I recall Cheever’s uncertainty as he spoke to me in that rather unusual but striking accent of his, confiding that he hoped he’d opened doors for others, and how he felt a bit optimistic some of the younger writers might find acceptance and publication as a result.
The current issue of the New Yorker contains a review by John Updike of Blake Bailey’s new John Cheever biography (John Cheever: A Life) released by Knopf. As I read Updike’s reactions to the latest chronicle of Cheever’s life, appearing only about five weeks after Updike’s death, the connection between these two literary figures one last time seemed appropriate. Frequently during their careers, Updike and Cheever had been paired in the minds of readers, had been compared and contrasted in commentary written by critics, and even at times had viewed one another as a rival as well as a friend. Their close association with the New Yorker and the repeated similarities in their choice of subject matter linked the two writers in the eyes of many.
Certainly, ever since my introduction to their fiction in novels and short stories when I was an undergraduate, I have continued to think of the two as authors who offered complementary portraits of the world they perceived around them. In addition, both writers often composed prose that appeared poetic to me—Updike with a sophisticated language and crisp descriptions, Cheever with his distinct tone and establishment of atmosphere. Indeed, when Updike died near the end of January, I found it difficult to believe more than a quarter-century had passed since Cheever’s death in 1982 had separated the men I remembered seeing together in photographs like the one above or famously on the Dick Cavett television talk show only months before Cheever’s death. For myself as a student writer, the pair appeared to represent an epitome of American literature, particularly in their elegance and the eloquent way they carried on conversation with one another. [The entire episode of Cavett’s conversation with Updike and Cheever is currently available again at a New York Times web page.]
Just a few years before Cheever’s death, when I was working in Manhattan at the New York Public Library after finishing my master’s degree and considering the start of my Ph.D. studies, I attended a 1979 literary event featuring John Cheever. Fortunately, I had an opportunity for a brief conversation with the author, and I enjoyed our discussion, which involved entertaining the possibility of an increased interest in the short story form among publishers and the public now that his volume of collected stories had just achieved so much attention and acclaim. (The Stories of John Cheever had won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1979.)
The conversation occurred exactly three decades ago and lasted not more than five minutes; it still remains a vivid memory. I recall Cheever’s uncertainty as he spoke to me in that rather unusual but striking accent of his, confiding that he hoped he’d opened doors for others, and how he felt a bit optimistic some of the younger writers might find acceptance and publication as a result. He mentioned a couple of emerging fiction writers whose work he admired and encouraged. The important thing, he advised, was that one must continue to write as well as one can, produce innovative and imaginative stories with a regard for integrity in the way one presents the plot or portrays the characters, without too much worry of eventual publication or recognition by others.
He also joked about his age and how long it had taken for him to receive the recognition of the recent prizes for his short stories, and therefore felt less inclined to speak knowledgeably about the conditions facing beginning authors. Although seemingly surprised by the tremendous success of his book of short stories and appreciative of the widespread attention it had obtained, he hoped the public would warm to others’ short story collections as occasional alternatives to novels for entertaining reading. Nevertheless, he still believed best-selling books of short stories unfortunately would remain rare.
When Cheever mentioned his age, I was struck by the gap in years between Updike and him, something I hadn’t really considered before, and as a student of creative writing I realized the possibility that Updike might regard Cheever as much as a mentor as he did see him as a peer. At the time, I appreciated Cheever’s friendly manner toward me, and I was unaware of the extremely difficult personal circumstances he was undergoing—tribulations concerning family matters, alcoholism, sexual conflict, and health concerns—that have since been detailed, sometimes painfully and embarrassingly, in a few books about him as well as in the excerpts of posthumously published journals Cheever had kept most of his life and apparently had approved for publication after his death. In his review of Bailey’s biography, Updike refers to Cheever’s journals as “an embarrassment of riches and a richesse of embarrassment.” This week, as a spring break indulgence, I have returned to Cheever’s journals (The Journals of John Cheever: Knopf, 1991) and read through those entries concerning certain dramatic or traumatic experiences of his personal history.
Lately, I confess I have discovered a renewed interest in reading volumes of authors’ journals, memoirs, or letters. In some ways I sense the ease with which I now approach reading and writing blog entries perhaps has given me an added appreciation for the regular ruminations and reflections included in such prose. I also am pleased to note the usually more informal and sometimes even intimate voices evident in the everyday accounts preserved by these individuals; nevertheless, I’m delighted also to observe many passages read so well that they resemble the finished pieces one might see in the author’s fiction or poetry, as in the case of my recent rereading of Sylvia Plath’s journals. Such is the case when encountering sections of John Cheever’s journal that echo moments captured in his fiction.
