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From the acclaimed author of A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates comes the unforgettable life of John Cheever (1912–1982), a man who spent much of his career impersonating a perfect suburban gentleman, the better to become one of the foremost chroniclers of postwar America. “I was born into no true class,” Cheever mused in his journal, “and it was my decision, early in life, to insinuate myself into the middle class, like a spy, so that I would have an advantageous position of attack, but I seem ...
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From the acclaimed author of A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates comes the unforgettable life of John Cheever (1912–1982), a man who spent much of his career impersonating a perfect suburban gentleman, the better to become one of the foremost chroniclers of postwar America. “I was born into no true class,” Cheever mused in his journal, “and it was my decision, early in life, to insinuate myself into the middle class, like a spy, so that I would have an advantageous position of attack, but I seem now and then to have forgotten my mission and to have taken my disguises too seriously.” Written with unprecedented access to essential sources—including Cheever’s massive journal, only a fraction of which has ever been published—Blake Bailey’s biography reveals the troubled but strangely lovable man behind the disguises, an artist who delighted in the everyday radiance of the world while yearning, above all, “to be illustrious.”
Cheever’s was a soul in conflict: he was a proud Yankee who flaunted his lineage while deploring the provincialism of his Quincy, Massachusetts, family circle; a high-school dropout who published his first story at eighteen; a pioneer of suburban realist fiction who continually pushed the boundaries of realism; a dire alcoholic who recovered to write the great novel Falconer; a secret bisexual who struggled with his longings and his fierce homophobia in a revolving door of self-loathing and hedonism. We see a man who concealed his anxieties behind the mask of a genial Westchester squire—a paterfamilias in Brooks Brothers clothes whose world was peopledby legendary writers and beautiful women (Malcolm Cowley, Saul Bellow, William Maxwell, Hope Lange, and John Updike, among them); whose groundbreaking work landed him on the covers of Time and Newsweek; a man whose demons and desperation were never quite vanquished by the joy he found in his work.
Blake Bailey has written a luminous biography, a revelation of a writer of timeless fiction and of the man behind the page.
Rebellious Yankee son of a father who fell victim to the Depression and a doo-gooder-turned-businesswoman mother, father to three competitive children he rode mercilessly but adored, chronicler par excellence of the 1950s American suburban scene while deploring all forms of conformity: John Cheever (1912-1982) was a mass of contradictions. In this overlong but always entertaining biography, composed with a novelist's eye, Bailey, biographer of Richard Yates and editor of two volumes of Cheever's work for Library of America (also due in March), was given access to unpublished portions of Cheever's famous journals and to family members and friends. Bailey's book is fine in descriptions of Cheever's reactions to other writers, such as his adored Bellow and detested Salinger. Bailey is also sensitive in describing the prickly dynamic of Cheever's domestic life, lived through a haze of alcoholism and under the shadow of extramarital heterosexual and homosexual relationships. This "Ovid in Ossining," who published 121 stories in the New Yorker as well as several bestselling novels, has probably yet to find a definitive position in American letters among academicians. This thoroughly researched and heartfelt biography may help redress that situation. 24 pages of photos. (Mar. 12)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Bailey, author of a biography of Richard Yates (A Tragic Honesty) and editor of the Library of America's John Cheever: Complete Novels and John Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings, presents a massively detailed biography of the man. Bailey had access to letters, journals, and other writings by the author as well as cooperation from Cheever's wife, children, and close friends and colleagues, which makes this biography more complete than Scott Donaldson's 1988 John Cheever. Bailey's portrait of Cheever as author, family man, lover, and public figure contains everything readers would want to know about this important figure in American literature. The biographer is sympathetic toward his subject but presents all sides of Cheever's complex character, including his alcoholism, bisexuality, fears, struggles, and often turbulent relationships with fellow writers and family. Bailey also provides close readings of all of Cheever's novels and many of his short stories. Highly recommended for all public and academic library collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ11/1/08.]
