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A New Deal, a New Updike: The Decline of New Deal Liberalism in John Updike's The Poorhouse Fair

  • YOAV FROMER (a1)

This paper challenges the prevailing notions that John Updike's fiction was mostly apolitical by offering a fresh and unorthodox reading of his debut novel The Poorhouse Fair (1958). It argues that Updike's application of political metaphor to an ostensibly placid plot that revolves around a New Jersey retirement home illuminates mounting disagreements within the New Deal order regarding power, liberty, democracy, and religion. Unlike conventional narratives that attribute the decline of liberalism in the 1960s to external factors such as Vietnam, racial strife, counterculture, and postindustrialism, this counterintuitive reading of Updike reveals that latent internal philosophical tensions were embedded within liberalism long before these formidable challenges materialized.

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1 Sam Tanenhaus, “The Man in the Middle,” New York Times Books Review, 8 Nov. 2012, 31.

2 “John Updike: An American Subversive,” The Economist, 29 Jan. 2009, available at

3 Updike, John, The Poorhouse Fair (New York: Knopf, 1977), ixx .

4 When referring to postwar liberalism, I am not alluding to the broadly defined Lockean principles of individual liberty and the corresponding rights necessary to preserve it (i.e. limited government, popular sovereignty, a market economy). Rather, I am addressing the particular ideology that came to define American liberalism in the later stages of the New Deal and dominated the Democratic Party (and the moderate wing of the Republican Party) until the late 1960s. This included a dedication to the welfare state, a tamed form of regulated capitalism, vigilant anticommunist foreign policy, technocratic government dependent on interest groups rather than participatory democracy, a secularized culture suspicious of religion, and an intellectual sensibility that relied on a rational–empirical perspective. For more on this see Brinkley, Alan, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New York: Vintage, 1996), 610 . For a survey of postwar liberal thought see Marsden, George M., The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief (New York: Basic Books, 2014); Brick, Howard, Transcending Capitalism: Visions of a New Society in Modern American Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006); Mattson, Kevin, When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism (London: Routledge, 2004); Pells, Richard H., The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989); Neuchterlein, James, “Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and the Discontents of Postwar American Liberalism,Review of Politics, 39, 1 (Jan. 1977), 340 .

5 Schiff, James A., John Updike Revisited (Boston: Twayne, 1998), 1120 ; Newman, Judie, John Updike (London: Macmillan, 1988), 812 ; Greiner, Donald J., John Updike's Novels (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984), 327 ; Searles, George J., “TPF: Updike's Thesis Statement,” in Macnaughton, William R., ed., Critical Essays on John Updike (Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1982), 231–36.

6 Plath, James, ed., Conversations with John Updike (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), 36 .

7 Aldridge quoted in ibid., 10. For an overview of this criticism see Mazzeno, Laurence W., Becoming John Updike: Critical Receptions, 1958–2010 (Rochester: Camden House, 2013). For some notable examples see Jeffery Meyers, “Judging John Updike: A Narcissist with a Thesaurus,” New Statesman, 2 May 2014, available at; Dickstein, Morris, Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction 1945–1970 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 104–14; David Foster Wallace, “John Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat, Drops One: Is This Finally the End for Magnificent Narcissists?”, New York Observer, 13 Oct. 1997, available at; Podhoretz, Norman, Doings and Undoings (New York: Farrar, Straus & Company, 1964), 251–57.

8 For more on this historiography see Philips-Fein, Kim, “Conservatism: A State of the Field,Journal of American History, 98, 3 (Dec. 2001): 723–43; Flamm, Michael W., Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); Lassiter, Matthew D., The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007); Stein, Judith, Running Steel, Running America: Race, Economic Policy, and the Decline of Liberalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Fraser, Steve and Gerstle, Gary, eds., The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order 1930–1980 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Rieder, Jonathan, Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against Liberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987); Matusow, Alan J., The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York: Harper & Row, 1984).

