The last of the twenty-five photographs reproduced in John Cheever: A Biography is by far the most interesting. Taken in August, 1979, it shows Cheever walking across a field, alone, carrying in his left hand the MacDowell medal he had been awarded just a short time before. He is seen from the back and side, facing the sun and about to stride out of the camera’s field of vision. Clad in a dark suit and photographed in black and white against a field of dark stubble and a distant stand of even darker trees, he appears as a figure easily overlooked, at the point of vanishing altogether. The photograph seems to sum up all too well the life Cheever led, as that life has now for the first time been fully told by Scott Donaldson. His Cheever is, on the one hand, the author of novels and short fiction that “tell us more about people in the American middle class during that half century [1930-1980] than any other writer’s work has done or can do.” His Cheever is also, however, the man whose triumph came only at the very end of his life. “Hurt in childhood, he grew up divided against himself. A battle raged inside him between light and dark, celebration and sorrow, love and hate.” Looking back at the photograph after reading Donaldson’s compelling work, one is immediately struck by the troubling mixture of loneliness and stoic independence, of determination and pain, on Cheever’s averted face.
To read John Cheever is an illumination, to acclaim it a pleasure—an all too rare pleasure, given the tendentiousness of so many biographies, the clutter of superfluous detail in some, and the redundancy of still others. Generous, honest, forthright, exhaustive, yet humble, it differs from Susan Cheever’s memoir Home Before Dark (1984) in a number of important ways. It is less personal than what Cheever’s daughter wrote, but also longer, far more detailed and extensive, far less shocking in its revelations, but far more balanced in its judgments, and, thankfully, entirely free of that undercurrent of pain that gave the daughter’s most intimate revelations a certain edge of resentment. Donaldson’s book also proves to be easier to follow in its treatment of Cheever’s life: twenty-two chapters, chronologically arranged, most dealing with periods of no more than from one to four years. The four pages of acknowledgments and thirty-seven of notes attest the depth and range of Donaldson’s research.
Donaldson does not attempt to alter the basic pattern of Cheever’s life. What he does is to flesh out the pattern, adding facts, correcting errors, and challenging, in a number of cases demystifying, the legends for which Cheever himself was largely responsible. William Maxwell, Cheever’s former editor at The New Yorker magazine, once called him a “story-making machine,” and Cheever did not try to limit his capacity for invention to his fiction writing. Intensely private, remarkably inventive, and desirous of approval, Cheever has proven a less than trustworthy guide to his personal and family history. As a result, he is an especially fit as well as especially difficult subject for biographical study. Excepting Susan Cheever, Donaldson is Cheever’s first biographer. Others have discussed his life, but always briefly, and invariably trusting Cheever’s own account of the facts. In discussing his background, Cheever not only tended to embellish the facts, but indeed often provided multiple versions of the same incident. Although he cannot always sort out fact from fabrication, Donaldson’s research enables him to reach the one inevitable conclusion which managed to elude previous critics. Whether, for example, Cheever’s father owned a shoe factory, as Cheever liked to claim, or was a shoe salesman, as available records show, “hardly matters, except that it mattered to John Cheever.” This and the numerous other conclusions Donaldson draws are always fair-minded, well-reasoned, and illuminating.
Even better, though, than these efforts to distinguish fact from fiction are the sections devoted to those periods of Cheever’s life about which extraordinarily little has been known, the 1930’s in particular: the time he spent in Boston with his older brother Fred, his move to New York immediately after, and the short time he spent in Washington, D.C. About the only gap Donaldson fails to fill in is the summer of 1931, which Cheever and his brother spent in Europe.
Fiction, Cheever was fond of saying, is not crypto-autobiography; it is instead the most exalted form of human communication. Yet reading his fiction in the light of Donaldson’s biography makes clear that it is both: exalted and crypto-autobiographical. Much to his credit, however, Donaldson chooses not to plunder the novels and stories for what biographical parallels he can use. Instead, he is content to point out the general ways in which the literature illustrates the life, discerning general yet illuminating patterns rather than specific correspondences. He generally keeps his literary judgments to himself and never makes the mistake of actually confusing the fiction with autobiography. (In Home Before...