Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
St. Botolphs had been a bustling, prosperous river port in the days of the Massachusetts clipper fleets. It is currently, however, kept alive by a few small industries and by summer visitors. It is a moribund port town with a tourist center of antique stores, gift shops, and tearooms quaintly decorated with the handcrafted artifacts of an older seafaring and agricultural United States.
Leander Wapshot’s home, West Farm, cluttered with the memories and the possessions of dead and gone Wapshots, is an image of a good past and an uncertain present. The Wapshots, like the village, have come down in the world. The older generations of the family’s men were seafaring wanderers in their youth, and they came back to St. Botolphs with their manhood seasoned by the hardships and perils of their calling and with their wits sharpened by the strategies of trade in foreign ports. The ancestral Wapshot men had memories of lovely, naked brown women in the islands of the Pacific. Leander has never known adventure in far places or a sultry paradise of love. Failing fortunes and changing times have beached him inland; he is a spiritual castaway on the shores of Wapshot tradition and dependent on Cousin Honora’s charity.
Nominally, Leander is the head of the family, but the real power is Cousin Honora, a matriarch who speaks and acts with the authority of one who holds the purse strings. In her eccentric way, she regards Leander and herself as the holders...
(The entire section is 908 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Wapshot Chronicle, Cheever’s first novel, begins with a Fourth of July celebration in St. Botolphs, “an old river town,” a world of the imagination modeled loosely on Cheever’s birthplace, Quincy, Massachusetts. Mishap—a firecracker exploding underneath the horse pulling a wagonload of the town’s most upright women—is turned to narrative advantage; it is the excuse the novel needs to take the reader on a tour of the area. The pace changes and the continuity dissolves as the novel moves through three progressively shorter parts of seventeen, then ten, and finally five chapters, to end back in St. Botolphs on yet another Fourth of July a few years later.
Against the discontinuity of the intervening narrative, the novel’s frame takes on a special but nevertheless ambiguous significance. It adds an element of ceremony but also of arbitrariness that corresponds to the relation between St. Botolphs and the world outside its borders, where much of the novel takes place. The relation between these worlds and between tradition and independence (itself an American tradition), between a past which both sustains and confines and a present which frees but also dismays and displaces forms the thematic center of a novel that is about the need to bridge the two worlds and all they represent.
Descended (in a double sense) from a long line of New England sea captains, the mythically named Leander Wapshot stands at the novel’s...
(The entire section is 857 words.)