9 Updike, John, The Poorhouse Fair (New York: Knopf, 1963), 47 . All subsequent in-text parenthetical citations are from this edition.

10 Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner's, 1958), 182 .

11 For more on his gratitude to Kafka see Updike, John, “Forward,” in Kafka, Franz, Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories (New York: Schocken, 1995).

12 Updike, John, Odd Jobs (New York: Knopf, 1991), 48 .

13 Ibid., 120–22.

14 Scott, James C., Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 6 .

15 Ibid., 4.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid., 5.

18 Ibid.

19 Updike, TPF (1977), x.

20 Katznelson, Ira, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: Liveright, 2013), 7 .

21 For more on this see Leuchtenburg, William E., Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal 1932–1940 (New York: Harper & Row, 1963); Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr., The Age of Roosevelt: The Coming of the New Deal (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959); Hofstadter, Richard, The Age of Reform (New York: Knopf, 1955), chapter 7.

22 Leuchtenburg, 331.

23 By statism I am referring to the process of increased public reliance upon the state and its institutions at the expense of nonpolitical forces within civil society or the free market. See Plotke, David, Building a Democratic Political Order: Reshaping Liberalism in the 1930s and 1940s (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

24 For a case study of this shift see Cohen, Lizabeth, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago 1919–1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

25 Leuchtenburg, 338, 342. For more on New Deal bureaucrats see Schwarz, Jordan A., The New Dealers: Power and Politics in the Age of Roosevelt (New York: Knopf, 1993).

26 Berlin, Isaiah, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Sandel, Michael, ed., Liberalism and Its Critics (New York: New York University Press, 1984), 1536 , 15.

27 Ibid., 24. For more on Berlin's concepts of liberty see Cherniss, Joshua L., A Mind and Its Time: The Development of Isaiah Berlin's Political Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), chapters 7–8.

28 John Updike, “Marx: Man of Mission,” 25, John Updike Papers (hereafter JUP), folder 416, MS Am 1793, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Updike, John, Hugging the Shore (New York: Vintage, 1984), 583–90. On Berlin at Harvard see Berlin, Isaiah, Enlightening: Letters 1946–1960 (London: Chatto & Windus, 2009), 244412 .

29 See Updike, “Marx: Man of Mission,” 23–25.

30 Updike, TPF (1977), xv–xvi.

31 Plath, Conversations with Updike, 3.

32 Searles, “TPF: Updike's Thesis Statement,” 235.

33 Updike, TPF (1977), xvi–vii.

34 Ibid., xvii. On Aquinas see Updike, John, More Matter: Essays and Criticism (New York: Knopf, 1999), 846 ; on scholasticism see Updike, “The Tragedy of Peter Abelard,” JUP, Folder 445.

35 For more on this see Plath, 129, 174.

36 Wilentz, Sean, Chant's Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Wood, Gordon S., The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1993); Pocock, J. G. A., The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975). For a survey of American republicanism see Rodgers, Daniel T., “Republicanism: The Career of a Concept,Journal of American History, 79, 1 (June 1992), 1138 .

37 Rodgers, 34.

38 Boswell, Marshall, “Updike, Religion, and the Novel of Moral Debate,” in Olster, Stacey, ed., The Cambridge Companion to John Updike (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 4357 , 47.

39 Kloppenberg, James T., The Virtues of Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

40 Beard, Charles and Beard, Mary, The Rise of American Civilization, Volume II (New York: Macmillan, 1934).

41 Updike, “Letters to Plowville,” 8 Jan. 1961, JUP, folder 6887.

42 Kazin, Michael, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (New York: Knopf, 2006), xiii.

43 Ibid., 45; Bryan, William Jennings, William Jennings Bryan: Selections (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill Company, 1967), 88 .