Ranked in a survey, a few years before his death, as the third mostly likely American writer to "be read by future generations," Cheever is largely remembered today -- if he is remembered -- as the nearly definitive practitioner of '50s-era New Yorker short stories in which suburban husbands have a few too many martinis and wind up sleeping with the babysitter. Never mind that his best novel, Falconer, depicts an inmate and opium addict who achieves fulfillment in the slammer -- a fulfillment he never had in life on the outside -- when he begins meeting a fellow (male) prisoner for oral sex. What surprises the protagonist is not the act itself but the emotions it stirs up: "From what Farragut had read in the newspapers about prison life he had expected this to happen, but what he had not expected was that this grotesque bonding of their relationship would provoke in him so profound a love."
At his death, Cheever left behind a 4,300-page journal whose "mostly typed, single-spaced pages" document his alcoholism, his troubled marriage, his myriad affairs, and his initial denial, but eventual slow-creeping acceptance, of his sexual attraction to men. Originally the author's plans for this massive chronicle of his own evolution were unclear, but as the years passed and bisexuality entered his fiction more freely, Cheever took to showing explicit passages from his journals to visitors (although he never received the excoriation or absolution -- whichever it was -- that he craved). He also, notes Bailey, "became increasingly convinced that the journal was not only a crucial part of his own oeuvre, but an essential contribution to the genre," despite or perhaps because of its focus on sex. "I read last year's journal with the idea of giving it to a library," he wrote. "I am shocked at the frequency with which I refer to my member." It is a testament both to Bailey's gift for storytelling and to the multitudinous variations of Cheever's capacity for self-deception and self-loathing that this massive biography engages throughout its 700-plus pages.
Cheever's sexuality was a fraught issue beginning in childhood. His downtrodden drunkard father appeared to fear he'd "sired a fruit," while his mother, who became the breadwinner when the elder Cheever lost his job during the Great Depression, ordered the boy to do the housework and then accused him of sweeping "like an old woman." Overall Cheever was a lazy and unremarkable student, distinguishing himself only by telling and writing gripping, highly imaginative stories. His most pleasant childhood memories revolved around his buddy, Fax, whose friendship he later described as "the most gratifying and unselfconscious relationship I had known." It was Fax who explained how to masturbate, and the boys stayed indoors together on rainy days and practiced until the bed "got gummed up." Then they moved to another bed. More than 50 years later the author was still given to pondering "substrata of aloneness" when he remembered Fax walking off a ball field "with his arm around someone else."
Having lost his best friend, Cheever focused on little in high school apart from his writing. He drifted into and out of a prestigious prep school, where he rarely worked and was contemptuous toward the teacher who supported his writing most passionately. Because of his troubled home life and his talent, the school was willing to make allowances, but he remained lazy and recalcitrant and (if you believe his version of events) was finally expelled after being caught smoking behind the tennis courts one too many times. He quickly wrote a story about the experience and was only 18 when the piece appeared as the lead in a special issue of The New Republic. Thus did the start of Cheever's professional writing career coincide with the end of his formal education.
Unable to place a second story, however, and unwelcome in the town where he'd been schooled, Cheever grew his hair out, took up with a "rather louche circle of intellectuals," and became so close with his older brother, Fred, that he later told a psychologist the relationship -- "the most significant...in my life" -- was "like a love affair." As Bailey concedes, "Whether it was an actual love affair is hard to say." Yet Cheever's journal suggests there was at least some physical component to their closeness, and writer Allan Gurganus says Cheever clearly implied "gay involvement" when describing the relationship to him years later. Regardless of what exactly transpired between the Cheever boys, Bailey shows that the author's subsequent marriage and myriad affairs with women could not measure up, even with the aid of drink. Once he got sober in the mid-1970s, most of his erotic impulses were definitively homosexual. It was during this time that he finished writing Falconer, the prison story he called "the sum of everything I've ever known and smelled and tasted."
In Bailey's rendering, the awakening of Falconer's protagonist seems to correspond, metaphorically if not entirely factually, with the author's own. While struggling to finish the novel, Cheever taught writing to some inmates at Sing Sing. He became fascinated by one student's stories about "the casual homosexuality of prison life" and was instrumental in getting the man paroled. The two became involved in a "brief affair" that ended when the student got caught up in the drug scene. "I seem to love him," Cheever confessed in his journal around that time.
