John Updike, a Lyrical Writer of the Ordinary, Is Dead at 76 By CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT John Updike, the kaleidoscopically gifted writer whose quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels highlighted so vast and protean a body of fiction, verse, essays and criticism as to place him in the first rank of among American men of letters, died on Tuesday. He was 76 and lived in Beverly Farms, Mass. The cause was cancer, according to a statement by Alfred A. Knopf, his publisher. A spokesman said Mr. Updike died at a hospice outside Boston. Of Mr. Updikes 61 books, perhaps none captured the imagination of the book-reading public as those about ordinary citizens in small-town and urban settings. His best-known protagonist, Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, first appears as a former high-school basketball star trapped in a loveless marriage and a sales job he hates. Through the four novels whose titles bear his nickname Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest the author traces the sad life of this undistinguished middle-American against the background of the last half-centurys major events. My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class, Mr. Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. I like middles, he continued. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules. From his earliest short stories, set in the fictional town of Olinger, Pa., which he once described as a square mile of middle-class homes physically distinguished by a bend in the central avenue that compels some side streets to deviate from the grid, Mr. Updike sought the clash of extremes in everyday dramas of marriage, sex and divorce. The only wealth he bestowed on his subjects lay in the richness of his descriptive language, the detailed fineness of which won him comparisons with painters like Vermeer and Andrew Wyeth. This detail was often so rich that it inspired two schools of thought on Mr. Updikes fiction those who responded to his descriptive prose as to a kind of poetry, a sensuous engagement with the world, and those who argued that he wasted beautiful language on nothing. The latter position was perhaps most acutely defined by James Wood in an essay, John Updikes Complacent God, in his collection The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (Random House, 1999). Mr. Wood attributed the authors lyric capacities to his particular loyalty to the Protestant theologian Karl Barth. He argued that for Mr. Updike, because he accepts Barths belief that God confers grace through the gift of creation, description alone of that creation is sufficient to affirm his faith. But description may not be enough for readers who dont share Mr. Updikes faith, Mr. Wood suggests. He is a prose writer of great beauty, Mr. Wood wrote, but that prose confronts one with the question of whether beauty is enough, and whether beauty always conveys all that a novelist must convey. Comments like these did not deter Mr. Updike from plowing ahead with his work, turning out three pages a day of fiction, essays, criticism or verse, and proving the maxim that several pages a day was at least a book a year and would add up to many dozens of books in a lifetime. *SKIP* John Hoyer Updike was born on March 18, 1932, in Reading, Pa., and grew up in the nearby town of Shillington. The only child of Wesley Russell Updike, a junior high school math teacher of German descent, and Linda Grace (Hoyer) Updike, an aspiring writer, he lived a solitary childhood made more so by his familys move when he was 13 to his mothers birthplace on an 80-acre farm near Plowville, Pa. From there both he and his father had to commute the 11 miles to school in town, but the isolation fired the boys imagination as well as his desire to take flight from aloneness. Sustained by hours of reading in the local library and by his mothers encouragement to write, he aspired first to be either a Walt Disney animator or a magazine cartoonist. But a sense of narrative was implanted early and most likely nurtured by summer work as a copyboy for a local newspaper, The Reading Eagle, for which he eventually wrote several features. As he told The Paris Review, In a sense my mother and father, considerable actors both, were dramatizing my youth as I was having it so that I arrived as an adult with some burden of material already half formed. After graduating from high school as co-valedictorian and senior-class president, Mr. Updike attended Harvard College on a scholarship. Although he majored in English and wrote for and edited The Harvard Lampoon, he continued his cartooning. In 1953 he married Mary Entwistle Pennington, a Radcliffe fine arts major. Graduating from Harvard in 1954 summa cum laude, he won a Knox Fellowship at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in Oxford. In June of that year, his short story Friends from Philadelphia was accepted, along with a poem, by The New Yorker. It was an event, he later told The Paris Review, that remained the ecstatic breakthrough of my literary life. Obituary continues here.