From the late 1940s until a few days before his death of cancer in 1982, the eminent American short story writer and novelist (The Wapshot Chronicle) recorded daily encounters with family, friends and, most powerfully, with conflicting impulses in himself. Cheever's journal entries, as selected here by his editor and introduced by his older son, Benjamin, reveal a life bracketed by ``galling loneliness'' and rewarding engagement with others; by a highly libidinous nature and comfort found in the conventions of his upper-middle-class, church-going, suburban New York City existence; by shame over his bisexuality and alcoholism and by moments of soaring delight in his family and in the physical world. Occasional references are made to fellow writers, e.g., Saul Bellow, Irwin Shaw and Norman Mailer, whose work evoked both despair and inspiration, and to the genesis of his own stories, but Cheever's attention never moves far from his efforts ``to recognize the power of as well as the force of lust, to write, to love.'' Dated only by year, the entries flow seamlessly through seasons, holidays and family occasions, identifying family members and public figures by name and lovers by initials. Cheever documents the steady and anguished deterioration of his relationship with his wife, Mary, who is his literary executor (``How large a continent this is,'' he observes of his marriage in 1968), his fierce love for and sometimes distance from his three children, his gradual acceptance of his desire for men, his triumph over drinking and, wrenchingly, his final days. Most explicitly, however, he records his attempts to integrate often-warring aspirations and appetites. On a bus in Rome in 1957, the touch of an unseen stranger--``I will never know if it was a man or a woman, a tart or a priest'' -- on his shoulder creates a near-overwhelming wish for tenderness: ``This is not a violet-flavored sigh or a Chopinesque longing; it is a longing as coarse and real as the hair on my belly.'' Cheever's journals will likely prove as lasting a body of work as his fiction.
As explained in the editor's note, the published volume contains selected portions of Cheever's extensive personal journals. Published with the cooperation and assistance of the author's family, it represents 1/20th of the actual journals, which span a 35-year period. The journals served Cheever both as writer's notebook and memoir, clarifying much of his method of working. The inner life of a writer is revealed in these highly introspective memoirs. Cheever writes of his alcoholism and his bisexuality; his ``war with the world''; his loneliness, alienation, depression, and carnal fantasies; his love for his family; his religion (Catholicism); his perception of the role of the writer in society; and his enjoyment of the rural life at his home in the Hudson valley, all with remarkable powers of description. A candid, beautiful, often startling portrait of a 20th-century American writer. -- Lesley Jorbin, Cleveland State University Library
Exquisitely written...told in the same luminous prose that characterized his stories.
Heartrending...Can be read as a writer's notebook, a family chronicle, a brutally honest autobiography, and almost as an unfinished novel...A daring contribution to American letters.
It lets us see the beast crouching in the bushes of the well-kept houses that fill his stories....[H]e left behind work of great beauty in all his books, including this one.
Robert Gottlieb, in consultation with the Cheever family, here adds to the six excerpts from Cheever's journals that originally ran in The New Yorker. Drawn from 29 looseleaf notebooks, spanning 35 or so years, this selection represents a mere fraction (1/20th, in Gottlieb's estimate) of Cheever's random writings. Fortunately, readers of these remarkable journals are spared the prose interludes (by Cheever's son, Ben) that so marred the selection from his letters a few years ago. This is Cheever as unadorned and self-revealing as we'll get and it's not just more confessions of alcoholism and bisexuality. As Ben suggests in his introduction, these journals serve in lieu of an autobiographythey document the inner life of an artist in a way few works ever have. Cheever proves himself a man of profound tensions: at once drowning in loneliness and warmed by his love for his family, craven in his sexual desire and elevated by genuine piety. These contradictions run through his aesthetic concerns as well: While he has decided to insinuate himself "like a spy" into middle-class suburbia, he fears having taken his "disguise too seriously." He delights in the mundane, and the journals glimmer with quotidian insight and observation: the beauty of nature, the joys of Westchester life. But these affirmations, many of them religious, must break through the despair, which is pervasive. Cheever agonizes over his familial past, his mother dying, his brother's alcoholism. He frets for his marriage, threatened by his constant lust. And he worries over his work, from the nuts and bolts of writing to its afterlife.
In Rome, he escapes "the alcoholic life of a minor literarycelebrity." In Ossining, he recognizes the progressive nature of his disease. Recovery comes, but so does the cancer that took his life in 1982, with the last entry here written days before his death. More so than his letters, these journals remind us that Cheever has earned his place among the modern masters.