October 23, 2017
John Cheever at Home
On this day in 1982 John Cheever died at the age of seventy in Ossining, New York. In 1977, the novel Falconer was number one on the best-seller lists and Cheever was on the cover of Newsweek. A year later, Cheever won a Pulitzer for his 700-page retrospective collection, The Stories of John Cheever, a book regarded as an essential chronicle of middle America, written in a style that made its author, said critic John Leonard, "the Chekhov of the suburbs." In his personal life, too, Cheever seemed triumphant: he had finally won his battle with alcoholism and kicked the two-packs-a-day habit; he had also found some accommodation for both his marriage and his bisexuality. In her 1984 memoir, Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever described her father during this period as not so much having arrived as returned: "It wasn't just that he didn't drink anymore... it was like having my old father back, a man whose humor and tenderness I dimly remembered from my childhood." Cheever's journal entries said much the same, as here in the summer of '81:
So I sit at the kitchen table drinking black coffee and thinking of Verdi . . . . And I think of what an enormous opportunity it is to be alive on this planet. Having myself been cold and hungry and terribly alone I think I still feel the excitement of that opportunity. . . the privilege of living, of being alive.
This is in a different spirit than a journal entry from 1948, in which we see both the little detail and the dark cloud from which Cheever crafted his stories:
Last night, folding the bath towel so the monogram would be in the right place (after reading a piece on Rimbaud by Zabel), I wondered what I was doing here. This concern for outward order-the flowers, the shining cigarette box-is not only symptomatic of our consciousness of the cruel social disorders with which we are surrounded but also enables us to delay our realization of these social disorders, to overlook the fact that our bread is poisoned.
During Cheever's last years the invader from within was a perplexing series of seizures, and then cancer. Though tempted to despair and flight at this news -- "When it grows dark, I would like a drink. . ." -- his journal reports him remaining beneath the "roof and settle" of home and family, planting broccoli. Among the last entries in the journal he kept for over forty years we find Cheever describing his physical struggle to reach his typewriter, and his despondency at "what has happened to the discipline, or character, that has brought me here for so many years." At other times, such as this waiting-room moment, we find both the writer and the hope-against-hope for either cure or courage:
A woman came in from the street, a well-dressed, good-looking woman. It has seemed to me, in my long life, that all well-dressed, good-looking women share certain fundamentals. There is to such a woman's carriage, to the cut and hang of her clothing, an inimitable naturalness that is close to classical. The stranger enjoyed this. She gave the congregation a light and general smile and took off her coat and hat. She was as bald as an egg. So were at least a third of us, but her beauty dramatized her loss. It was not the baldness of this stranger that was most striking, however; it was the look of absolute victory on her face....
In their obituary notice, the hometown paper found a comparison to a Russian, but not Chekhov: "Cheever was as closely associated with Ossining as Emerson with Concord, or Tolstoy with Yasnaya Polyana."