The Carpentered Hen · The Poorhouse Fair · The Same Door
Updike's first three published volumes — a book of poems, a novel, and a collection of stories — were written over a five-year period, 1954-9, although he reached back into the Harvard Lampoon for two poems published in 1953. Each of these books received respectful, "positive" notices, but their collective impact was minor compared to that of a predecessor like Salinger ( The Catcher in the Rye, 1951) or of his contemporary Philip Roth, who made his debut in 1959 with the prizewinning Goodbye, Columbus. Updike's earliest books didn't set out, so it seems, to make major claims for themselves: full of style, they might well be called "stylish," a word with just the hint of a reservation about it. The poems, almost entirely light verse, are undeniably clever, but then — so the reservation says — perhaps too clever, merely cute. The novel, in its determination to avoid the autobiographical sprawl of a first book, is compact, elusive, often oblique in its presentation. The stories present graceful, unfervid renderings of people in very much less than extreme circumstances — in a high-school classroom, at the dentist, on a New York City bus, or returning to see old classmates at a highschool party.
With hindsight and knowledge of the forty-year career of books about to unfold, however, we can say that Updike's first three showed a writer who was concerned to demonstrate more than one string to his bow. Although the strings have intimate relations with one