On April 27, 1982, less than two months before his death from cancer, John Cheever appeared at Carnegie Hall to accept the National Medal for Literature. While his colleagues stood and cheered (“John had nothing but friends,” said Malcolm Cowley), Cheever hobbled across the stage with the help of his wife, Mary. Months of cancer treatment had left him bald and pitifully frail, shrunken, but his voice was firm as he spoke. In his journal he’d referred to this occasion as his “Exodus” and reminded himself that literature was “the salvation of the damned”—the lesson of his own life, surely, and the gist of what he said that day at Carnegie Hall. “A page of good prose,” he declared, “remains invincible.”
Seven years before—his marriage on the rocks, most of his books out of print—Cheever had tried drinking himself to death. He was teaching at Boston University, beset by ghosts from his awful childhood in nearby Quincy: “There were whole areas of the city I couldn’t go into,” he said later. “I couldn’t, for example, go to Symphony Hall because my mother was there.” (His mother—resplendent in a coral-embroidered, homemade dress—used to attend concerts at Symphony Hall but refused to bring tickets: “Young man,” she’d say, “I am Mrs. F. Lincoln Cheever and my seats are number 14 and 15.”) That winter Cheever took long, staggering walks along Commonwealth Avenue, rarely wearing an overcoat despite freezing weather (his father had warned him that overcoats make one look Irish). Finally he sat next to a bum and the two huddled together, sharing a bottle of fortified wine. When a policeman threatened to arrest him, Cheever gave the man a look of bleary, aristocratic reproach: “My name is John Cheever,” he drawled (Cheevah). “You’re out of your mind.”
He came to himself in the Smithers Alcoholism Treatment and Training Center on East Ninety-third Street in Manhattan, where for twenty-eight days he shared a bedroom and bath with four other men. He couldn’t remember leaving Boston. As for Smithers, it was grim. He was told that a man had recently jumped out the window in the ward where he slept; he was taunted in group therapy for pulling a fancy accent. “Displaying much grandiosity and pride,” one of his counselors noted. “Denying and minimizing grossly.” The staff was particularly struck by Cheever’s tendency to laugh at “inappropriate” moments. Little giggles would erupt while he recalled, say, some grindingly miserable memory from his youth, or some cruelty he’d inflicted on his children. During telephone calls with his daughter, however, Cheever would become tearful and say he couldn’t bear it another day. And yet he sensed that an early departure would amount to suicide—and he wanted to live, oddly enough; he wanted to finish his novel, Falconer. “Cheever’s is the triumph of a man in his sixties,” Bernard Malamud said of his colleague’s miraculous resurrection. “Here he’d been having a dreadful time . . . but he stayed with it. And through will and the grace literature affords, he saved himself.” After his wife drove him home from Smithers on May 7, 1975, Cheever never took another drink.
Less than two years later, he appeared on the cover of Newsweek over the caption, “A Great American Novel: John Cheever’s ‘Falconer.’” (He’d also been the subject of a 1964 Time cover story, “Ovid in Ossining.”) After reading Falconer, the article proclaimed, “one has the ecstatic confidence of finishing a masterpiece.” Large claims were made for Cheever’s place in world literature: “Long before Donald Barthelme, John Barth and Thomas Pynchon began tinkering with narrative conventions, Cheever had unobtrusively disrupted the expected shapes of fiction. As was the case with Faulkner in France, Cheever has been unexpectedly recognized and honored in Russia for the corrosive criticism of American civilization his understated fiction implies.” The fact that all but one of Cheever’s story collections were out of print was described as “a scandal of American publishing.”
This was remedied the following year, when The Stories of John Cheever became one of the most successful collections ever published by an American writer. The book remained on the New York Times best-seller list for six months and won the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the American Book Award. Cheever (appalled) was introduced as “the Grand Old Man of American Letters” on a Boston talk show. The bookish middle-class, it seemed, identified en masse with Cheever’s vision of suburban alienation; his “corrosive criticism” of their culture was mitigated, perhaps, by what the author himself wryly called his “childlike sense of wonder.”
Certainly life had turned out better than he ever could have hoped as a lonely, starving artist in the Depression, in flight from a family life that was “bankrupt in every way”: “I remember waking in some squalid furnished room,” he wrote in 1980, “probably with a terrible hangover and very likely with a stiff and unrequited prick.” At such times he used to comfort himself with dreams of future love and success—and now, fifty years later, it had all come true. “And so I woke . . . with a wife and the voices of birds, dogs and children but what I had not anticipated was the sound of a brook. And so it seems to be more bounteous than once I could have imagined.” But then, a curious afterthought: “It could, of course, be more horrifying.”
Cheever once wrote, “I have no biography. I came from nowhere and I don’t know where I’m going.” He put a slightly finer point on this when he remarked to an interviewer that he had “no memory for pain,” which effectively eliminated a large part of whatever biography he had. Which is not to say he wouldn’t talk about the past—on the contrary, he was forever telling stories about himself. “From somewhere,” said John Updike, “—perhaps a strain of sea-yarning in his Yankee blood—he had gotten the authentic archaic storytelling temper, and one could not be with John Cheever for more than five minutes without seeing stories take shape: past embarrassments worked up with wonderful rapidity into hilarious fables.” The main point of which was that life (his life) was a parlous but giddy affair. However, if one asked him to elaborate, a curious thing was apt to happen: suddenly Cheever would talk about something else—indeed, before one had even realized the subject was changed. “I always felt there was a blank behind John,” said the writer Hortense Calisher. “For an anecdotal man, he’d skip over his background.”
