Cheever: A Life
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From the acclaimed author of A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates comes the unforgettable life of John Cheever (1912–1982), a man who spent much of his career impersonating a perfect suburban gentleman, the better to become one of the foremost chroniclers of postwar America. “I was born into no true class,” Cheever mused in his journal, “and it was my decision, early in life, to insinuate myself into the middle class, like a spy, so that I would have an advantageous position of attack, but I seem now and then to have forgotten my mission and to have taken my disguises too seriously.” Written with unprecedented access to essential sources—including Cheever’s massive journal, only a fraction of which has ever been published—Blake Bailey’s biography reveals the troubled but strangely lovable man behind the disguises, an artist who delighted in the everyday radiance of the world while yearning, above all, “to be illustrious.”
Cheever’s was a soul in conflict: he was a proud Yankee who flaunted his lineage while deploring the provincialism of his Quincy, Massachusetts, family circle; a high-school dropout who published his first story at eighteen; a pioneer of suburban realist fiction who continually pushed the boundaries of realism; a dire alcoholic who recovered to write the great novel Falconer; a secret bisexual who struggled with his longings and his fierce homophobia in a revolving door of self-loathing and hedonism. We see a man who concealed his anxieties behind the mask of a genial Westchester squire—a paterfamilias in Brooks Brothers clothes whose world was peopled by legendary writers and beautiful women (Malcolm Cowley, Saul Bellow, William Maxwell, Hope Lange, and John Updike, among them); whose groundbreaking work landed him on the covers of Time and Newsweek; a man whose demons and desperation were never quite vanquished by the joy he found in his work.
Blake Bailey has written a luminous biography, a revelation of a writer of timeless fiction and of the man behind the page.
best (William Peden) and the gloomiest (Orville Prescott) story in the collection. Back in Italy, meanwhile, things were looking up at last. One day Cheever got in touch with a fellow expatriate, the novelist Elizabeth Spencer. His wife was pregnant and becoming rather frantic, Cheever explained, what with one thing and another; he wondered if they might borrow Spencer's maid for an afternoon. Presently a short, energetic woman wearing a cat-fur stole appeared, and promptly began “raising great
and Cheever rammed into the back of her car. “She got out and saw that there was no visible damage,” Gurganus remembered, “and she wagged her finger at him, knowing full well that he had all the power and she had none. It was an extremely embarrassing, painful thing, though he didn't seem embarrassed.” Apart from Cheever's drunkenness, snobbery, and age (almost fifteen years older than Gurganus's father), the young man had other qualms. Cheever, he sensed, longed to play Pygmalion—to introduce
that, once he'd committed himself to that path, it would lead to his destruction. In the past this intuition had always dissuaded him from cultivating long-term homosexual affairs. As he'd reflected some twenty years before: What is involved is a relaxed acceptance of the bisexual nature of man and the realization of the fact that excesses of perverse love, unlike other forms of love, compounds perversion and spreads it all through the personality, for once you are absorbed in unnatural matters
“I have no biography”: JC memoir fragment, Berg. 18 “no memory for pain”: Jesse Kornbluth, “The Cheever Chronicle,” New York Times Magazine, Oct. 21, 1979, 29. 18 “From somewhere”: OJ, 108-9. 18 “I always felt there was a blank”: SD int. Hortense Calisher, Sept. 17, 1984, Swem. 18 “Life is melancholy”: Paul Williams, “John Cheever: Adding Luster to the Stream,” Patriot Ledger, April 18, 1979. 18 “If you are raised in this atmosphere”: SJC, 6. 19 “He focused on the surface and
“Unless I am very much mistaken,” he declared, “when this war is over, John Cheever … will become one of the most distinguished writers, not only as a short story writer but as a novelist.” Far from finding the stories trivial, Burt applauded their revelation of the “universal importance of the outwardly unimportant,” and thought the author's apparent pessimism was in fact a laudable grasp of human ambiguity (“a deep feeling for the perversities and contradictions, the worth and unexpected