The Wapshot Chronicle

by John Cheever

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The Wapshot Chronicle

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The story opens on Independence Day in St. Botolphs, a declining New England seaport on a silted-up river, where live the descendants of Ezekiel, the 17th century progenitor of the present-day Wapshot clan. Honora, the wealthiest member of the family, sends her nephews, Moses and Coverly, out into the world to earn their inheritance by getting jobs and producing children. The death of their father, Leander, the visionary center of the book, brings Coverly, now a father himself, back for the funeral on another Fourth of July, which closes the action of the plot.

The lyric contents of Leander’s journal entries, which celebrate the joys and significance of the town’s Puritan traditions and sense of the past and his appreciation of nature, are contrasted with the vagaries of modern life as experienced by the boys. The follies of contemporary existence are counterpointed against the deliberateness and ceremoniousness of life in St. Botolphs. Lost innocence, human loneliness, and corruption in the modern world are all redeemed, even if only momentarily, through Cheever’s lyric vision of life.

The novel does not ignore the dark side of human existence, however, and its lyricism is underscored by a sense of loss and corrupted innocence. Even the episodic nature of the narrative, which has bothered critics of the novel, contributes to its fragmentary sense of reality, and the book’s nostalgia is rescued from sentimentality by Cheever’s sharp-eyed observation of the terrors and chaos of life lived even in a quaint, small town. The final note remains, however, that life lived with proper recognition of tradition and nature can offset the confusion of existence in a disoriented and rootless modern world.

Bibliography:

Bosha, Francis J., ed. The Critical Response to John Cheever. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Sampler of reviews and critical essays on all Cheever publications. Reprints five reviews of The Wapshot Chronicle and includes a new essay by Kenneth C. Mason on “Tradition and Desecration” in the two Wapshot books.

Bosha, Francis J. John Cheever: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. Excellent discussion of the inconsistent critical response to the fiction. Provides a comprehensive, fully annotated listing of works about Cheever, including reviews, articles, and interviews.

Collins, R. G., ed. Critical Essays on John Cheever. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. Good overview of the critical reception of Cheever’s fiction. Reprints many of the most important and influential reviews and essays (some in revised form). A new essay by Samuel Coale on Cheever’s “Romancer’s Art” is especially noteworthy.

Donaldson, Scott. John Cheever: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1988. Full, objective, sympathetic account of Cheever’s life and work. Discusses the publication and reception of The Wapshot Chronicle, in which, Donaldson asserts, “Cheever distilled in one book the accumulated vitality of two decades.” Fairminded and richly detailed.

Hunt, George W. John Cheever: The Hobgoblin Company of Love. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983. Longer and more detailed, but also more tendentious, than earlier book-length studies by Samuel Coale (1977) and Lynn Waldeland (1979). Useful summaries of plot and criticism and Hunt’s critical reading in terms of Cheever’s Christian perspective.

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Critical Evaluation