Cheever was at once the most reticent and candid of men. “Life is melancholy,” he said, “which isn’t allowed in New England.” Mortality and bodily functions and so forth were not big topics of conversation in Cheever’s childhood home, nor was anything else that adverted to human frailty or might lead to a quarrel: “Feel that refreshing breeze,” his mother would say when the mood turned tense, or perhaps she’d call attention to the evening star. “If you are raised in this atmosphere,” remarks the narrator of “Goodbye, My Brother” (one of Cheever’s greatest stories), “I think it is a trial of the spirit to reject its habits of guilt, self-denial, taciturnity, and penitence, and it seemed to me to have been a trial of the spirit in which Lawrence [the narrator’s brother] had succumbed.” A part of Cheever had succumbed as well, while another part roared its defiance to the world. On sexual matters, especially, Cheever was almost insistently forward. He would answer fan mail with ribald anecdotes of the most intimate nature, and rarely hesitated to discuss a mistress or some other indiscretion with his children. At the Iowa Workshop, the sixty-one-year-old Cheever positively accosted colleagues to let them know that, the night before, he’d had a nosebleed and an orgasm at the same time! With a twenty-two-year-old girl! “[W]ith what delight, and agony, I read about [Boswell’s] pursuit of Louisa,” he wrote in his journal. “And how troubled I am by the intensity of my feelings. It may be no more than the reactions of a man who was raised, let us say, where the subject of food was overlooked. . . . So it is with joy, with glee, perhaps with boorishness that we can at least admit our appetites and the deep pleasure of requiting them.”
But it was one thing to admit his appetites, another to discuss the “intensity of [his] feelings.” As his daughter observed, “He focused on the surface and texture of life, not on the emotions and motives underneath.” With family and friends in particular, Cheever was obliged to show a brave, jovial face—though strangers and chance acquaintances were, again, something else. “I am quite naked to loneliness,” he announced to a startled journalist, and that sort of thing was typical. “[W]ith dad our sense of his past pain comes mostly from inference,” said his son Federico, “and from observation of oddities in his behavior—fear and disgust turned up in the oddest places. If the problems he died with were, in fact, the same ones he left Quincy with at seventeen, then they followed him through more twists and flips than anyone could have expected.”
Frederick Lincoln Cheever Jr. was born on August 23, 1905—almost seven years before his only brother, John—and he often spoke of his happy childhood. Both parents adored him. His mother grew plump and stayed that way because Fred had weighed only three pounds at birth, and she’d had to eat and eat to feed him; his father called him Binks because he resembled a cherubic little boy in an advertisement with that name. The two went sailing together in Quincy Bay for many years while John was either unborn or too small to join them. He would always be too small. Meanwhile Fred grew into a manly, likable fellow whose athletic prowess was his father’s greatest pride. “Everybody loved him,” Cheever wrote of Coverly Wapshot’s older brother, Moses, “including the village dogs, and he comported himself with the purest, the most impulsive humility. Everybody did not love Coverly.”
By the time John was born, his parents’ marriage had become strained at best, and his conception was the result of some rare, tipsy lovemaking after a Boston sales banquet. “As my mother often pointed out,” Cheever said, “she drank two Manhattan cocktails that evening. Otherwise I would have remained unborn on a star.” His father, a prosperous shoe salesman, did what he could to dissuade his wife from having another child, even inviting an abortionist to dinner. It was a story that haunted Cheever the rest of his life, such that he couldn’t help mentioning it time and again (often with a strange little chuckle) and finally wrote it into Falconer. Typically, he saw fit to blame his mother for having the bad taste to tell him of the episode—this, as he wrote in his journal, by way of “seiz[ing] the affections of her son”: “‘[Your father] comes from very bad stock [she said]. It isn’t his fault that he doesn’t love you. He doesn’t know anything about love. He didn’t want you to be born.’ . . . And what sense can the boy make of these lies.” Most of the time, though, Cheever found it all too plausible: “I remember my father’s detestation of me as I feel the roots of some destructive vine—the vine, of course, being my bewildering love.” His lifelong need to requite this love would lead him to “invent a father” in The Wapshot Chronicle, but still his eyes smarted with tears (“oh foolishness”) when he’d observe some chance tenderness between a father and son.
Cheever described the Quincy of his childhood as a “pleasant, relaxed” middle-class suburb where all the women had gardens and everybody went to the more or less democratic “Neighborhood Club” for black-tie dances. There was a social hierarchy, of course, but it was relatively flexible: “[W]e were always allowed to play touch football with the Winslows and the Bradfords,” Cheever remembered in the New York Times, adding that his family’s maid had been no less than the daughter of “an Adams coachman and she once ate all the brandied sugar lumps around the plum pudding and was found on the wooden floor of the kitchen (this was before linoleum) dead drunk, giggling helplessly and contributing a bearing or milestone for our recollections.” An examination of this chestnut vis‑à‑vis the journal gives a little insight into Cheever’s methods as a raconteur. It was true his family occasionally hired the coachman’s daughter for “large family dinners,” though usually their maids were “girls sent out on probation from some reform school,” and it was almost certainly such a girl who pilfered those sugar lumps, as Cheever recalled a “violent scene” when a girl was sent back to the reformatory for that very offense: “She gathered me in her arms, crying despondently. My mother pried me out of her embrace. I expect I was about five.” Whenever such a “breakdown in service or finance” occurred, it fell mostly to Cheever’s grandmother Sarah to take up the household chores until another waif could be supplied. And while the old woman was nothing but bitter toward the men of the family for using her as a menial (“we had failed her, not only as providers but as men”), she was most displeased by the conduct of her youngest daughter, whom she called a “cretin” and thereby won her grandson’s lasting regard. When she lay dying of a stroke, the seven-year-old Cheever sat at her bedside reading aloud from David Copperfield.
