(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 of a family trust, Leander because he has fathered two sons, herself because she controls the fortune, which she intends to pass on to the boys when they marry and produce sons of their own. Meanwhile, she pays the bills and bullies Leander. He has never been provident, and now he is old. A man should be useful for something, however, so Cousin Honora bought the Topaze, a battered old launch that Leander ferries daily between Travertine and the amusement park at Nangasakit across the bay. In Honora’s opinion, the Topaze keeps Leander out of other mischief and satisfies his taste for romance and nonsense. Leander’s wife, Sarah, is a brisk, practical woman who indulges her husband, looks after her sons, and, as president of the Women’s...

(The entire section is 908 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 moral center. Lusty, sometimes drunk, but always ceremonious, he is Cheever’s diminished hero, captain of the Topaze, a barely seaworthy tourist ferry owned by his eccentric, sexless sister, Honora. When Leander loses his boat, he loses his usefulness and therefore his self-esteem and thus becomes the tragicomic epitome of humankind’s “inestimable loneliness.” His civic-minded wife, Sarah, like his sister, plays her part in Leander’s temporary fall from grace when she turns the Topaze into a floating gift shop. His sons, Moses and the younger, “ministerial” Coverly, fare no better in their relationships with...

(The entire section is 857 words.)