Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series Home Before Dark Analysis
Home Before Dark grew out of the journal that Susan Cheever began to keep as soon as she learned that her father’s cancer would prove fatal. Writing was her way of coping and of keeping her father alive; not surprisingly, it released a flood of memories. Recasting that journal in the form of this published memoir became her method of discovering her father, of understanding who he was. The discovery process was in her case made all the more difficult by the very methods that Cheever had devised over the years for protecting his fragile sense of self-esteem, including the fictionalizing of facts. Susan Cheever’s memoir does more than reveal a different, deeper John Cheever than the one that his readers thought they knew from his fiction and from the relatively few interviews that Cheever gave before 1977. Perhaps even more important, the book offers one daughter’s often eloquent testimony of what virtually all children know even if they never acknowledge it: Despite all the physical and emotional intimacy of the parent-child relationship, children know only partial versions of their parents. Susan and John Cheever present only a more pronounced and, because of the latter’s literary reputation, a more noteworthy instance of this general rule. Coming to know and understand Cheever was difficult, but no less so than loving a man who had honed the edge of his self-protective skills to such a degree that the dinner table became “a shark tank” and who even on his deathbed managed to gather sufficient strength to wound his daughter one final time with two of his most formidable weapons: sarcasm and self-pity.
Susan Cheever clearly and justly admires her father’s fiction, but, even though an accomplished novelist in her own right, she sensibly leaves both praise and critical analysis of his works to others. Discussions of his long relationship with The New Yorker magazine, his efforts to write and find a publisher for his first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), his reaction to reviews, and his writing habits play a relatively small part in Home Before Dark and are discussed chiefly as...
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Masterplots II: Women’s Literature Series Home Before Dark Analysis
In Cheever’s attempt to open up her father’s life and art to the reader, she also presents her family’s history. The author divides John Cheever’s life into roughly two parts. The first forty-five years or so were marked by his search for professional acceptance, financial security, a stable family life, and a home; the second half was dedicated to finding an escape from the upper-middle-class life that he had constructed and from the “pressure to continually surpass himself as a writer.” During these two halves of his life, the Cheever children experienced their father’s insecurity, depression, and inability to express his feelings.
The connection between John Cheever’s life and his art are revealed in Cheever’s evaluations of her father’s stories. While he was trying to establish himself as a respectable gentleman, his short stories featured white, financially comfortable Protestants and contemporary suburban life. His first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), contained many autobiographical elements, including two brothers, an overbearing wife and mother, and a noble but humiliated father. A year after his hospitalization for alcoholism, John Cheever produced his most successful novel, Falconer (1977), which includes a homosexual love story and a protagonist who is an imprisoned heroin addict.
Cheever also reveals her father’s many pretensions. The image that John Cheever presented to the world included genteel breeding, upper-class diction, a lovely home complete with hunting dogs, and a happy family. Cheever explains that her father was a high school dropout with an affected speech pattern, a stressful family life, and money worries.
Alternately generous and parsimonious, John Cheever treated his family to...
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Home Before Dark, the first book-length study of Cheever’s life, has been superseded by Scott Donaldson’s far more exhaustive, but no less interesting and readable, John Cheever: A Biography (1988). Although subsequent publication of Cheever’ interviews, correspondence, and journals make clear that Susan Cheever’s biographical memoir is not as original as it appears to be, Home Before Dark remains noteworthy on three counts. First, it consolidates available but scattered biographical material. Second, it reveals John Cheever’s bisexuality and self-destructiveness. Third, it offers indirect but nevertheless affecting proof of a daughter’s desire to understand a parent, especially one who seemed to work so hard not to be understood or loved. Treetops: A Family Memoir (1991) continues Susan Cheever’s exploration of her family, this time with the emphasis on her mother.