A&P | Study Guide

John Updike

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John Updike | Biography


John Updike was born on March 18, 1932, in Reading, Pennsylvania. When Updike was 13, the family moved to his grandparents' farm, which was just 11 miles from Shillington in the same state. His father taught science at the local high school and Sunday school at their church; his mother was a writer. Updike, likely influenced by his mother, began composing light verse and short prose and developed an interest in art, drawing cartoons while still at school.

Updike went on to Harvard, where he studied English and contributed cartoons and humorous stories to the Harvard Lampoon magazine. He spent his summers at home, working as a copy boy at the local newspaper. He also won a fellowship to go to Oxford, England, where he studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. He graduated from Harvard in 1954.

In summer 1954 The New Yorker magazine published first one of his poems and then one of his short stories—the first two of his many writings that would appear in its pages. After returning from Oxford, Updike was a staff writer at The New Yorker for two years, working on the magazine's "Talk of the Town" section, where he wrote weekly, short pieces about his observations of life in New York City that were all published anonymously. By then he and his wife had two children, and Updike decided to leave the big city. He moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he devoted himself full-time to his writing, becoming one of the best-known American authors of the late 20th century. Updike's first book was published in 1958; it was a poetry collection called The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures. His first novel The Poorhouse Fair, published the same year, examines political and religious issues during a summer fair at a home for the aged.

The small towns and rural locations Updike knew so well inspired the settings in his fiction, as did his middle-class upbringing. This can be seen in "A&P," which is one of his earlier short stories. The story is set north of Boston in a small town in the late 1950s. Its teenage narrator responds to the reactions toward three bathing suit-clad girls on the part of his coworker, customers, and ultimately the store manager. "A&P" was inspired by a real-life experience. Updike once recalled that he was passing the local A&P in Ipswich, Massachusetts, when he noticed some girls in bathing suits shopping there that became the basis for the story.

The story was first published in The New Yorker in July 1961 and rapidly became a staple in schools around the country. Its timeless subject matter has been compared to James Joyce's "Araby" (1914), another short story which also deals with a boy's "frustrating infatuation with a beautiful but inaccessible girl whose allure excites him into confusing his sexual impulses for those of honor and chivalry ... [which] leads quickly to an emotional fall." It has even been pointed out that the title "A&P" mimics the sound and rhythm of the title "Araby." Updike's narrative style in the story has been likened to that of J.D. Salinger (1919–2010), whose The Catcher in the Rye (1951) is another classic featuring a nonconforming male adolescent protagonist. Some critics have reacted negatively to "A&P," considering its subject matter trivial. Others find its treatment of women as objects for male attention sexist. However, it is still regarded by many as a classic of American adolescence and the journey to adulthood.

Despite his many books of poetry and his nonfiction articles and books, Updike is probably best known for his fiction, which details the sufferings of average American males with regard to religion, sexuality, and familial obligations. In addition to many short stories, he wrote 22 novels. He also won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (twice—first in 1981 and again in 1991), the National Medal of Art (1989), and the National Medal for the Humanities (2003).

Updike's last book was published after his death; it was another collection of poems, this time centered on the theme of his own mortality—Endpoint, and Other Poems (2009)—which he worked on up until the last few weeks of his life. Updike died in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, of lung cancer on January 27, 2009.

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