The Letters of John Cheever
The primary justification for a volume of letters such as the present one is that it sheds some light—however oblique—on the writer and the writer’s work. That the present collection of letters most certainly does. Through the course of these letters, readers can watch John Cheever the writer emerge, as his style develops and his fame grows. The writer who would win the National Book Award for his first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), is here in that year, complaining that it has taken him twenty years to get a novel published. The short-story writer who would cap his career with a Pulitzer Prize for The Collected Stories of John Cheever in 1978 is also here, reaping the rewards for half a century of work—and still complaining about his competition.
Yet there is a second book here as well, a hidden text, as it were: a book about a son’s search for his father, and his discovery of the real man through the letters he is editing. In Benjamin Cheever’s introduction to this volume (“The Man I Thought I Knew”), in his notes that become longer as the volume proceeds, and in his insertion of selected entries from his father’s journal toward the end of the book, the son reveals his attempts to find and come to grips with his real father. It is not an easy journey, but it is a fascinating, almost voyeuristic one for admirers of Cheever. Benjamin Cheever slowly uncovers “a man of massive and fundamental contradictions,” an alcoholic and bisexual father whom he still, in the end, loves, and with whom, through this very work, he is finally able to make his peace.
As Benjamin Cheever admits early in his introduction to the volume, this is not a collection of letters in the conventional sense. “His correspondence will not provide a concrete explanation of his life or his fiction, but it should shed light on both. It has for me.” Readers learn much about the writer through Cheever’s letters. He was a prolific correspondent, sometimes writing thirty letters a week, to a great range of friends, including a number of writers who are, like Cheever, important in the development of modern American literature—the editor and critic Malcolm Cowley, for example, and the novelist and journalist Josephine Herbst, two of Cheever’s steadiest correspondents over the years.
Readers witness the difficulties Cheever had especially at the beginning, to establish himself as a writer—to make enough money to be a writer. (“When you have no money you live, at least,” he wrote in 1935, “in continual anxiety.”) Readers share his experiences as he first sells a story to The New Yorker in 1935 (he would publish 120 stories in the magazine in the following decades) and as he visits to the Yaddo writers colony. During World War II, he is stuck in the stateside army for three years, almost in a cocoon, but even here he is able to write (and to publish his first collection of short stories, The Way Some People Live, 1943). After the war, Cheever’s success grows, as he establishes himself, first as a short-story writer and later as a novelist. In 1953 he publishes The Enormous Radio and Other Stories; Time magazine does a cover story on him in 1964, following The Wapshot Scandal; in 1977, with the publication of his novel Falconer, he is on the cover of Newsweek. Through all these events, the reader observes Cheever’s reaction to his growing fame and fortune, to his increasing reputation among readers and critics alike.
There are two gaps in this story. Cheever seems almost reticent about how he works, and consequently there is little on his actual writing practices. This is the writer who, in an apartment house in New York in the 1940’s, as his son tells us,would put on his suit in the morning and take the elevator down with the other men heading out to work, but he wouldn’t get off at the first floor. He’d go on down to the basement and to a maid’s room. . . . Here he’d take off his suit, hang it up, and type in his underwear.
There is even less on the world around him. Cheever seems to go through history without a nod of acknowledgment. “I seem to miss the Big Things, the Big Shapes,” he confesses in a 1953 letter; “I miss them in this letter.” Instead, as with most correspondents, there is more on domestic matters: chatty letters about children growing up and moving away; apartments rented in New York, houses bought in its suburbs; travel to Rome, to the Soviet Union; teaching stints at Sing Sing, at Iowa; problems with the marriage, with drinking, with himself.
What is also here is an abundance of fascinating detail about a writer’s...
(The entire section is 1924 words.)