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Of the Farm by John Updike
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Of the Farm (edition 1968)

by John Updike

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372553,826 (3.33)22
"A small masterpiece . . . With Of the Farm, John Updike has achieved a sureness of touch, a suppleness of style, and a subtlety of vision that is gained by few writers of fi ction."--The New York Times In this short novel, Joey Robinson, a thirty-five-year-old New Yorker, describes a visit he makes, with his second wife and eleven-year-old stepson, to the Pennsylvania farm where he grew up and where his aging mother now lives alone. For three days, a quartet of voices explores the air, making confessions, seeking alignments, quarreling, pleading, and pardoning. They are not entirely alone: ghosts (fathers, lovers, children) press upon them, as do phantoms from the near future (nurses, lawyers, land developers). Of the Farm concerns the places people choose to live their lives, and the strategies they use to stand their ground.… (more)
Member:scrapple318
Title:Of the Farm
Authors:John Updike
Info:Penguin (1968), Unknown Binding, 155 pages
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Of the farm by John Updike

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A fictionalized story about John Updike and his mother, Linda Hoyer Updike, [Of the Farm] depicts a visit by the son to his mother's small farm. JU/Joey Robinson drives from NYC for a weekend. He's going to fire up the old farm tractor and mow fields before a township weed-mowing deadline. He's accompanied by his new wife, Peggy, and her 11-year-old son, Richard. Low-key chats, bickering, revelations, and recriminations ensue. Through Joey, Updike seems to be analyzing his relationship with his mother, perhaps sorting through his marriage, and especially assessing what he, as an only, will do when she dies.

Updike had a sharp eye for body language and nuanced exchanges: between mother and son, between son and new wife, between mother and new wife, between all three and 11-year-old Richard. A barbed remark hits its target, and the speaker exits. Who was the real target? What was the intended message? What's the underlying message? What does it reveal of the speaker? Is negotiation appropriate? Who's to make the first move?

His mastery of description and poetic expression and word choices is well known.

Here's a sample passage; Joey's mother invites him to join a walk the others are taking around the farm's boundaries. "No, I'll mow until lunch." As narrator, he tells us:

I would mow and my mother would get to know Peggy: this was our bargain. I demanded of the three others that they mingle without involving me. I feared I might lose myself amid their confused apprehensions of one another and hoped, as my mother's hurt gaze left me and Peggy's lips went prim, that annoyance with me would tend to unite them. They moved away, walking warily on the stubble; Peggy wore sandals that left the sides of her feet exposed, and my mother, head bowed, was inspecting my work for errors, for ruined nests, butchered birds. Richard began to run in circles like the dogs, chasing the wisps of milkweed flax that alternated with cabbage butterflies in the air. I noted with pride that both women were tall, big. It seemed a sign of great wealth that I could afford to snub them, and this prosperity enriched the triumph of floating between the steady wheels that reduced all unruly flowers to the contour of a cropped field.
  After five or six circuits I saw them emerge from the woods, tinted specks, and bob toward the house along the horizon of the slope of land that descended to the foundations of the abandoned tobacco shed. Bouncing dogs, jogging child, plodding women: my tractor's long slow turning as I watched them gave me the illusion of pulling the string of them tight.


Updike cites Joey's mother's "hurt gaze" and Peggy's "prim" lips as evidence the women are united in annoyance. He notes them "walking warily on the stubble", each in isolation, Peggy because "her sandals...left the sides of her feet exposed, and my mother, head bowed, was inspecting my work for errors, for ruined nests, butchered birds."

The story is a weaving, the author/narrator bringing disparate threads together, drawing them into a tapestry of shared lives.

The true-life backstory is that when John was born, the Updike family lived in town, about two blocks from the Shillington (PA) High School where Wesley Updike taught and John would eventually study. But Linda Updike pined for her family's farm, which her father had sold so he could move his family into town. When she was able to buy it after World War II, she uprooted the men and they moved to Plowville. Seventy-plus years ago, Plowville was far more remote than today's 10 minute drive would suggest. When this novel was published, of course, Wesley was still alive. Updike was still with his first wife and their four children. And so in this story, composed a decade before his mother died, he noodled around with issues that involved people close to him, issues he'd eventually have to deal with. How would his mother get along should his father die? How would Linda react to John divorcing, with his ex-wife taking their four children—his mother's only grandchildren—into a new marriage? How would a new wife, say for example, the woman he was having an affair with at that time, fit into their tight family.

I liked this novel as well as any Updike I've read. I may read it again, in concert with a reread of [The Centaur], which focused on Wesley Updike and was published the year before [Of the Farm]. And I'll add a first reading of [Marry Me!], which was written at the same time but not published until the late 1970s.
  weird_O | Mar 19, 2020 |
Very autobiographical novel, based on Updike's own mother, her much loved farm, and the difficult relationship that ensues as , after leaving his wife and children, he visits her with his second wife and stepson. There are so many strands running through it - the mother's awareness of her age and infirmity; the sense of loss as she fears never seeing her grandchildren again; her bitterness at seeing her adored son taking up with someone she deems stupid (and his own qualms that she may be right.) Great piece of writing. ( )
  starbox | Sep 29, 2019 |
This short little novel is a treasure trove of great writing. A deceptively simple story jam packed with drama, atmosphere and description. It traces the return of Joey, the protagonist, to the farm on which he grew up. He is there to introduce his new second wife and stepson to his widowed mother, with whom he has a challenging relationship. While the book is really about relationships: - between Joey and his new wife; Joey and his mother; his mother and deceased father; mother and new daughter-in-law, etc,-it is the back and forth between Joey and his mother that holds the most interest, creates the most tension, and ultimately the most revelations. The exploration of character; the pull and impact of one's past and the gorgeous and unusual writing, make this a great little book to savor. ( )
  RoxanneMcT | Aug 11, 2008 |
"In this short novel, Updike tells the story of a family's strained visit to the ancestral farm in Pennsylvania. The book has an autobiographical feel translated through Updike's colorful, dense, and sometimes beautiful prose. A divorced man returns to his mother's farm with his new wife and stepson. Throughout, there are memories of his childhood, his dead father, and the suggestion that his mother was largely responsible for the end of his first marriage. The story is alternately sad and compelling. The author manages to project the beauty of the farm, the dark personality of the mother, and the confused worry of the new wife. It is a surprising little book. Nicholson Baker has cited this as one of his favorite Updike novels." Thumbnail review by John Q. McDonald Review URL: http://sprg.ssl.berkeley.edu/~jmcd/book/revs/oftf.html
  Dutch226 | Nov 1, 2007 |
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John Updikeprimary authorall editionscalculated
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Consequently, when, in all honesty, I've recognized that man is a being in whom existence precedes essence, that he is a free being who, in various circumstances, can want only his freedom, I have at the same time recognized that I can want only the freedom of others.

--SARTRE
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We turned off the Turnpike onto a macadam highway, then off the macadam onto a pink dirt road.
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"A small masterpiece . . . With Of the Farm, John Updike has achieved a sureness of touch, a suppleness of style, and a subtlety of vision that is gained by few writers of fi ction."--The New York Times In this short novel, Joey Robinson, a thirty-five-year-old New Yorker, describes a visit he makes, with his second wife and eleven-year-old stepson, to the Pennsylvania farm where he grew up and where his aging mother now lives alone. For three days, a quartet of voices explores the air, making confessions, seeking alignments, quarreling, pleading, and pardoning. They are not entirely alone: ghosts (fathers, lovers, children) press upon them, as do phantoms from the near future (nurses, lawyers, land developers). Of the Farm concerns the places people choose to live their lives, and the strategies they use to stand their ground.

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