John Updike

National Humanities Medal


"My first paying job was at a newspaper," says John Updike. "But there's a lot of legwork, a sort of aggression you need to be a good journalist. Fiction gives more of a chance to use the poet in you. In one sense, fiction has always been a mongrel art. It has to be something else. The root of the word novella is 'news.' Fiction is an account of a lived life."

One of the most prolific American writers, John Updike has published more than forty books, essays, and works of verse. He has twice been featured on the cover of Time magazine, and is only the third American to receive two Pulitzer prizes--the first in 1982 and again in 1991 for Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, the second and fourth volumes of his "Rabbit" saga.

Born in 1932 in rural Pennsylvania, Updike graduated from Harvard in 1954, the same year he sold his first poem and short story to The New Yorker. He joined the staff there the following year and continues to contribute to the magazine today. His first volume of poetry was published in 1958. His first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, followed a year later.

Updike's first work of fiction won a Guggenheim Fellowship, which supported him as he worked on a longer novel, Rabbit, Run. It was published in 1960, and became an immediate bestseller. The saga follows the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a star athlete and average American who provides a glimpse of the social upheavals of America in the second half of the twentieth century.

"The books are not loved by everybody and may be deeply flawed, and there may be limits to my empathy with a man like this, but the Pennsylvania setting helps make me feel like I'm full of material in some odd way," Updike once said. "I haven't lived in Pennsylvania in many years, and when I did live there as a youth there was a lot I didn't know about what was going on around me. I was a schoolteacher's son and had a fairly limited view of the world. But in all of our childhoods we are open to experience in a way we cease to be. . . . A kid is pretty open to whatever shocks and thrills the environment provides. So all of us writers, whether it's Roth's Newark or Bellow's Chicago, or whatever, it's where you somehow feel warmest and seem to have the most to say."

The Humanities Medal is the latest in a string of awards for service to the humanities during the past fifty years. "It's an odd word, humanities," Updike says. "Science gives us so much of our sense of what we are. There still is a territory that only fiction can touch. No scientist can quite describe the sensations of being alive and the predicament-- the bind--of being human."

Asked about literature's relevance to modern society, he says, "Print is no longer the hot medium--it would be hard to think of a post-World War II book that has changed the world. Perhaps Silent Spring. It would be a rare book that would reach enough people to effect societal change. People do still read though, those that read at all. You're writing for a minority, but an influential minority. Maybe the literary medium is somewhat down compared to others in this era, but by no means out."

Updike once compared writing fiction to a person's handwriting. "It comes out to be you no matter what you do," he says. "But you have to feel that you're going off in a fresh direction. You have to be in some way excited, and in a way frightened--can you do this? Without that can-you-do-it? feeling, you can't do it. . . . It doesn't get easier, this setting out again. . . . You have to give it magic. You have to substitute wisdom and experience for passion and innocence."


About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.