One might bear in mind a curious affinity between the acerbic Sarah and her grandson John—who combined, as Updike put it, “the bubbling joie de vivre of the healthy sensitive man and the deep melancholy peculiar to American Protestant males.” Born under the sign of Gemini, the heavenly twins Castor and Pollux, Cheever considered his own nature to be “truly halved,” and his wife agreed: “What you have to remember,” she insistently repeated, “is that John was a split personality.” While the words boyish and pixie are constantly used to evoke the giddy, hilarious Cheever, he could also be curt, cruelly sarcastic, relentlessly harsh in judging friends and family and especially himself. Henry Adams thought a divided nature was the inevitable result of growing up in New England and Quincy in particular (“the stoniest glacial and tidal drift known in any Puritan land”): “The chief charm of New England,” he wrote in his Education, “was harshness of contrasts and extremes of sensibility—a cold that froze the blood, and a heat that boiled it—so that the pleasure of hating—one’s self if no better victim offered—was not its rarest amusement. . . . Winter and summer, then, were two hostile lives, and bred two separate natures.”
The profound ambivalence with which Cheever beheld the world was even more pronounced in regard to his birthplace. On the one hand it was “a red-blooded and a splendid inheritance” to grow up in such a “powerfully sensual” environment, where one was barraged by the smells of woodsmoke and flowers and the sea. “I’ve often wondered what makes us old Quincyites so randy,” Cheever wrote a stranger who was trying to sell him insurance. “Must be the sandy clams we dug at Wollaston Beach in those wonderful days of our youth.” Cheever made much of the fact that he’d lived less than a mile from Merrymount, where Morton had erected his maypole and “jollity and gloom [had contended] for an empire,” as Hawthorne would have it. “[T]he difference between the legend and the present has always been amusing,” Cheever wrote in 1934, shortly after leaving Quincy for good. “It is now the most despicable, contrite tract of Dutch Colonial Houses I have ever seen. I’ve always wanted to go down there with a jug of firewater and a couple of sluts and raise a maypole.”
Cheever’s precocity as a storyteller became something of a local legend. His fourth-grade teacher at Wollaston Grammar, Miss Florence Varley, never forgot the first time John “rose glibly to the occasion”: “To my utter surprise,” she recalled half a century later, “he told a fairy tale that lasted about ten minutes. His classmates listened as avidly as they did whenever I found time to read to them from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.” She refrained from praising the boy, however, as she assumed he was simply repeating something “he had read, or heard sometime”; but soon John convinced her he could make up such stories on the spot. For his part Cheever never had any clear idea what he was going to say when asked (more and more often) to tell his classmates a story—but once he opened his mouth, a beguiling fabric of “exaggeration” and “preposterous falsehoods” never failed to synthesize. Miss Varley thought it a gift from “departed spirits,” while the writer Wilfrid Sheed observed that, in Cheever’s case, memory and imagination were “not two faculties but one mega-faculty,” such that his everyday experiences were “improved” as soon as they happened and “halfway to being publishable” within a week—or, as Cheever himself liked to say (claiming to quote Cocteau), “Literature is a force of memory that we have not yet understood.” It was around this time, at any rate, that Cheever decided to make a career of his uncanny knack and told his parents as much: “It’s all right with us if you want to be a writer,” they replied, after some deliberation, “so long as you are not seeking fame or wealth.”
Writing was a suitable occupation for a pudgy, unathletic boy who preferred to stay home playing with his puppet theater. If other children visited, they often found themselves on the opposite side of the proscenium while John manipulated the puppets from above and provided their voices, or, if he had a more elaborate show in mind (for which he’d invite the whole neighborhood and charge a penny per), he’d put his visitors to work making sets or dyeing materials for the costumes. His friend Rollin “Tifty” Bailey got the impression John was wholly absorbed in his own world, that he hardly noticed others, and was therefore startled upon reading “Goodbye, My Brother” some twenty-five years later in the New Yorker. Cheever, it seemed, had paid better attention than Bailey thought—not only appropriating his nickname “Tifty” for the “rather undesirable” Lawrence Pommeroy, but also the relevant backstory. As Bailey explained, “When I was small, the sound of my little shoes on the runner carpet in the upper hall sounded to my father like Tifty-Tifty-Tifty . . .” And finally, for what it’s worth, Bailey had to admit he rather identified with his fictional namesake: “I did tend to see the bad side,” he said. “If you know what’s bad, you can face it.”
Cheever’s public manners were pleasant enough: his mother was a founder of the local Woman’s Club, and her strict sense of propriety was “rigidly observed” by the family. At the end of any social event he always made a point of bowing to the hostess and thanking her for a good time—though occasionally (if he had an audience) he might add a puckish, “My mother told me to tell you so.” Such little rebellions were subtle and no wonder. “You sweep like an old woman!” his mother berated him, yanking a broom out of his hands, whereupon he carved his name on the cover of her sewing machine—a rare and probably unrepeated act of (overt) retaliation, because afterward “she trashed [him] with a belt until [he] bled.” The woman’s vigor was nowhere in evidence, however, when it came to showing affection. “My mother was not demonstrative in any way,” said Cheever, who came to emulate such restraint toward his own children, though arguably he was free enough with his feelings otherwise. He often signed letters with “Love” even to casual friends (usually “Best” or “Yours, John” to his children).
