Suburban Identity in the Poetry of John Updike

Jiří Flajšar 1
  • 1 Palacký University,


This paper provides a close reading of a representative selection of suburban poems by the American writer John Updike (1932–2009). It also draws upon the existing scholarship by suburban studies historians (including Kenneth Jackson, Dolores Hayden, John Archer, and James Howard Kunstler), who have argued for the cultural importance of American suburbia in fostering identity, and develops the argument by literary critics including Jo Gill, Peter Monacell, and Robert von Hallberg, who have championed the existence of a viable suburban tradition in postwar American poetry. By scrutinizing poems from Updike’s early poetry, represented by “Shillington”, up to his closing lyric opus, “Endpoint”, the paper argues that Updike’s unrecognized importance is that of a major postwar poet whose lyric work chronicles, in memorable, diverse, and important ways, the construction of individual identity within suburbia, in a dominant setting for most Americans from the 1950s up to the present.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

  • Archer, John. Architecture and Suburbia: From English Villa to American Dream House, 1690–2000. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. Print.

  • Archer, John. “Everyday Suburbia: Lives and Practices.” Public: Art/Culture/Ideas, 43. 2011: 22–30. Print.

  • Begley, Adam. Updike. New York: HarperCollins, 2014. Print.

  • Beuka, Robert. Suburbia Nation: Reading Suburban Landscape in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.

  • Brunner, Edward. Cold War Poetry. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001. Print.

  • Chafe, William H. The Unfinished Journey: American Since World War II. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

  • Clapson, Mark. Suburban Century: Social Change and Urban Growth in England and the United States. Oxford: Berg, 2003. Print.

  • Collins, Billy. Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems. New York: Random House, 2013. Print.

  • Collins, Billy. Sailing Alone around the Room: New and Selected Poems. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.

  • Deresiewicz, William. “‘A Great Symphony of American Junk.’” New Republic, 9 September 2014. Web. Accessed 10 February 2019.

  • Field, Edward (ed). A Geography of Poets. New York: Bantam, 1979. Print.

  • Gill, Jo. The Poetics of the American Suburbs. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.

  • Hayden, Dolores. A Field Guide to Sprawl. New York: Norton, 2004. Print.

  • Hugo, Richard. The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing. New York: Norton, 1982. Print.

  • Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.

  • Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape. New York: Touchstone, 1993. Print.

  • Lawrence, D. H. Selected Literary Criticism. Edited by Anthony Beal. New York: Viking, 1966. Print.

  • Leithauser, Brad. “Updike’s Naked Poetry.” New Criterion, vol. 34, no. 2. 2015: 10–17. Print.

  • Levis, Larry. “Eden and My Generation.” Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets on Poetry. Ed. James McCorkle. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990. 466-77. Print.

  • Lucas, Dave. “Suburban Pastoral.” Poetry, vol. 184, no. 4. 2004: 281–2. Print.

  • McGinley, Phyllis. Times Three. New York: Viking, 1960. Print.

  • McMichael, James. The World At Large: New and Selected Poems, 1971-1996. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print.

  • McTavish, John. “‘Jesus and Elvis’ and John Updike’s Poetry.” Theology Today, vol. 63, no. 4. 2007: 433–41. Print.

  • Monacell, Peter. “In the American Grid: Modern Poetry and the Suburbs.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 35, no. 1. Fall 2011: 122–42. Print.

  • Perin, Constance. Belonging in America: Reading Between the Lines. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988. Print.

  • Psalm 23:6. Bible, New International Version. BibleGateway, 2011. Web. Accessed 30 January 2019.

  • Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. Eds. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson. New York: Library of America, 1997. Print.

  • Updike, John. Collected Poems, 1953–1993. New York: Knopf, 1993. Print.

  • Updike, John. Endpoint and Other Poems. New York: Knopf, 2009. Print.

  • Updike, John. “In the Cemetery High Above Shillington.” Ontario Review, vol. 40. 2014: 25-9. Print.

  • von Hallberg, Robert. American Poetry and Culture, 1945–1980. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985. Print.

  • Wallace, David Foster. “John Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat, Drops One; Is This Finally the End for Magnificent Narcissists?” Observer. 13 October 1997. Web. Accessed 10 February 2019.

  • Wallace, Ronald. God Be with the Clown: Humor in American Poetry. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984. Print.

  • Wilbur, Richard. New and Collected Poems. San Diego: Harcourt, 1988. Print.


Journal + Issues