One sample from a late entry to his journal that seemed particularly moving narrates an incident in which Cheever witnesses the entrance of a woman at the radiation and chemotherapy ward of the hospital where he had been receiving treatment for cancer in the last months of his life. Susan Cheever describes this time frame in Home Before Dark, the 1994 biographical memoir she wrote about her father: “Sometimes the doctors were discouraged—they changed the chemotherapy treatments twice, and it was clear that this was because the treatments weren’t working—but usually they were optimistic. There would be weeks when my father seemed a little better, but he slowly and steadily got worse.” In the midst of this painful and terrifying occurrence, Cheever reports the following remarkable scene in a couple of paragraphs from one of the final portions of his journal:
This morning I would like to write about victory. It was in the big hospital, and in one of those rooms where we waited, twenty or thirty of us, either to see if our various organs were strong enough to withstand the rigorous medicines that would be prescribed or to get applications of the medicines themselves. The reproductions on the walls had been chosen with that anxious and sensitive care that I had found in all the rooms. There was a Hopper, a Redon, a Grandma Moses, and an Andrew Wyeth; there was something for almost everyone. On the tables were the usual litter of magazines reminding one of the fact that the weekly periodical seems to have a less natural place in things—seems to enjoy less endurance—than the leaves that fall to the ground in autumn. Here on the covers were yesterday’s faces, some of them already forgotten, some of them assassinated, and a few of them crowned.
We were a mixed company of about twenty—some of us in street clothes but most of us in those ragged hospital overalls. We held the large key rings and crude wooden tags that would make it impossible for us to lose or purloin our locker keys. The music tape being played was simply banal. A woman came in from the street, a well-dressed, good-looking woman. It has seemed to me, in my long life, that all well-dressed, good-looking women share certain fundamentals. There is to such a woman’s carriage, to the cut and hang of her clothing, an inimitable naturalness that is close to classical. The stranger enjoyed this. She gave the congregation a light and general smile and took off her coat and her hat. She was as bald as an egg. So were at least a third of us, but her beauty dramatized her loss. It was not the baldness of this stranger that was most striking, however; it was the look of absolute victory on her face. She had been infected by cancer; she had scourged the infection; and she had simply returned for a checkup. The look on her face, her air of having bested the tumors and carnage of the disease were beautiful. She was called in before the rest of us and politely explained that she was here for a checkup. It was very brief. “Thank you for waiting,” she said when she put on her coat and then her hat, resuming her beauty and her ordinariness. It may have been a turning point in my own cure that I saw this victorious woman.
Sadly, Cheever did not succeed in his search for a recovery of his health, and he died soon afterward, only a little more than a month after accepting yet another honor, the National Medal for Literature bestowed by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In one of his final journal entries Cheever looked ahead to receiving the award and prepared his speech. His comments reflect the man’s ambitious expectations and high hopes for the reach or influence of our best literature: “What I am going to write is the last of what I have to say, and Exodus, I think, is what I have in mind. In the speech on the 17th, I will say that literature is the only consciousness we possess, and that its role as a consciousness must inform us of our inability to comprehend the hideous danger of nuclear power. Literature has been the salvation of the damned; literature, literature has inspired and guided lovers, routed despair, and can perhaps, in this case, save the world.”
Commenting on the new biography that stretches nearly 800 pages, John Updike declares: “this biographer’s zeal makes a heavy, dispiriting read, to the point that even I, a reader often enraptured by Cheever’s prose and an acquaintance who generally enjoyed his lively company, wanted the narrative, pursued in methodical chapters that tick past year after year, to hurry through the menacing miasma of a life which, for all the sparkle of its creative moments, brought so little happiness to its possessor and to those around him.”
I teach works by John Updike and John Cheever in my classes each year. However, if there is a separation between Updike and Cheever today, such a split is possibly most recognizable in the heavy presence of Updike on university course reading lists and a relative lack of such a presence by Cheever. Indeed, while offering a summary of the content one might find in John Cheever’s finest works, Updike also expresses regret that Cheever’s books are now absent from many college curricula and syllabi: “no wonder Cheever’s fiction is slighted in academia while Fitzgerald’s collegiate romanticism is assigned. Cheever’s characters are adult, full of adult darkness, corruption, and confusion. They are desirous, conflicted, alone, adrift. They do not achieve the crystalline stoicism, the defiant willed courage, of Hemingway’s. Cheever was not a stoic; he was for most of his adult life a regular, indeed compulsive, communicant at Episcopal morning Mass. His errant protagonists move, in their fragile suburban simulacra of paradise, from one island of momentary happiness to the imperilled next.”
With Updike’s words printed this week on the life and work of John Cheever, appropriately appearing in a New Yorker review, and recently reviewing Updike’s own life and works myself in the wake of his death, I am struck once more by the loss to American fiction now that these two significant literary figures are gone. Surely, I look forward to revisiting many of their stories that I will place on my personal reading list this summer.
The big red volume of The Stories of John Cheever, now heavily annotated, still maintains a prominent position on an office shelf, and it frequently tempts me to open its covers, though I regret as a student I was too reluctant to ask the author to sign it when we met that one time thirty years ago. I also am tempted again by the advice Cheever offered young writers in our brief conversation three decades ago, something I repeat to my students in creative writing classes each semester I teach, that one ultimately must continue to write as well as one can, produce innovative and imaginative stories with a regard for integrity in the way one presents the plot or portrays the characters, and one ought to do so without too much worry of eventual publication or recognition by others.