John Updike, who died on Tuesday at 76, was a novelist who thought big about small towns, transforming the events of suburban bedrooms and sports fields into the story of America itself.
A spokesman for his publisher Knopf said that Updike died early on Tuesday after a battle with lung cancer.
Updike was not just one of the most prolific authors in the US, but among the most celebrated — as much a part of the country as the country was part of his work.
“He seems to hover over the contemporary literary scene like an apparition from another era, the last great American man of letters,” Web-based The Salon described Updike in an interview.
In a career spanning half a century Updike won two Pulitzer Prizes and became a household name, especially for his series of Rabbit novels, starting with Rabbit, Run.
His style was at the same time lyrical — Updike also wrote poetry — and accessible.
In addition to 25 novels he published at least a dozen short story collections and hundreds of short stories, poems, literary criticism and book reviews in The New Yorker magazine.
“He was one of our greatest writers and he will be sorely missed,” Knopf publicity director Nicholas Latimer said in a statement.
The Washington-based Academy of Achievement described Updike as “one of America’s premier men of letters.”
Although his interests were famously wide-ranging, Updike was formed by small town life in the booming post-World War II years.
Updike recounted how a sickly childhood on a farm in Pennsylvania prepared him for a cerebral life.
“He suffered from psoriasis and a stammer, ailments that set him apart from his peers. He found solace in writing, and won a scholarship to Harvard,” the Academy of Achievement said.
Updike recalled once how his “mother had dreams of being a writer and I used to see her type in the front room. The front room is also where I would go when I was sick so I would sit there and watch her.”
He went on to edit the famous Lampoon humor magazine at Harvard and then published a poem and work of fiction in The New Yorker soon after graduating.
He published his book of poetry, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, in 1958 and after a good reception for his debut novel The Poorhouse Fair, he wrote the more ambitious Rabbit, Run.
The descriptions of athlete Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s sexual escapades were shocking for the time, but after some changes to the text, Updike won widespread acclaim.
Later editions of Rabbit, Run restored the original wording.
The grandson of a Presbyterian minister, Updike had strong religious convictions, although he did talk about suffering doubts.
“The three great secret things” in human existence, he once said, are sex, art and religion.
Those big issues, mixed with comedy and east coast US settings, were omnipresent in Updike’s work.
That ranged from the sexually explicit Couples in 1968 to the 1984 Witches of Eastwick, which was turned into a Hollywood movie and tells the story of witches, sex and a small town in Rhode Island.
Last year, Updike published his last novel, a sequel called The Widows of Eastwick.