His mother’s lack of tenderness was partly a matter of New England decorum, of course, but was also influenced by Mary Baker Eddy’s teaching that “God is both Father and Mother” and hence the proper source of such loving-kindness. Cheever had been christened in the Episcopal Church, though a few years later his mother “veered wildly into Christian Science” and thereafter adhered to its principles with the sort of fanatical devotion she brought to all larger pursuits. Every Wednesday she attended testimonial meetings, where (as family legend has it) she arrested a tumor by confessing to her fellows that she was “enchained by the flesh” and needed their prayers. Later, too, at the age of seventy, she broke her leg in the bathtub and set the bone herself—then, after five weeks in bed (“a severe trial for her,” wrote her husband, “with her natural speed and energy”), she refused any sort of elastic bandage and would only grudgingly use a cane. Moreover she expected the same stalwart self-reliance from her children, as John discovered when he developed pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of twelve: “I think of myself when I was spitting blood,” he remembered, “left alone in a dirty house. The sheets soaked with fever sweat, the rags I was given to spit in, stained with blood. . . . In the village [my mother] at the lectern, introducing an Armenian refugee.”
Unassisted by modern medicine, Cheever’s lungs took a long time to heal, and he became even more of a loner and (reputed) mama’s boy. Once his convalescence was over, he continued to plead ill health in order to excuse himself from gym class and other games, though such lies filled him with “self-loathing and remorse”—all the more so in light of his brother’s vaunted athleticism and regular-guy charm: “[T]hat boy of summer,” Cheever recalled. “Quarterback. . . . Captain of the undefeated hockey team. Happy with his friends, nimble with his girls, he loved his muzzy and dazzy.” Fred’s heroics even extended to sticking up for his delicate little brother, such as the time he punched an Irishman at Braintree dam for saying that John looked like a girl when he skated. But mostly Fred was too old and popular to take much of an interest in John, who desperately wanted help with his “effeminate wing” so he could play baseball like the other boys: “I used to get out of bed in the middle of the night and practice pitching,” he wrote in his journal. “Neither my brother nor my father would help me; there seemed to be a conspiracy on their part to keep me out of their male demesne.” The trauma would become fodder for a bleakly amusing story in 1953, “The National Pastime,” which begins, “To be an American and unable to play baseball is comparable to being a Polynesian and unable to swim.” The narrator remembers having to beg a game of catch with his cold, unloving father (a malign ur-version of Leander Wapshot), who “stretched [him] out unconscious” with a throw to the back of the neck: “When I came to, my nose was bleeding and my mouth was full of blood. . . . My father was standing over me. ‘Don’t tell your mother about this,’ he said.”
Later in life, Cheever’s public remarks about his father were characterized by a sort of sensible regret that they weren’t able to “requite” one another because of the “age difference” (almost fifty years), and—after all—“in that particular period, intimacy between fathers and sons was fairly uncommon.” In his heart, though, he never forgave the man for rejecting him as a child. The only father-son outings Cheever could recall were virile entertainments such as horse races and boxing matches, where Frederick would shout, “Are you men sisters?” or, “Hit him with a stool!”—this for John’s benefit, perhaps, as Frederick was worried by then that he’d “sired a fruit.” His older brother Hamlet had practically told him so during one of his rare visits when John was twelve. The old man looked over his runty nephew and said, “Well, I guess you could play tennis.” “That was all he said to me,” Cheever remembered. “My poor father, defending his own virility, said that his oldest son played hockey and football; but the lecherous, selfish old goat spoke with the authority of a tribal chieftain who, at a glance, had rejected me as a warrior or any other kind of man.” Hoping to prove otherwise, the boy went to a burlesque theater that afternoon where the “jades with their flabby breasts” failed to arouse him. “My scrotum ached with dismay and I went home on a local in pain.”
With Hamlet’s “tennis” crack somewhere in the back of his mind, the adult Cheever would often assert his manhood with a conspicuous interest in sports (except for tennis) and other kinds of strenuous physical activity. He flung himself into icy pools and skated with a masculine swagger; he professed to love the Red Sox (in fact he preferred the Yankees) and baseball in general, interrupting a 1969 Paris Review interview to watch the Mets win the last game of the World Series. And yet his “wing” remained weak and still he heard “the voices of [his] long-dead detractors, Uncle Hamlet and Mother and Dad. ‘He will never amount to anything. Dismal obscenities in furnished rooms, drunkenness, loneliness and despair is all he will ever know.’ . . . Isn’t this something of what I suffered.”
“The climate was anxious,” Cheever wrote of his early adolescence, when Fred was away at Dartmouth winning glory on the varsity hockey team while, at home, his parents kept a weather eye on their weakling second-born. They suspected the worst (“You sweep like an old woman!”) and let him know, obliquely and otherwise, that sexual inversion was a terrible fate. Naturally Cheever despised himself for having such impulses, splitting wood to cleanse his thoughts of an “obsessive” erotic need—a need for Janet Weil and Sally Bradford on the one hand, but also for “Arnold and Gordon and Faxon and Tubby” on the other. And the more he was browbeaten, the more he was apt to pursue his “merry games of grabarse” as a means of “parting from Mother”—the sexual equivalent of carving his name on the lid of her sewing machine. Both had painful consequences. With or without a lash, the woman possessed “the authority of an executioner” as the embodiment of social custom—“a world of white gloves and dancing pumps” that Cheever associated with a fraught childhood memory:
It was autumn. We went over to the R.’s barn and had a penis-measuring contest, followed by an orgy, but when it was over I felt so guilty and ashamed of myself, so sorrowful and uneasy. . . . I went home and ate a sandwich and was put by my mother into a bath so hot that it made my skin pucker and made the touch of everything unpleasant. . . . I couldn’t find my dancing pumps. I connected this with my lewd behavior in the morning. . . . I went into the closet, got to my knees, and said the Lord’s Prayer three times, noticing . . . that my dancing pumps, in a serge bag, hung from a hook above me. At least this much of my prayer was answered, but I was filled with terrible longings . . . I would have run away, except that my mother was a matron that afternoon [at dancing school], and anyhow where would I,
in my blue serge, find a haven?
