The Journals of John Cheever

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Culled from twenty-nine looseleaf notebooks filled over some thirty-five years and representing just one-twentieth of the estimated total of three to four million words, The Journals of John Cheever is an amazing, at times literally astonishing, work. Part confession and part workbook, it often seems less a record of observations and experiences than a labyrinth of obsessions real and imagined. The publication of daughter Susan Cheever’s two memoirs, Home Before Dark: A Biographical Memoir of John Cheever (1984) and Treetops: A Family Memoir (1991), son Benjamin Cheever’s selection of his father’s letters, and Scott Donaldson’s magisterial 1988 biography made abundantly clear the various horrors at Cheever’s personal heart of darkness: the emotional insecurity that began during adolescence with the breakup of his parents’ marriage; his ensuing and certainly ambiguous relationship with his older brother Fred, the first of his many surrogate fathers; his love for and bitterness toward his wife of forty years; his wayward sexuality (both homo- and hetero-); his financial and professional worries. (As early as 1979—two years after a Newsweek cover story hailing 1977’s Falconer as “Cheever’s Triumph”—none of the libraries to which Cheever had offered his journals expressed any interest; clearly Cheever’s fears about the value of his work and his importance as a writer were not entirely unfounded.) Although Cheever’s journals do not startle the reader with new revelations, they do reveal much about their author, layering the horrors as it were, fleshing out the obsessions.

For a writer who had chosen to make a life of letters, who from the time he was seventeen knew that writing was the only thing he wanted to do and the only thing he would do—unlike almost all other “serious” writers, Cheever taught little, did not start out writing advertising copy, and published hardly any essays or reviews— the effect of the various blows (real and imagined) to his ever-fragile sense of self-esteem must have been (to use one of Cheever’s favorite words) inestimable. The honors received late in life—and there were many of them—mattered, of course, but they could not, one suspects, entirely dispel the feelings of insecurity, unworthiness, and “otherness” that haunted him throughout his career. Reading Alwyn Lee’s Time cover story upon publication of The Wapshot Scandal (1964), Cheever characteristically remarked that the essay “in its discretion, its cunning, rendered me as a serious and likable person when I could, on the strength of the evidence, be described as a fat slob enjoying an extraordinary run of luck.” Slight in stature though for a time bloated—“fat”—with alcohol, lacking even a high school diploma (though he would receive an honorary degree from Harvard in 1981), driven by guilt and hypersensitivity, Cheever seems a rather special case of Edward Everett Hale’s man without a country. For all his WASPishness and New England genealogy (again, real and imagined), Cheever was, or believed himself to be, a man without an identity, a socially and psychologically displaced person. Place in Cheever’s fiction is always important but is not so much realistically described as acutely felt, whether New York, suburban Shady Hill, St. Botolphs, Italy, or Eastern Europe. In a remarkably revealing and yet ultimately circular and even self-canceling passage written in 1957, Cheever ponders “the mystery of a gratifying sense of identity that I don’t recall experiencing in Europe. In an upper-class gathering I suddenly think of myself as a pariah—a small and dirty fraud, a deserved outcast, a spiritual and sexual importer, a loathsome thing. Then I take a deep breath, stand up straight, and the loathsome image falls away. I am no better and no worse than the other members of the gathering. Indeed, I am myself. It is like a pleasant taste on the tongue. Perhaps I had less time for self-consciousness abroad.” Similar transformations occur in many Cheever fictions, most notably and triumphantly in Falconer. The energy that drives Cheever’s stories, novels, and journals, and his life, however, derives less, if at all, from self-assurance than from a self-doubt born of and manifesting itself in the deep division within Cheever himself, between aspiration and desperation, lewdness and decorum, creativity and self-destruction, the sexual and the spiritual, between what he believed were the “constants” in his nature and what he hoped were mere (although frequent) aberrations. “I am tired of this thread of love and whiskey, of courage and memory that is the only thing to hold my world together,” Cheever wrote in 1955. “I am tired of threads and other frail things.” His weariness aside, twenty years later he finds himself in precisely the same situation: “That bridge of language, metaphor, anecdote, and imagination that I build each morning to cross the incongruities in my life seems very frail indeed.”

The various threads Cheever fashioned, the bridges he constructed in his writing and in his life, held no better than William Butler Yeats’s famous center. In Cheever’s case, however, the rough beasts were not...

(The entire section is 2150 words.)