Revisiting John Cheever's Suburban Unrest

John Cheever i i

hide captionJohn Cheever, shown above in 1975, enjoyed a revival in the late 1970s when The Stories Of John Cheever won the Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Book Award.

Hulton Archive/Getty
John Cheever

John Cheever, shown above in 1975, enjoyed a revival in the late 1970s when The Stories Of John Cheever won the Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Book Award.

Hulton Archive/Getty

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Read an excerpt from Blake Bailey's Cheever: A Life or read John Cheever's journal entry on Sunday afternoons and Monday mornings.

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hide captionBlake Bailey, the author of Cheever: A Life, was asked by Cheever's family to write the biography.

Donna Turner Ruhlman
Blake Bailey

Blake Bailey, the author of Cheever: A Life, was asked by Cheever's family to write the biography.

Donna Turner Ruhlman

Twenty-seven years after his death, the life and work of writer John Cheever are once again in the spotlight. The award-winning author is the subject of a thick new biography — Cheever: A Life, by Blake Bailey — and all of his novels and most of his stories have just been republished in the Library of America volume John Cheever: Collected Stories and Novels.

Perhaps best known for the witty, sharp-edged stories he originally published in The New Yorker about life in the tony East Coast suburbs, the author moved from New York City to Westchester, N.Y., in 1951 to accommodate his growing family. As he explained to talk-show host Dick Cavett in 1981: The "problems of housing were much more simply answered in the suburbs."

But the upside of life in the suburbs didn't stop Cheever from writing about its downside. In his 1960 story, "The Death of Justina," one of the narrator's in-laws dies on his living room sofa. When the narrator tries to arrange for her funeral, the mayor tells him that his part of town — with its two-acre lots — is not zoned for dying, and that "the importance of zoning can't be overestimated."

The oldest of John Cheever's three children, Susan, was 8 when the family moved to Westchester. She says that since her father's death, a lot has been made of his alcoholism — which, she points out, he conquered — and his affairs with women and men. But, she adds, too much of what's been written ignores her father's lighter side.

"Many times in my father's house, people thought it was a medical emergency, because we were laughing so hard," Susan Cheever says. "Not only was he the funniest man you ever met, but he also took incredible delight in the most ordinary things. He loved to put the dogs in the car and take them to Carvel and buy them ... ice cream sandwiches."

In her 1984 memoir, Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever describes her family as "exiles in America," never quite fitting in, despite a family history that goes back to 1637, when the first Cheever arrived in Boston.

It's a sentiment echoed by the narrator of "The Death of Justina":

I stand, figuratively, with one wet foot on Plymouth Rock, looking with some delicacy, not into a formidable and challenging wilderness but onto a half-finished civilization embracing glass towers, oil derricks, suburban continents and abandoned movie houses and wondering why, in this most prosperous, equitable, and accomplished world — where even the cleaning women practice the Chopin preludes in their spare time — everyone should seem to be so disappointed?

Disappointment with suburban life was a constant theme of Cheever's work — one that biographer Blake Bailey traces back to the author's youth. Bailey, who was asked by the Cheever family to write the biography, spent five years working on Cheever: A Life. He's the first writer to be given complete access to Cheever's 4,300 pages of single-spaced, typed journals, which detail every aspect of the author's chameleon-like private life.

"Cheever felt that perhaps the biggest downside of living in the American suburbs was that there was sort of this terrible imperative to seem happy," says Bailey.

Born in the suburbs of Quincy, Mass., in 1912, Cheever grew up poor, the son of a shoe salesman who lost all his money in the mid 1920s when the textile industry in New England collapsed. He suffered at the hands of his upper middle class neighbors who, says Bailey, "snickered behind his parents' back."

Bailey describes Cheever as a genius with no formal education. He was kicked out of prep school, and later wrote and published a story about the incident when he was just 18.

"He had read Proust — when he was 14. All the major Modernists. He had read Ulysses," says Bailey. "He was not only the ultimate autodidact as a writer, but he was also self-invented as a human personality."