44 For more on this see Kazin; Taylor, Jeff, Where Did the Party Go? William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey and the Jeffersonian Tradition (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006); Ashby, LeRoy, William Jennings Bryan: Champion of Democracy (Boston: Twayne, 1987), 184 ; Koenig, Louis W., Bryan: A Political Biography of William Jennings Bryan (New York: Putnam, 1971), 38 . The Progressive movement oscillated between the statist ambitions of Theodore Roosevelt's New Nationalism and the decentralization of Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom. For more on these competing visions see McGerr, Michael, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

45 Lippmann, Walter, Drift and Mastery: An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 81 .

46 Ashby, 127.

47 Ibid., 185.

48 Brinkley, Alan, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression (New York: Knopf, 1982), xi.

49 Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” 15.

50 Ibid., 17.

51 Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, 302.

52 Ibid., 11–12, 318.

53 For more on Updike's liberal upbringing and ideals see Updike, John, Self-Consciousness (New York: Knopf, 1989), chapter 4; Updike, Assorted Prose (New York: Knopf, 1965), 163; Plath, Conversations with Updike, 63–73. For more on Updike's political education see JUP, Folders 414, 416, 445; Updike, Odd Jobs, 839.

54 Updike, “Letters to Plowville,” 15 Nov. 1950, 6 Feb. 1951, 8 May 1951; Updike, “Marx: Man of Mission,” 23–26. For a more biographical survey of Updike's college education and political interests see Fromer, Yoav, “The Liberal Origins of John Updike's Literary Imagination,Modern Intellectual History (forthcoming fall 2016), published online 27 Aug. 2015, available at

55 For more on Updike's intellectual and political writings see Fromer, Yoav, “The Inside-Outsider: John Updike as a New York Intellectual – from Shillington Pennsylvania,John Updike Review, 4, 2 (Spring 2016), 2955 .

56 Updike to Moynihan, JUP, folder 5250. Dwight Macdonald to Updike, 25 Sept. 1961, Dwight Macdonald Papers, Yale University Library, Archives and Manuscripts Division, MS# 730, Box 54, Folder 1309. Schlesinger to Updike, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Papers, Box 137, Folder 137.4, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library. Ludwig, Jeffrey, “Roommates and Rivals: John Updike, Christopher Lasch, and a Harvard University Friendship,John Updike Review, 2, 2 (Spring 2013), 325 . On his diplomatic voyages see Updike, Self-Consciousness, chapter 4. On ADA see Lorna Kaufman to Updike, 5 Nov. 1973, JUP, Folder 2921. On Sakharov see Adrian Karatnycky to Updike, 16 Dec. 1980, Folder 5891.

57 Updike, More Matter, 3–16, esp. 13.

58 Hofstadter, 50. On Lasch's relationship with Hofstadter see Miller, Eric, Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), chapters 3–4.

59 Plath, 85.

60 For a survey of the historiography see Phillips-Fein, “Conservatism.” For examples see Schulman, Bruce J. and Zelizer, Julien E., eds., Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); and Critchlow, Donald T., The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

61 McGirr, Lisa, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002); Carter, Dan T., The Politics of Rage: The Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000); Williams, Daniel K., God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

62 Nash, George H., The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 (New York: Basic Books, 1976).

63 Searles, “TPF: Updike's Thesis Statement,” 231.

64 Plath, 37, 177.

65 See Fitelson, David, “Conflict Unresolved,Commentary (March 1959), 275–76; Norman Podhoretz, “Novels: Style and Substance,” The Reporter, 22 Jan. 1959, 42–43. Judie Newman has pointed toward Amy Mortis's revered quilts as a potential “feminine resolution” to the irrepressible conflicts between the chief male protagonists: by incorporating both individual and communal aspects into her “social fabric,” Amy is the only one who has actually provided the plot with an opportunity for harmony. See Newman, John Updike, 11.

66 Plath, 45. For more on Updike's motivation for writing see Updike, John, Picked-Up Pieces (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Crest, 1977), 4554 .

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