For a while he found a haven of sorts in his friendship with Fax Ogden, which he later described as “the most gratifying and unself-conscious relationship I had known.” Even their sex play struck the adult Cheever as larky and harmless (though in general he was “frightened and ashamed” of such memories), and he didn’t hesitate to suggest as much to his wife and children. According to his journal, it was Fax who first learned the joys of masturbation from a man sitting beside him at a vaudeville show: “Fax went home and gave it a try and told me about it at school. Lying in bed that night I jacked off while listening to a philosophical radio commentator. The orgasm was racking; my remorse was crushing. I felt I had betrayed the fatherly voice on the radio.” Happily the remorse passed, and soon the two were masturbating each other as often as possible—in movie theaters, in the golf club shower, and especially at Boy Scout camp on Gallows Pond in South Plymouth. The camp was “one of John’s happiest memories,” according to his wife: He and Fax earned their junior lifesaving certificates, and one year John won the treasure hunt and was awarded a watermelon. Rainy days were best of all, as the two boys could stay in bed and practice, indefatigably, their favorite pastime (“When one bed got gummed up we used to move to another”).
“I think of substratas of aloneness,” Cheever wrote in 1972, remembering a sad day when “Fax walked off the playing field with his arm around someone else.” At age fifteen Fax transferred to Culver Military Academy in Indiana; he and Cheever would meet only once again, in 1964, after which the dejected Fax would occasionally call while in his cups: “Weren’t we happy, Johnny? Weren’t we really happy?”
The Depression came early to New England, and by the midtwenties the shoe industry was all but dead. This, of course, was not openly discussed in the Cheever household, though John could tell his father was becoming dispirited. One day he overheard Frederick Sr. say to a neighbor, while raking the driveway, that he was prepared to die. As Cheever would later tell it, Frederick had sold out of the shoe business and gone into an investment partnership with another fellow, alternately named “Mr. Forsyth” and “Harry Dobson” in Cheever’s journal. One day, while playing his four holes of morning golf, Frederick espied what appeared to be a coat hanging from a tree near the fairway. Naturally this proved to be none other than Forsyth or Dobson, hanged. After that Frederick gave up golf and began crying at the breakfast table: “He’d say good morning to me and then look out the window and say something about the weather and then his face would break . . . and he’d start making noises like a winded runner.”
Fortunately he was married to a resourceful woman, who saved the family from certain ruin by opening a gift shop in downtown Quincy. Genial and motherly, she was able to strike an instant rapport with most customers, who came to regard the Mary Cheever Gift Shoppe as the place to go for something a little better than the usual dime-store bric-a-brac. It was true that Mrs. Cheever could be a bit pushy at times. As she herself confided, a little ruefully, the harder she tried to “match the purchase to the person,” the more determined the person became to buy what she or he had picked out in the first place.
John was aghast that his mother had gone into trade: “[A]fter this I was to think of her, not in any domestic or maternal role, but as a woman approaching a customer in a store and asking, bellicosely, ‘Is there something I can do for you?’” Nor was it simply the doorstops and china dogs and doilies that she foisted on a public consisting mostly of her former peers, but the very furniture out from under her family’s backs. “You can’t sell this,” John would remonstrate, “it doesn’t belong to you.” To which the woman would sensibly reply, “Well, do you have $100?” She even sold his own bed (and decades later, at a Sutton Place party, Cheever bumped into an old Quincy acquaintance who informed him that she herself had bought one of the family beds). It wasn’t long before his mother’s almost demonic élan began to bear fruit. In 1929 she opened a second store, the Little Shop Around the Corner, purveying dresses and accessories reflecting “the same exclusiveness and beauty which is already evident in her gift shoppe,” as the Quincy Patriot Ledger reported. Mrs. Cheever relished her success, such as it was, and became every inch the plucky, hard-boiled businesswoman: “She routed thieving gypsies,” her son recalled, “brained an armed robber with a candlestick and cracked jokes with the salesmen.”
The vulgarity of it all was an “abysmal humiliation” to Cheever, whose innate sense of alienation was burden enough. Nor did he ever quite recover from “the trauma, the earthquake” of his family’s awful decline. Anything smacking of gift shop knickknackery would always repulse him to the point of illness—and there were other triggers, too, some of them rather odd. Rollin Bailey’s father was the director of a local bank, and John was never invited to play on their tennis court, two blocks above the Cheevers’ house on Wollaston Hill. “Suddenly I remember with painful clarity a fight I had with Rollin Bailey, forty years ago, on the gravel walk of his mother’s garden,” Cheever wrote in 1965. “In a way I had been victorious, but I had only a painful sense of having disgraced myself and my family.” Cheever would forever associate that disgrace (and also, perhaps, his irksome memories of Uncle Hamlet) with the posh thwock of tennis balls, and couldn’t bear to be anywhere near the game. As for Rollin Bailey, he last saw his old friend on a troop train returning north during World War II; by then Cheever was on his way to becoming a well-known New Yorker writer, and he treated Bailey with a kind of cordial disdain that made the man feel “like less of a person.”
Thayer Academy was an old-fashioned New England day school in nearby Braintree. Founded by Sylvanus Thayer—the so-called Father of West Point, a man who opposed “dissipation of every kind”—the school’s mission was to instill a sense of “duty, industry, and honor” in its students while stuffing their heads with the kind of knowledge required for college entrance exams. The atmosphere was, in almost every sense, austere. The school couldn’t afford to heat its buildings in the winter, so that students wore earmuffs and mittens while poring over Latin verbs.