What Bailey's biography does best of all is to evoke Cheever's terrible feelings of isolation. As his fame reached its pinnacle -- after he'd appeared on the cover of Newsweek, been hailed as the "dean of the contemporary American short story," and won the Pulitzer Prize -- John Cheever was as lonesome as he'd ever been. Still married to a woman so worn down by his barbs and affairs that she barely spoke to him, he had few friends and no lovers, and was sexually frustrated much of the time. His brother's death in those years sent Cheever "for the rest of my life, seek[ing] in other men the love he gave to me." He hopped from writing program to writing program in search of a young buck to corrupt: "Such a person was not to be found at Bennington" or at Cornell, where, he wrote, "I meet no destroyer.... I would like to pluck someone from the gathering for my pleasure but I will not, I cannot.... No liquor, no sex, no love, no friendship, nothing but a cigaret [sic] and The New York Times. " Ultimately, he met Max Zimmer, an aspiring writer at the University of Utah. Zimmer had fled the Mormon Church and a difficult life to devote himself to his craft; he became Cheever's lover after the famous author suggested he alone could make or break the younger man's career. For his part, Zimmer cherished no romantic notions about their relationship but felt "[f]ilthy and repulsed and bewildered and mortified and with no sense of reality for what I had to do and filled with his bullshit about how happy this all was."
Toward the end of his life, Cheever became increasingly confessional about his impulses, even with his family. He allowed his son, Ben, to read a few pages of his journal (although the young man only skimmed them, failing to comprehend their import). He admitted to his daughter, Susan, in a Time interview that he'd had homosexual experiences, then joked the admission away with the quip that they were all "all tremendously gratifying, and all between the ages of 9 and 11." His erotic drives "withstood even the worst ravages of cancer and its treatment." A nurse once entered his hospital room to find Cheever and one of his lovers "stark naked and engorged on top of one another."
Ironically, Bailey implies, it was Cheever's own homophobia -- with which his children had all, in one way or another, been browbeaten practically since infancy -- that prevented them from apprehending what he was finally ready to admit.
At last Cheever confessed outright to Ben, his oldest son and "the main victim of his self-loathing." "[Y]our father," he announced over the telephone, "has had his cock sucked by quite a few disreputable characters." "[M]y reply," Ben recalls, "came almost in a whisper: 'I don't mind, Daddy, if you don't mind.' " By then, at least in Bailey's rendering, Cheever didn't mind at all. He died two weeks later, unburdened at last, leaving his family to contrast his journal and his fiction against a life spent posing as someone relentlessly hostile to the man he turned out to be. --Maud Newton
Maud Newton's writing has appeared in numerous publications. Her blog is at maudnewton.com.
Many skeletons in family closet,” Leander Wapshot wrote in his diary. “Dark secrets, mostly carnal.” Even at the height of his success, Cheever never quite lost the fear that he’d “end up cold, alone, dishonored, forgotten by [his] children, an old man approaching death without a companion.” This, he sensed, was the fate of his “accursed” family—or at least of its men, who for three generations (at least) had seemed “bound to a drunken and tragic destiny.” There was his paternal grandfather, Aaron, rumored to have committed suicide in a bleak furnished room on Charles Street in Boston, a disgrace too awful to mention. One night, as a young man, Cheever had sat by a fire drinking whiskey with his father, Frederick, while a nor’easter raged outside. “We were swapping dirty stories,” he recalled; “the feeling was intimate, and I felt that this was the time when I could bring up the subject. ‘Father, would you tell me something about your father?’ ‘No!’ And that was that.” By then Cheever’s father was also poor and forsaken, living alone in an old family farmhouse on the South Shore, his only friend “a half-wit who lived up the road.” As for Cheever’s brother, he too would become drunken and poor, spending his last days in a subsidized retirement village in Scituate. No wonder Cheever sometimes felt an affinity to characters in Ibsen’s Ghosts.
