The Journals of John Cheever Essay - Critical Essays

John Cheever

The Journals of John Cheever

Drawn from twenty-nine looseleaf notebooks faithfully kept over the last thirty-five years of the author’s life and representing a mere one-twentieth of their total number of words (estimated between three and four million), THE JOURNALS OF JOHN CHEEVER offer an always illuminating and often harrowing record of a writer’s life. The JOURNALS do not alter appreciably the shape of that life as it has been documented in the decade since Cheever’s death in 1982, in daughter Susan Cheever’s two book-length memoirs, son Ben Cheever’s selection of the correspondence, and Scott Donaldson’s finely written, exhaustively researched biography. Yet if the JOURNALS divulge no new secrets, they certainly deepen, even darken the portrait of a writer who remains one of American literature’s most underdiscussed and undervalued postwar literary figures.

The JOURNALS provide ample evidence of the nearly Manichaean division within Cheever and his lifelong struggle with his own warring impulses: bisexuality, alcoholism, a frail sense of identity and self-esteem, his various but ultimately connected insecurities (financial, emotional, professional), and his strained, often combative relations with those he most loved, his brother Fred and his wife Mary. Hard on others (including other writers), he was also and especially hard on himself and what he felt was “The contemptible smallness, the mediocrity of my work.”

The JOURNALS offer privileged glimpses into the wellspring of Cheever’s art: draft versions of passages from his stories and novels, the author’s comments on his work (including an especially interesting one concerning the ending of FALCONER), and ample evidence that in Cheever’s case fiction often was precisely what he claimed it was not, “crypto-autobiography.” Indeed, the JOURNALS problematize the very distinction between fact and fiction, life and literature, not only because Cheever transformed the one into the other but also because in his mind the two were (to borrow a phrase from contemporary literary theory) “always already” joined in his very way of perceiving himself, his world, and his work.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. September 29, 1991, p. 15.

Chicago Tribune. September 22, 1991, XIV, p. 1.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, August 15, 1991, p. 1055.

Library Journal. CXVI, September 15, 1991, p. 76.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 13, 1991, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, October 6, 1991, p. 1.

Newsweek. CXVIII, October 14, 1991, p. 66.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, August 23, 1991, p. 51.

Time. CXXXVII, March 18, 1991, p. 80.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, September 22, 1991, p. 3.