Cheever did not shine in such a climate, though at the time he was not shining generally. Sloppy and depressed, he refused to improve his abysmal math skills (“What future is there for a man who can’t deal with figures?” his anxious mother had remarked while John was still in grade school), nor did he make more than a token effort in classes that might otherwise have interested him. His freshman English teacher, Louise Saul, remembered him as a young man who did perfunctory work and “didn’t take well to discipline”; in her class and history he managed a low C, while receiving Ds or Es (failing) in pretty much everything else. Meanwhile he was an almost total outcast, and never forgot his “nearly animal resentment”: “Second-hand clothes that didn’t fit, lost friends, athletic incompetence, poor marks, no pocket money, bad food in a dark lunch-room where nobody much wanted to sit with me . . . the member of a deposed family.”
During his second year he transferred to Quincy High, where he could fail at no expense to his family, whom he’d begun to help support with a job delivering the Quincy News in a Model T. Cheever enjoyed the independence of driving alone to little towns along the South Shore—Houghs Neck, Braintree, Milton—especially during the World Series, when he’d make an extra trip at dusk to deliver a late edition including box scores and full accounts (“It made me feel good to be the one delivering the good news”). When he got home, though, his mother would sometimes make him wash up and put on his brother’s “safety-pinned tuxedo” so he could keep up appearances at some “backstreet cotillion.” Meanwhile his grades continued to sink. For the Fall 1928 semester he received a 77 in English and French, a 66 in Latin; the next semester his grades in those classes were, respectively, 55, 45, and 0.
His father had gone from a jaunty golf-playing burgher to a sodden failure with a hacking cough who always seemed to be sitting on the porch with nothing to do. Everybody in the neighborhood knew about “poor Mr. Cheever.” He’d taken to drink and odd behavior; he wore the shabby cast-off clothing of his dead friends. His son John “deeply resented his defeatism,” but resented his mother’s strength even more. Her latest venture was a restaurant she’d opened in a family farmhouse in nearby Hanover, where Frederick was relegated to an outbuilding and fed only after the last customer had left. John came to understand such contempt as unique to wives in New England and peculiarly evident in his mother’s case. “Why don’t you want to eat with me?” his father would say, following his wife around the house. The woman could hardly bear the sight of her idle, drunken husband, and would either eat standing at a sideboard with her back to the room (“For Christ’s sake,” Frederick would protest, “what have I done to deserve this?”), or remain at table to indulge in a bit of chilly repartee. “Don’t these chops taste good?” she once asked, and when her husband replied that he “[hadn’t] been able to taste anything for ten days,” the woman sweetly observed, “Well, it doesn’t seem to have spoiled your appetite.”
Finally they stopped talking entirely, communicating (if at all) in the form of written indictments. One day Frederick presented his wife with an exhaustive list of malfeasances; she tossed it, unread, in the fire, whereupon he announced he was going to the beach to drown himself. She told her son as much—with an exasperated sigh—when he came home for dinner that evening, and John took the car and raced after his father:
The beach was deserted, the sea was calm and I had no way of knowing if it contained, full fathom five, his remains. The amusement park was open and I heard some laughter from there. A group of people were watching the roller coaster where my father, waving a pint bottle, was pretending to threaten to leap. When he was finally grounded I got him by the arm and said Daddy you shouldn’t do this to me, not in my formative years. I don’t know where I got that chestnut. Probably from some syndicated column on adolescence. He was much too drunk for any genuine remorse. Nothing was said on the way home and he went to bed without his supper. So did I.
The episode was part of a repertoire of comic anecdotes Cheever told about his father, in life as in fiction. There was also the time he found the man “drunken, debauched and naked but for a string of champagne corks,” as well as the time his father drank all the sherry and then tried to cover his tracks by pissing in the decanter. “I have finessed these scenes,” Cheever wrote a friend, “but when he failed me, and he did a thousand, thousand times, I found my cock and balls in a wringer. I was determined not to lose that sense of locus that I would have lost if I dismissed him as a tragic clown.” By way of mitigating his resentment (not to say his own dreadful fear of failure), Cheever struggled all his life to comprehend his father’s predicament. “He did not even give me bus fare,” he mused; “but he didn’t have it, and I think his spirit was pure.” Cheever was especially haunted by papers he’d found after his father’s death—a heartbreaking testament of the man’s losing struggle to preserve self-esteem: There were “at least fifty” rejected applications for menial jobs at shipyards and factories; promotional schemes for selling cheese and soap chips and automobiles; dotty letters to heads of state and other luminaries. One long correspondence was particularly telling: Frederick had been very proud of his four-digit license plate (“3088”), because a low figure marked him as one of the first automobile owners in Massachusetts and hence a man of substance; alas, his son Fred had forgotten to renew his license one year, and the coveted number was snapped up by an Italian politician. Frederick (who despised foreigners) wrote many indignant letters, and finally stopped driving altogether.
Naturally Mrs. Cheever was to blame. As John maintained, she never let the men of her family forget who the breadwinner was—and, to make the emasculation complete, she even insisted they do housework. “I’m a businesswoman!” she’d gloatingly proclaim. Cheever remembered coming home from his newspaper route and finding the flowers dead, the furniture covered in dust, his father drunk. Desperate to cheer things up a bit (and since it was expected of him), John would rush about tidying the place before his mother got off work. Then, after a dinner prepared in part by himself, he and his drooping father would wash and dry the dishes. (“I have got so [I can] polish the dishes better than [I] used to do,” Frederick wrote his son years later, “when you and I teamed up on that job—quote—‘Polish them Dad!’”) Cheever never got over the bitterness of their mutual humiliation—“a bronchitic and routed old man picking a thread off the rug and a youth, famous for his salad dressing.” Later, as head of his own family, he created “an ideal Polynesian culture” (as his son Federico put it), for which the primary motto was That’s women’s work!—sternly repeated whenever Cheever caught a son of his hefting a broom or helping with dishes. Men scythed and split wood; housework was “bad for the hormones.”