Despite such ignominy, Cheever took pride in his fine old family name, and when he wasn’t making light of the matter, he took pains toimpress this on his children. “Remember you are a Cheever,” he’d tell his younger son, whenever the boy showed signs of an unseemly fragility. Some allusion was implicit, perhaps, to the first Cheever in America, Ezekiel, headmaster of the Boston Latin School from 1671 to 1708 and author of Accidence: A Short Introduction to the Latin Tongue, the standard text in American schools for a century or more. New England’s greatest schoolmaster, Ezekiel Cheever was even more renowned for his piety—“his untiring abjuration of the Devil,” as Cotton Mather put it in his eulogy. One aspect of Ezekiel’s piety was a stern distaste for periwigs, which he was known to yank from foppish heads and fling out windows. “The welfare of the commonwealth was always upon the conscience of Ezekiel Cheever,” said Judge Sewall, “and he abominated periwigs.” John Cheever was fond of pointing out that the abomination of periwigs “is in the nature of literature,” and it seems he was taught to emulate such virtue on his father’s knee. “Old Zeke C.,” Frederick wrote his son in 1943, “didn’t fuss about painted walls—open plumbing, or electric lights, had no ping pong etc. Turned out sturdy men and women, who knew their three R’s, and the fear of God.” John paid tribute to his eminent forebear by giving the name Ezekiel to one of his black Labradors (to this day a bronze of the dog’s head sits beside the Cheever fireplace), as well as to the protagonist of Falconer. However, when an old friend mentioned seeing a plaque that commemorated Ezekiel’s house in Charlestown, Cheever replied, “Why tell me? I’m in no way even collaterally related to Ezekiel Cheever.”
Cheever named his first son after his great-grandfather Benjamin Hale Cheever, a “celebrated ship’s master” who sailed out of Newburyport to Canton and Calcutta for the lucrative China trade. Visitors to Cheever’s home in Ossining (particularly journalists) were often shown such maritime souvenirs as a set of Canton china and a framed Chinese fan—this while Cheever remarked in passing that his great-grandfather’s boots were on display in the Peabody Essex Museum, filled with authentic tea from the Boston Tea Party. In fact, it is Lot Cheever of Danvers (no known relation) whose tea-filled boots ended up at the museum; as for Benjamin, he was all of three years old when that particular bit of tea was plundered aboard the Dartmouth on December 16, 1773. Also, there’s some question whether Benjamin Hale (Sr.) was actually a ship’s captain: though he appears in the Newbury Vital Records as “Master” Cheever, there’s no mention of him in any of the maritime records; a “Mr. Benjamin Cheever” is mentioned, however, as the teacher of one Henry Pettingell (born 1793) at the Newbury North School, and “Master” might as well have meant schoolmaster. Unless there were two Benjamin Cheevers in the greater Newbury area at the time (both roughly the same age), this would appear to be John’s great-grandfather.
The ill-fated Aaron was the youngest of Benjamin’s twelve children, and it was actually he who had (“presumably”) brought back that ivory-laced fan from the Orient: “It has lain, broken, in the sewing box for as long as I can remember,” Cheever wrote in 1966, when he finally had the thing repaired and mounted under glass.
My reaction to the framed fan is violently contradictory. Ah yes, I say, my grandfather got it in China, this authenticating my glamorous New England background. My impulse, at the same time, is to smash and destroy the memento. The power a scrap of paper and a little ivory have over my heart. It is the familiar clash between my passionate wish to be honest and my passionate wish to possess a traditional past. I can, it seems, have both but not without a galling sense of conflict.
To be sure, it’s possible that Aaron had sailed to China and retrieved that fan—as his son Frederick pointed out, most young men of the era went out on at least one voyage “to make them grow”—but his future did not lie with the China trade, which was effectively killed by Jefferson’s Embargo Act and the War of 1812. By the time Aaron reached manhood, in the mid-nineteenth century, the New England economy was dominated by textile industries, and Aaron had moved his family to Lynn, Massachusetts, where he worked as a shoemaker. But he was not meant to prosper even in so humble a station, and may well have been among the twenty thousand shoe workers who lost their jobs in the Great Strike of 1860. In any event, the family returned to Newburyport a few years later and eventually sailed to Boston aboard the Harold Currier: “This, according to my father,” said Cheever, “was the last sailing ship to be made in the Newburyport yards and was towed to Boston to be outfitted. I don’t suppose that they had the money to get to Boston by any other means.”
