The Wapshot Chronicle

by John Cheever

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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 Club, works energetically for the civic improvement of St. Botolphs.

In spite of his failings, old Leander, with his regard for ceremony and for the idea of life as a process of excellence and continuity, dominates the family’s consciousness. In his zest for life, he is the guardian of tribal rituals and of masculine skills that he hopes to pass on to his sons, Moses and Coverly. What the sons absorb from his examples of parental love and wisdom shows them to be true Wapshots. Although the family fortunes depend on proof of their virility, they cannot take ordinary mortals as wives after they have heard of the pagan sirens, singing on distant beaches, of the Wapshot past.

Rosalie, for example, although catapulted into the Wapshot household from a blazing car in which her lover dies, is not romantic enough. Rosalie’s giving herself to Moses is a gesture of her inner despair. Her brief passage through Leander’s world serves chiefly as an excuse for Cousin Honora’s decision that the time has come for Moses to go out into the world to seek his fortune in the approved Wapshot manner.

When Moses leaves home, Coverly also runs away. First a government employee in Washington, Moses later finds his place in a New York fiduciary house. Coverly’s adventures are more varied and include failure to get a...

(This entire section contains 908 words.)

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job in a carpet factory because the company psychiatrists decide he is psychologically unstable. Coverly finds work as a department store clerk, goes to night school, has civilian status in a secret government project in the South Pacific, and finds a position on a rocket-launching project in the West. Both brothers, in the end, find what they are seeking. Moses chooses Melissa, the penniless ward of another Wapshot cousin who is the parsimonious widow of a five-and-dime-store tycoon. This rich widow, Justina Wapshot Molesworth Scaddon, lives in ugly baroque discomfort on the Hudson. For Melissa’s sake, Moses put up with Cousin Justina’s penny-pinching and nagging. Coverly’s fate comes to him in the person of Betsey, a lonely, unpretentious southern woman. So the Wapshot fortunes are made secure, for with the births of sons to Melissa and Betsey, Cousin Honora proves as good as her word and turns her money over to Moses and Coverly.

Meanwhile, Leander’s world has fallen apart. He has wrecked the Topaze, and Cousin Honora refuses to pay for the repairs. When Sarah Wapshot converts the old craft into “The Only Floating Gift Shoppe in New England” and opens the establishment with a gala tea and a sale of Italian pottery, Leander is heartbroken. At first he tries to keep busy writing his memoirs, but remembrance proves too painful for him to continue. Finally, disgusted with the ugliness of life, he drowns himself. Moses and Coverly, returning to St. Botolphs to buy their father a new boat, instead hear the burial service for those who have perished at sea. On a later visit home, Coverly finds in a book of Shakespeare a note of advice bequeathed by Leander to his sons, a litany of idiosyncratic personal belief and homely folk wisdom.