John Updike’s The Poorhouse Fair is one of the more striking debuts by a novelist in the history of American letters. It was widely noticed but only cautiously appreciated by many prominent critics when it was published in the same year as Updike’s first collection of short fiction (The Same Door, 1959) and one year after his earliest volume, the poetry in The Carpentered Hen, and Other Tame Creatures. Most commentators found some element in the book to praise, emphasizing the poetic use of language, the critique of rational social engineering, or the somewhat (for its time) unconventional structure. There was a degree of consensus that Updike had not been entirely successful in connecting all of the prominent features of the novel. Within the context of his prolific work during the following decades, it is clear that Updike, in this debut novel, was presenting some of the most important themes that informed his writing from its inception. Each element of the novel is operating in service to fundamental themes.
Updike was twenty-seven when The Poorhouse Fair was written, and the novel’s strongest, most passionately expressive sections are tributes to a rich cultural legacy he obtained from his neighbors in rural Pennsylvania. The central character, John Hook, is very affectionately drawn from Updike’s maternal grandfather, John Hoyer. Updike’s approach to Hook’s characterization is a meditative exploration of the mind and soul of a man whose admirable qualities are vanishing into the emptiness of a technological wasteland. Updike later recollected, in his memoir Self-Consciousness (1989), that “the family I grew up in was old-fashioned,” with an old-fashioned notion about “trying to do the right thing”; he recalled his grandfather quoting proverbs “in a clear and elocutionary voice.” The Hoyers, Updike declared proudly, “had become peaceful, reasonable people who valued civilization,” and Hook’s generally positive outlook stems from a belief in a just American society and the conviction that God, the creator of the universe, is manifest in the world. This religious foundation, which Updike saw as a complement to, rather than a foreign element in, the life of the mind, was an integral part of his Lutheran heritage, what he called “my deepest and most fruitful self.” At Oxford and at Harvard, he found himself removed from the verities of his rural Pennsylvania community and came to think of his Christianity as “battered and vestigial.” The character...
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