Frederick Lincoln Cheever was born on January 16, 1865, the younger (by eleven years) of Aaron and Sarah’s two sons. One of Frederick’s last memories of his father was “playing dominoes with old gent” during the Great Boston Fire of 1872; the two watched a mob of looters, the merchants fleeing their stores. The financial panic of 1873 followed, in the midst of which Aaron—driven by poverty and whatever other devils—apparently decided his family was better off without him. (“Mother, saintly old woman,” writes Leander Wapshot. “God bless her! Never one to admit unhappiness or pain . . . Asked me to sit down. ‘Your father has abandoned us,’ she said. ‘He left me a note. I burned it in the fire.’ ”) After Aaron’s departure, his wife seems to have run a boarding house to support her children, or so his grandson suspected (“If this were so I think I wouldn’t have been told”), though Aaron’s fate was unknown except by innuendo. As it happens, the death certificate indicates that Aaron Waters Cheever died in 1882 of “alcohol & opium—del[irium] tremens”; his last address was 111 Chambers (rather than Charles) Street, part of a shabby immigrant quarter that was razed long ago by urban renewal.
According to family legend, Sarah Cheever was notified by police of her husband’s death and arranged for his burial in stoic solitude, without a word to her son Frederick until after she’d served him supper that night. Among the few possessions she found in his squalid lodgings was a copy of Shakespeare’s plays, which came to the attention of a young John Cheever some fifty years later, at a time when he himself was all but starving to death in a Greenwich Village rooming house. Noting that “most of the speeches on human ingratitude were underscored,” Cheever wrote an early story titled “Homage to Shakespeare” that speculates on the cause of his grandfather’s downfall: “[Shakespeare’s] plays seemed to light and distinguish his character and his past. What might have been defined as failure and profligacy towered like something kingly and tragic.” As a tribute to kindred nobility, the narrator’s grandfather (so described in the story) chooses “Coriolanus” for his older son William’s middle name, rather as Aaron had named his older son—John Cheever’s uncle—William Hamlet Cheever.
When asked how he came to keep a journal, Cheever explained it as a typical occupation of a “seafaring family”: “They always begin, as most journals do, with the weather, prevailing winds, ruffles of the sails. They also include affairs, temptations, condemnations, libel, and occasionally, obscenities.” These last attributes were certainly characteristic of Cheever’s own journal, though one can only imagine what other men in his family were apt to write; the few pages his father left behind were more in the nature of memoir notes, benign enough, some of them quoted almost verbatim in The Wapshot Chronicle as the laconic prose of Leander Wapshot: “Sturgeon in river then. About three feet long. All covered with knobs. Leap straight up in air and fall back in water.”* When Cheever first encountered these notes, he found them “antic, ungrammatical and . . . vulgar,” though later he came to admire the style as typical of a certain nautical New England mentality that “makes as little as possible of any event.”
During his hardscrabble youth, Frederick was often boarded out at a bake house owned by his uncle Thomas Butler in Newburyport, where he slept in the attic with a tame raven and relished the view from his window: “Grand sunsets after the daily thunder showers that came down the river from the White Mountains,” he recalled, with a lyric economy his son was right to admire. Life at the bake house was rarely dull, as Uncle Thomas was a good friend of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and the house served as a station for the Underground Railroad. John Cheever often told of how pro-slavery copperheads had once dragged his great-uncle “at the tail of a cart” through the streets of Newburyport—though Cheever always saw fit to call this relative “Ebenezer” (a name he liked for its Yankee savor), and sometimes it was Ebenezer’s friend Villard who was dragged, or stoned as the case may be. At any rate, the story usually ended with an undaunted “Ebenezer” refusing a government contract to make pilot biscuits for Union sailors—and indeed, as Frederick wrote in his notes, “[Uncle Thomas] said [biscuits] not good enough for sailors of US to eat. Others did it made big coin.” John vastly improved that part of the story, too: “A competitor named Pierce,” he related in a letter, “then accepted the [biscuit] contract and founded a dynasty” that became Nabisco, no less—which, for the record, was founded by Adolphus Green (not Pierce) in 1898.
