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Acclaimed author John Updike, dead at 76

John Updike, the prolific, critically acclaimed bard of America's suburban middle class, died Tuesday at 76. According to his publisher, Knopf, the cause was lung cancer.

Updike's range was enormous. His more than 50 books - as often best-sellers as critics' darlings - included novels, memoirs, children's books and collections of stories, poems, essays and criticism. Yet another volume, "My Father's Tears and Other Stories" is due out this June.

"Surely no American writer," Margaret Atwood observed in 1997, "has written so much, for so long, so consistently well."

Every prize came his way, except the Nobel. He won two Pulitzers, two National Book Awards, four National Book Critics Circle Awards, the Howells Medal from the American Academy and Letters. But in the eyes of the Swedish Academy, those Nobel tastemakers, his work was regarded as too conventional, not daring enough.

Updike is perhaps best known for his four "Rabbit" novels about a Pennsylvania car dealer named Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, his American Everyman. In the 30 years between the first, "Rabbit, Run" (1960), and the last, "Rabbit at Rest" (1990) - with "Rabbit Redux" (1971) and "Rabbit Is Rich" (1981) sandwiched in between - Updike created a vivid panorama of a nation in flux, as technology, economics, and racial and gender tensions repeatedly shocked our collective sense of who we are.

Readers may have other favorites: the three satirical Bech books, about a Jewish writer in Manhattan; "The Witches of Eastwick," featuring a trio of scheming divorcees; "A Month of Sundays," on a lusty Protestant minister; or the story collections about The Maples coupling in the suburbs.

Each book is enlivened by a sturdy, straightforward realism, a dense layering of sights, sounds and smells. While fads came and went, Updike hewed to a well-worn path. Early on, some critics derided him for a too-showy prose style, a hothouse of metaphor run riot. In retrospect, such criticism looks silly, something like envy.

In fact, Updike could shape any sentence into a finely calibrated descriptive tool. Instead of calling attention to himself, it forced the reader to pay closer attention to the world, to see the miraculous in the everyday, just as that ordinary guy, Rabbit, could be a microscope into the national identity.

Here, for instance, is a woman playing tennis in "The Witches of Eastwick": "The ball hung like a moon as she raced for it; her body became an instrument of thought, present wherever she willed. . . . She was female grace and strength, shed, for this silver moment, of its rough garb of servitude."

Women who found Updike's work sexist overlooked the way he took the measure of all our frailties, male and female. Atwood, author of that feminist classic "The Handmaid's Tale," understood that.

As a critic, Updike was unfailingly insightful and generous. His wide-ranging book reviews in The New Yorker, the magazine that launched his career in the 1950s, cast an appreciative eye on American realists, French absurdists and Latin American fabulists. "I do think criticism is one area where manners and trying to empathize are important," he told Newsday in a 1998 interview, "trying to understand what the author hoped the spell would be."

In middle age and after, Updike had a gentlemanly, patrician bearing. But he grew up in modest circumstances, mostly in Shillington, Pa. His father was a high school science teacher, his mother a homemaker and would-be writer. He graduated from Harvard, summa cum laude, in 1954 and then studied briefly at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in England. His art criticism would later appear in the New York Review of Books.

Soon after college, The New Yorker became Updike's literary home, the showcase for his reviews and stories. By the end of the 1950s he had published a story collection, a book of poetry and his first novel, "The Poorhouse Fair." Immediately the object of critical attention, he achieved widespread acclaim with "Rabbit, Run."

In 1957 he left Manhattan and settled with his first wife, Mary Pennington, and four children in the quiet Boston suburb of Ipswich. He later moved to Beverly Farms, Mass., his residence when he died. He is survived by his children and second wife, Martha Bernhard.

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