Meanwhile his mother gleefully bought a car and painted it herself (“imply[ing] that . . . neither my father nor I had the gumption”), then pressed her son into service as a chauffeur. Every morning he drove her to work and returned in the evening at five; often Mrs. Cheever would be chatting with a friend or completing a sale, in which case John would cool his heels in a tiny office, among stacks of broken china and the pervasive odor of “candle fat, sweat, . . . and hot radiator paint.” It was, perhaps, the least he could do, seeing as how the gift shop kept the family afloat (for a time), but mostly he associated its sweaty bouquet with “the gall and chagrin of failure.” That is, despite the best efforts of “a vigorous but disturbed woman”—as Cheever would have it—most of her business ventures came to a bad end. She soon sold the dress shop, while the restaurant in Hanover “struggled on” for a few summers, though days passed without a single customer: “The waitresses—country girls dressed in quaint costumes designed by my Mother—hung around the three dinningrooms [sic] and the lobster and chicken that was all she served would spoil.” This was followed by something called the Oribe Tea Barn in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, which lasted a few weeks before Mrs. Cheever telephoned her son one night to come get her. “When I asked what had happened she raised her face as though for a blessing and sighed: ‘I was much too popular.’”
Cheever also associated the gift shop with a sense of personal impotence. (“Did you used to work in the gift shoppe?” Cheever’s wife would tease him, stirring memories that caused “an actual sensation of discomfort in [his] scrotum.”) Later—when he sought the cause of his malaise in Freud—he discovered that his family was a virtual paradigm for “that chain of relationships” (weak father, dominant mother) “that usually produces a male homosexual.” But things were even worse in Cheever’s case. His mother (he came to suspect) had a “terrifying ambivalence” about homosexuality, deploring it on the one hand but wanting to castrate him on the other, the better to guarantee “a gentle companion for the lonely years of old age.” Thus, when his wife would catch him, say, reading the theater page of the Times (“an incriminating piece of effeminacy”), Cheever would recall the Freudian shrink who’d told him, in so many words, that he’d married his mother—a ghastly thought. Could it be that the elder Mary Cheever had kept him tied to her “faraway apron strings” after all? “Come back, come back,” he imagined her crying, “my wretched, feeble and unwanted child.”
Whatever her designs, the fact remained that all three members of the household were crushingly miserable. The mother distracted herself with work, the father with drink and solitary quirks, while the son was left to shift for himself. His parents loathed each other and pretty much ignored him, except as a pawn or buffer; one year they both completely forgot his birthday. It was a lot to bear for anybody, especially a hypersensitive boy who found himself fleeing trolley cars because of a morbid awareness of other people. The main reason he became a storyteller, he said, was “to give some fitness and shape to the unhappiness that overtook [his] family and to contain [his] own acuteness of feeling.” Later, with his own children, he often made a game of his favorite coping mechanism—picking out strangers in public and imagining their wallpaper, what they ate for breakfast, and so on. It worked and it didn’t. Once, drunk, he confided to his son that he could hardly bear to take the train to New York anymore: “Every stranger’s face,” he said, “is like the last hand in a game of poker in which my life is at stake.”
While at Quincy High, Cheever won a short-story contest sponsored by the Boston Herald, after which he was invited back to Thayer on a probationary basis. The idea was for him to receive special instruction from a revered English teacher, Harriet Gemmel, without the distractions of math or Latin. The Academy was taken aback, however, by the more eccentric Cheever who returned in the fall of 1929—a “total kook” (so the consensus went) who flaunted his disdain for the place, interrupting teachers with pointless questions and taking pains to look as bored as possible. Also, whereas he’d neglected his personal appearance in the past, he now seemed to cultivate dishevelment as a kind of writerly ideal: “On more than one occasion,” said a friend, “we classmates would collect a few pennies and escort him to the barber shop.”
Miss Gemmel understood, and even looked kindly on her shaggy protégé when he’d stay behind in her classroom long after the bell rang, vividly absorbed in his writing. Eulogized in the yearbook as “our more-than-teacher, seeing guide, / Who understands our faults, but trusts our strength,” Miss Gemmel gave Cheever tea and cookies at her home on Sunset Lake and shared the fruits of her more-than-teacherly wisdom. In the story Cheever was soon to write—“Expelled”—she appears as the “very nice” Margaret Courtwright, a “slightly bald” woman who adores Galsworthy and warns the young narrator away from the “sex reality” of writers such as Joyce. “When I told her people laughed at Galsworthy she said that people used to laugh at Wordsworth,” Cheever wrote. “That was what made her so nice.”
The sardonic prodigy—reading his way through Joyce and Proust and Hemingway, et al.—soon decided the likes of Harriet Gemmel didn’t have much to offer him. As for Thayer at large, Cheever later observed that it “existed not to educate us in any way but to make us admissible to Harvard University”—where he claimed a scholarship had awaited him, though he sensed an Ivy League career would prove “disastrous.” Thus he became even more recalcitrant, ignoring his lessons (“I refused to commit to memory the names of Greek playwrights whose work I had not read”) and smoking behind the tennis court—the last an offense for which he was repeatedly warned and finally expelled. Or so he claimed.
