death in 2009 did not have the same impact as Salinger’s a year later. Updike is indeed an exciting figure; the writer won every possible literary prize except the most important, the Nobel Prize. Nevertheless, he remains a significant, influential writer, about whom many books have already been written, even more articles. Updike is a man who has developed an entire aesthetic. His aesthetic ideas didn’t change much – that is, in many ways, Updike’s weakness. His poetics changed, his language changed, but in general, his worldview did not change much. The writer had a reputation as one of the best stylists writing in English, with a rich vocabulary.

The Modernism movement has given the world quite a number of authors whose works have changed the landscape of literature forever. John Updike’s creations fall under the category of Modernism quite accurately, “A&P” is one of the most colorful examples of that. Although A&P“ incorporates a variety of ideas tightly packed into a comparatively small work, the theme of contrasting the elusive nature of ideas and the reality of consequences remains prevalent throughout the novel.

The story takes place in an A&P grocery, where Sammy works. As three girls in swimsuits enter the grocery, Sammy starts ogling at them; however, as the manager leaves an unpleasant remark about the girls and forces them to leave, Sammy takes the side of the girls. As the manager dismisses Sammy, the latter leaves, realizing how difficult his life is going to be from now on after losing the job.

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The characters portrayed in the story are rather simple yet sympathetic, Updike manages to create an immediate impression on the readers by painting his characters with thick brushstrokes and giving them basic yet memorable character traits. In “A&P,” Sammy is portrayed as flawed, yet naïve and idealistic which, later on, affects him tremendously: “I say ‘I quit’ to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they’ll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero” (Updike 3). In turn, the manager is represented as a rude and uncompromising person, to whom the reader feels immediate aversion: “Policy is what the kingpins want” (Updike 3). As a result, each character has a unique personality, which the audience can easily identify.

Furthermore, the conflict between the manager and Sammy, who recognizes the dignity of the visitors despite his initial behavior, thus, redeeming himself, is shown. The minor conflict that could have happened between Sammy and the girls propels the story, allowing for a starker contrast between Sammy’s naiveté and the shopkeeper’s ugly nature.

Despite the presence of a broad range of ideas and themes in Updike’s “A&P,” the contrast between the nebulous nature of dreams and the harsh reality of the consequences of people’s actions remains the dominant one. The specified theme aligns with the premises of the literary movement of Modernism, to which the book belongs given the time of its origin. By incorporating the literary devices such as symbolism and allegory, Updike emphasizes the distance between ideas and the crushing reality perfectly, reinforcing the message of the story.

John Updike’s short story A&P is an example of modernism, a literary movement characterized by experimental writing techniques. The main character and narrator, Sammy, tries to act in a heroic way but realizes that such actions are not appreciated in the contemporary world. This paper aims to analyze the elements of modernism in John Updike’s A&P and provide three examples of the characteristics of the modernist literary movement using evidence from primary and secondary sources.

Stream of Consciousness

The first characteristic of the modernist literary movement found in Updike’s A&P is the method called stream of consciousness. According to Lu, this technique is “one of the stylistic hallmarks in his various works, such as “A&P,” Rabbit, Run, among numerous others” (26). From the very beginning of Updike’s short story, the reader is immersed in the flow of Sammy’s thoughts and impressions: “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. I’m in the third check-out slot, with my back to the door, so I don’t see them until they’re over by the bread” (163). As Sammy stands at his cash register, he watches customers and thinks of their unattractive appearance and animal-like features. In a slow and detailed tone, he describes his experiences at the grocery store. Based on Sammy’s stream of consciousness, it can be seen how the boy is unhappy with his job.

Epiphany

Epiphany or self-realization is the second characteristic of the modernism literary movement that can be seen in Updike’s A&P. In literature, epiphany means a moment when a character comes to a sudden realization changing their whole view of the world. Sammy is outraged by his manager’s remarks on the girls’ outfits. In a sudden protest, he quits his job without thinking about consequences, only to realize that the girls took no notice of his heroic action. Updike describes Sammy’s moment of epiphany in the following way: “My stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter” (168). As stated by Wells, Sammy realizes “that romantic gestures — in fact, that the whole chivalric world view — are, in modern times, counterproductive” (134). At this moment, the boy becomes aware of his mistake to confront his boss and is left to think about what he should do in such an unfair reality.

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Materialism and Consumerism

Finally, consumerism is the third characteristic of the modernist literary movement in Updike’s A&P. This short story takes place in a grocery store, and Sammy reflects on the materialistic behaviors of the shoppers and criticizes them. According to Bezdoode and Bezdoode, “the plot revolves around the main character’s fruitless attempt to challenge the values of the consumerist society” (77). Updike depicts Sammy as a young boy unsatisfied with his job environment and the consumerism-driven city with “two banks and the Congregational church and the newspaper store and three real-estate offices” (164). All these institutions promote materialistic values, and Sammy’s criticism is evident.

Analysis

Based on the characteristics of Updike’s A&P discussed above, it can be seen that this short story fits well into the modernist literary movement. It uses the main themes and methods typical for modernist literature, such as stream of consciousness, epiphany, and consumerism. Throughout the story, Updike captures the reader’s attention with intriguing techniques and themes, using satire, irony, and comparisons. Therefore, his work is an example of the modernism movement in literature.

Conclusion

In conclusion, despite the tragic worldview, Updike’s novels are distinguished by a sense of the word, a deep knowledge of human psychology, and subtle lyricism. Showing the crisis of moral standards in modern America, the author praises the good as a force, a way out, and salvation. Many of Updike’s works were received by the public controversially, and he became a favorite writer for many people. He researched and analyzed the American middle class in an attempt to find tension in everyday interactions such as marriage and hopeless job dissatisfaction. His works reflect the rich, dense, and sometimes mysterious vocabulary and syntax that the author possessed. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the winner of the National Book Award, the American Literary Award, and many other awards, his literary products can be recommended for reading and not be afraid for reviews. The works of Updike can quite rightly be attributed to the category of a cult.

References

Bezdoode, Zakarya, and Eshaq Bezdoode. “Heroism in the Age of Consumerism: The Emergence of a Moral Don Quixote in John Updike’s “A & P”.” Khazar Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 23, no. 2, 2020, pp. 75-85. Khazar University Institutional Repository. Web.

Farmer, Michial. Imagination and Idealism in John Updike’s Fiction. Camden House, 2017.

Heaman, Patricia B. “Updike, John.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, 2017.

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Svoboda, Frederic. Understanding John Updike. Univ of South Carolina Press, 2018.

Lu, Wei-lun. “Translating, Rendering and Re-constructing Updike’s Stream of Consciousness: The Case of A&P’s Translations into Mandarin.” The Fifth Biennial John Updike Society Conference, Svelto, 2018, 26-27. University of Belgrade, Faculty of Philology. Web.

Updike, John. A&P. Littleton Public Schools, 1962. Web.

—. “A&P.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, W.W. Norton & Company, 2015, pp. 163-168.

—. The Centaur. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1963.

Wells, Walter. “John Updike’s “A&P”: A return visit to Araby.” Studies in short fiction, vol. 30, no. 2, 1993, pp. 127-134. Gale. Web.

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