“Bill always good to me,” Frederick wrote of his much older brother, who apparently filled the paternal vacuum, if only for a while. Bill “called [him] down” when Frederick stepped out of line, and paid a friend—Johnny O’Toole at the Massachusetts Hotel (“Very tough joint”)—to give Frederick haircuts as needed. John Cheever always used his uncle’s more evocative middle name, Hamlet, when referring to this rather romantic figure: “An amateur boxer, darling of the sporting houses, captain of the volunteer fire department ball-team”— a man’s man, in short, who, like his namesake in The Wapshot Chronicle, went west for the Gold Rush. “[There] isn’t a king or a merchant prince in the whole world that I envy,” Hamlet writes his brother Leander in the novel, “for I always knew I was born to be a child of destiny and that I was never meant . . . to wring my living from detestable, low, degrading, mean and ordinary kinds of business.” By the time the real-life Hamlet arrived in California, however, the excitement of 1849 had faded considerably, and he later settled in Omaha, where he died “forgotten and disgraced”—or rather he died “at sea” and “was given to the ocean off Panama,” depending on which of his nephew’s stories one chooses to believe. Cheever invariably described his uncle as a “black-mouthed old wreck” or “monkey,” since their occasional meetings were not happy. “Uncle Bill, Halifax 1919,” John’s older brother noted beside a photograph of a prosaic-looking old man rowing his nephews around in a boat. “Bill Cheever came from Omaha for a visit—the only time I ever saw him. He wasn’t much fun.” A later meeting with John would prove even less fun.
With Hamlet seeking his fortune a continent away, it was necessary for young Frederick to help support the household. From the age of ten or so, he “never missed a day” selling newspapers before and after classes at the Phillips School, where he graduated at the head of his class on June 27, 1879, and was presented with a bouquet of flowers by the mayor of Boston. In later years he’d wistfully recall how the flowers wilted before he could take them home to his mother, and on that note his formal education ended: “Wanted to go to Boston Latin,” he wrote. “Had to work.” For so bookish a man (he spent much of his lonely dotage reading Shakespeare to his cat), the matter rankled, and he’d insist on sending his sons to good private schools while boasting—à la Leander (“Report card attached”)—of his own high marks as a boy.
For the next fifty years, Frederick Cheever worked in the shoe business, always bearing in mind the fate of his poor father, whose life was “made unbearable by lack of coin”: “The desire for money most lasting and universal passion,” he wrote for his own edification and perhaps that of his sons. “Desire ends only with life itself. Fame, love, all long forgotten.” While still in his teens, he worked at a factory in Lynn for six dollars a week (five of which went to room and board) in order to learn the business; a photograph from around this time shows a dapper youth with a trim little mustache, his features composed with a look of high purpose, though its subject had glossed, “Look like a poet. Attic hungry—Etc.” John Cheever would one day find among his father’s effects a copy of The Magician’s Own Handbook—a poignant artifact that brought to mind “a lonely young man reading Plutarch in a cold room and perfecting his magic tricks to make himself socially desirable and perhaps lovable.” In the meantime, once he turned twenty-one, Frederick began to spend almost half the year on the road selling shoes (“gosh writer has sat in a 1001 RR stations . . . ‘get the business’ or ‘get out’”), often bunking with strangers and hiding his valuables in his stockings, which he then wore to bed.
*The parallel passage in Frederick’s notes reads as follows: “On the way [from Newburyport to Amesbury via horsecar] you saw sturgeons leap out of river—they were 3–4 feet long—all covered with knobs.” One might add that, as Cheever suggests, his father was quite diligent about noting the weather—always, for instance, in the top right corner of the letters he wrote his son. Thus, from October 10, 1943: “Cold this am 45 [degrees] Big wind from East No. East. Heavy overcoat—woodfire and oil kitchen.”