Thayer’s headmaster at the time was Stacy Baxter Southworth, a beloved figure known throughout greater Braintree as “Uncle Stacy.” “From someone who remembers Stacey [sic] Southworth vividly,” Cheever inscribed a copy of Falconer for the Thayer library, and once on television he praised the man as “extremely understanding and vastly intelligent.” Southworth was, in fact, keenly aware of John’s troubled homelife and more than willing to be patient (he’d excused him from math and Latin, after all), if only the boy would meet him halfway and buckle down to his studies a bit more. But John refused, and that was that. “The young man was not expelled from the Academy,” wrote a furious Southworth, three weeks after Cheever’s “Expelled” appeared in the New Republic. “He left entirely on his own volition in the late spring season, presumably because of the added attraction of the May orchard blossoms, which he characterized in his unique way.” Another unique characterization in Cheever’s story (among many) was that of the headmaster’s “gravy-colored curtains,” which occasioned a lot of knowing snickers behind Uncle Stacy’s back.
Shortly after leaving Thayer in March, Cheever took a job in the stockroom of the Shepherd Company in Boston, a large department store where he presumably pored over the New Republic during lunch breaks. Judging from “Expelled” he’d become quite familiar with a few of the left-wing magazine’s pet issues. For example, the governor of Massachusetts—a Republican Cadillac dealer named Alvan T. Fuller—was a particular target for having refused to commute the sentences of Sacco and Vanzetti, and so in his story Cheever mentioned “the Governor” who comes to the narrator’s prep school and delivers a Memorial Day harangue against the “Red menace.” Meanwhile a gallant history teacher named Laura Driscoll is fired for daring to suggest that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent. Miss Driscoll also serves to embody the higher possibilities of modern pedagogy, as opposed to the “ruthlessly regimented” system that still prevailed, whereby “children were being crammed with meaningless miscellaneous information”—or so the New Republic reported in a “symposium” on progressive education that ran throughout its June 1930 issues. “When Laura Driscoll dragged history into the classroom,” Cheever wrote, “squirming and smelling of something bitter, they fired Laura and strangled the history”; such a maverick as Driscoll has no place in a school where “people didn’t care about Chartres as long as you knew the date.”
Cheever commended his story to the attention of a young associate editor, Malcolm Cowley, whose first book of poetry, Blue Juniata, had struck the young Cheever (so he remarked in his cover letter) as the work of a sympathetic soul. Cowley read the precocious slush-pile manuscript and agreed: “I felt that I was hearing for the first time the voice of a new generation,” he recalled more than fifty years later. So emphatic was his advocacy of Cheever that his fellow editors decided to suspend a long-standing rule against publishing fiction.
“Expelled from Prep School” by “Jon” Cheever (as he’d spell his name for the next five years) was the lead story in the October 1 issue, prefaced by a little note from the editors explaining that its author had recently been expelled “from an academy in Massachusetts . . . where education is served out dry in cakes, like pemmican.” It’s an astonishing debut. At age eighteen, Cheever had evolved a voice that alternated seamlessly between droll, oddly precise details (“a soft nose that rested quietly on his face”) and flights of somber lyricism: “The year before I had not known all about the trees and the heavy peach blossoms and the tea-colored brooks that shook down over the brown rocks. . . . I wanted to feel and taste the air and be among the shadows. That is perhaps why I left school.”
The triumph came at a price, however. Among respectable people Cheever was more a pariah than ever. Simply to write for such a “radical” magazine as the New Republic was bad enough, but to play “fast and loose with the truth”—as Stacy Southworth noted in a letter to a sympathetic Thayerite—was unforgivable, even in a purported work of fiction. “Laura Driscoll,” for instance (the firebrand Sacco and Vanzetti supporter), was an obvious surrogate for Mary Lavinia Briscoe, late of the history department. In Cheever’s version of her departure, the headmaster had reported to students in chapel that she had “found it necessary to return to the West”: “Then Laura got up, called him a damned liar, swore down the length of the platform and walked out of the building.” This, Southworth fumed, was “a tissue of falsehoods”: “I was glad to cooperate with her in securing a fine position in St. Louis,” where she had moved “to enlarge the scope of her experience.” Nor was the woman known to have any particular convictions about Sacco and Vanzetti one way or the other, though in any case “she surely appreciated the freedom of expression which she enjoyed [at Thayer].”
By far the worst of it was Cheever’s heartless treatment of his mentor, Harriet Gemmel, the woman he’d slurred as a balding Galsworthy connoisseur. “[T]ragic indeed,” said Southworth, who knew only too well how wounded the woman had been. Thayer staff and students, the citizens of Braintree and beyond—almost everyone was aware of the pains Miss Gemmel had taken with the obnoxious youth, and was equally up in arms. So they remained. “Personally, had I the choice, I should not invite John to visit or to speak at the Academy,” protested one of his old teachers, Grace Osgood, when Thayer invited its most famous alumnus to give the commencement address in 1980 (the year his grandniece Sally Carr graduated). Cheever, said Osgood, had made too many “inaccurate” and “cruelly unkind” statements “about gentle, gracious, bright people who were truly trying to help him.”
As it happened Cheever had no interest in accepting the invitation. “Expelled” had been his ticket to better things—worth any amount of acrimony from people who’d once made him feel like “an ugly and useless obscenity.” In fact he’d been asked back to Thayer before, in 1968, when headmaster Peter Benelli had paid a personal visit to Ossining in hope of persuading him. As ever Cheever presented his guest with a whacking martini and then grew solemn. His memories of Quincy, he said, were “very painful” and he would never return to the area for any reason. As for Benelli’s eminent predecessor—well, the very name put Cheever in a pious mood. “Without Stacy Baxter Southworth,” he liked to say, “I would have ended up pumping gas in some place like Walpole.” Such piety depended somewhat on his audience, however. To a fellow disgruntled alumnus, Cheever mentioned an old photograph he’d seen of Uncle Stacy: “[He was] wandering under some Elm trees in a light rain performing some traditional and foolish ceremony,” Cheever wrote. “God have mercy on his soul.”