Cheever reinvented himself for the first time when he moved from the Massachusetts suburbs to a West Village boarding house in New York City at age 22. Bailey says the author lived a "hand-to-mouth existence, with no fixed address for some 10 years," during which time he indulged his bisexuality and "drank all he wanted."

Once Cheever became an established writer — with work published in The New Yorker, "that's when the sort of quasi-aristocratic persona begins to develop," says Bailey.

Cheever's attention to the suburbs caused his reputation to fade in the 1960s, when the nation's social issues seemed more pertinent than suburban angst. But his daughter Susan says her father's critics were missing the point.

"His themes were that intense combination of darkness and light that characterizes all of our lives if we will see it," says Susan. "And I think that's what makes the stories so powerful."

Excerpt: 'The Journals of John Cheever'

The Journals of John Cheever
By John Cheever
Edited by Robert Gottlieb
Paperback, 416 pages
Vintage
List price: $16.75

The stubborn dreariness of this rainy Sunday. Down at the station there are only a few travellers for the southbound local. A cook with a paper bag full of leftovers and a hand-me-down coat is going to Yonkers to visit her relations. A maiden aunt out for Sunday lunch is returning. The last is a figure of mystery, a man in a worn polo coat beneath which show the striped pants and boiled shirt of a tuxedo. These are the only passengers and they seem to have come here unwilling to catch a train and make a hopeless journey. In the waiting room and the cabstand, both of them unattended, a telephone rings and rings and rings. Fishnets for shad and bass are strung out into the water, and the rain, like a much finer net, encircles the county with a stir of reassuring and dreary noise. Racks of string hang above the railroad track like the old-fashioned fly nets worn by livery horses. It is a stubborn and an infinite dreariness, rooted in the stupor, the discomfort, or the downright misery of a heavy churchgoer's lunch. The ballgame has been rained out but not the "Emperor" Concerto or the "Jupiter" Symphony. More than half the world is in an unrefreshing sleep.

But between the waiting room and the freight house there is a view of water and mountains. The eye goes up for miles and miles, for while the little rain makes the shore dim, nothing is obscured. Here there is more power and space than you had expected. The smudge from a distant tugboat, discouraged and scattered by the little rain, drifts toward the water. There is a mountain as round as a plump knee and a mountain cut like a cock's crest and even a faint smell of the wilderness—dead bloodworms and wet corduroy—for three fishermen are strung along the narrow bank between the railroad tracks and the water. Oh it is so dreary that one's teeth seem literally to ache. The smell of boiled beef lingers in the upstairs hall.

***

Is there anything more wonderful than the Monday morning train: the 8:22? The weekend—say a long summer weekend like the Fourth—has left you rested. There have been picnics, fireworks, excursions to the beach—all the pleasant things we do together. On Sunday we had cocktails late and a pickup supper in the garden. We see the darkness end the weekend without any regret—it has all been so pleasant. In the garden we can hear, from the west, the noise of traffic on the parkway rise to a high pitch that it will hold until nearly midnight, as other families drive back to the city from the mountains or the shore; and the sleeping children, the clothing hung in the backseat, the infinity of headlights—the sense we take from these overcrowded Sunday roads of a gigantic evacuation, a gigantic pilgrimage—is all a part of this hour. You water the grass, tell the children a story, take a bath, and get into bed. The morning is brilliant and fresh. Your wife drives you to the train in the convertible. The children and the dog come along. From the minute you wake up you seem to be on the verge of an irrepressible joy. The drive down Alewives Lane to the station seems triumphal, and when you see the station below you and the trees and the few people who have already gathered there, waiting in the morning sun, and when you kiss your wife and your children goodbye and give the dog's ears a scratch and say good morning all around the platform and unfold the Tribune and hear the train, the 8:22, coming down the tracks, it seems to me a wonderful thing.

Excerpted from The Journals of John Cheever by John Cheever edited by Robert Gottlieb Copyright © 2008 by John Cheever. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Excerpt: 'Cheever'

By Blake Bailey

Cheever: A Life
By Blake Bailey
Hardcover, 784 pages
Knopf
List price: $35

Chapter One

1637–1912

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 to impress 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."

Excerpted from Cheever by Blake Bailey Copyright © 2009 by Blake Bailey. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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A Life

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