John Cheever the Hobgoblin Company of Love
Nearly completed at the time of John Cheever’s death in 1982 at the age of seventy, George Hunt’s masterly appraisal of Cheever’s fiction was prepared with the author’s full cooperation, yet without his direct intervention. Unrestricted by the series format common to the two earlier book-length studies of Cheever, Hunt’s treatment ranges both wider and deeper than the usual single-author study, providing a most useful “companion” to the work of a somewhat neglected major writer.
Already known as the author of John Updike and the Three Great Secret Things: Sex, Religion and Art (1980), Hunt, teacher, editor, and Jesuit priest, has proved to be an uncommonly gifted observer of contemporary life as reflected and refracted in fiction. In Cheever’s case, the image of refraction is the more appropriate; although Cheever’s often astonishing fictions sometimes reflect experience as in a hall of mirrors, they more frequently serve as a prism that transmits light even through distortion. Hunt, sensitive to even the smallest details of Cheever’s thought and style, offers readings of both long and short fictions that invite the active participation of his audience. An experienced reviewer, Hunt observes at one point that whereas “the task of a book review is to tell potential readers what they will find,” that of the critic is, in addition, “to tell actual readers what they probably missed. To do this,” he goes on, “one must provide sufficient room for re-entry into the book to point up its spaciousness.” Hunt’s readings, although highly informed, are seldom if ever prescriptive, serving instead as precept and example for confronting Cheever on one’s own.
Owing in part to his long association with The New Yorker, Cheever has been “discovered” only recently as a major American writer; as Hunt observes, the reputation justly earned by Cheever has been obfuscated at least in part by the host of imitators that crowded in behind his earliest unsung successes. With time, however, the nature of Cheever’s talent and the extent of his accomplishment become more readily apparent. The distinction and originality of Cheever’s work derive uniquely from its resonance, a quality that continued to elude his many imitators. At times mistaken for an observer, chronicler, or novelist of manners, Cheever proves upon close rereading to have been much more than that, an observer blessed with the rare gift of portraying the topical against the background of eternity. Even the most “current” of Cheever’s observations were deeply informed by classical and biblical mythology, further refined by close acquaintance with the work of such gifted storytellers as Charles Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Given the fact that Cheever’s formal education ended at age seventeen with his expulsion from a private secondary school, the depth and breadth of his erudition are little short of astonishing; unlike Jean-Jacques Rousseau, perhaps the most famous self-taught writer of all time, Cheever appears to have had a wise teacher.
The sources of genius, or even of exceptional talent, remain impossible to trace, and Hunt wisely declines to speculate upon how Cheever’s work came to be what it is. He does, however, trace the evolution of Cheever’s work, particularly noticeable in The Stories of John Cheever (1978), collected and published only a few years before the author’s death. Unlike many contemporary writers, notes Hunt (citing James T. Farrell as a case in point), Cheever definitely improved with age, transcending in his maturity even the most remarkable of his earlier accomplishments. Hunt acknowledges that a full-scale biography of Cheever is doubtless waiting to be written yet shows little inclination to assume the task himself; although extremely well versed in the facts of Cheever’s life, Hunt is clearly less interested in the ingredients than in the finished product. Pending a biography, however, Hunt includes an exhaustive chronology of Cheever’s life and work.
In an age of increasing specialization, the traditional life-and-works study may well be approaching obsolescence, and with good reason: In certain recent examples of the genre, such as Deirdre Bair’s Samuel Beckett (1978), the wealth of biographical material serves ultimately to undermine or trivialize the simultaneous examination of the author’s accomplishments. In contrast, a number of current “literary” biographies, even when prepared by established academic critics, eschew discussion of the work to concentrate upon the life; the reader is expected either to know the work or to seek knowledge of it elsewhere. A case in point, and an impressive one, is Diane Johnson’s Dashiell Hammett (1983), in which only glancing attention is paid to Hammett’s fictions. Hunt, indeed, finds sufficient riches within Cheever’s work as to render his biography irrelevant.
Taking his subtitle, The Hobgoblin Company of Love, from a fictional “letter” in Cheever’s first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), Hunt finds all of Cheever’s work informed by Christian faith, subspecies Anglican. A lifelong Episcopalian, Cheever may, at first glance, seem an unlikely subject for the occupaton of a Jesuit priest, but the liturgical structure common to both communions soon unites the criticism with its subject. Hunt soon finds and amply illustrates a point of the intersection in the poetry of W. H. Auden, Cheever’s close contemporary and quite possibly, as Hunt persuasively argues, the writer whose characteristic themes, concerns, and sense of irony most closely approach Cheever’s own. Both authors, in Hunt’s...
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