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Robert Altman Week

Friday
Feb042011

« In Which John Cheever Hits Rock Bottom »

burt lancaster in john cheever's 'The Swimmer'

John Cheever in Massachusetts

by ELISABETH DONNELLY

John Cheever was one of the few writers to get the cover of Time. In fact, he managed it twice in his lifetime, cementing his position as the "Ovid of Ossining," a monster short story writer chronicling suburban malaise at the moment the suburbs were invented.When he got it together to write the occasional novel, they were an event, from The Wapshot Chronicle to his late-in-life comeback Falconer.

Cheever's work and reputation was intertwined with his life as a self-styled country squire of Westchester; a man with a nice house, drinking with randy housewives, taking the Metro-North down to Manhattan when the time called for it. The Cheever mythology of vacations on Martha's Vineyard and suburban intrigue has left its influence as well, playing out in Mad Men, where Cheever serves as a spiritual father to Don Draper. (There are numerous Cheever references in the show — from Don and Betty Draper's house on Bullet Park Lane, to the shot of Draper in the pool, echoing Cheever's greatest story, "The Swimmer.") Really, what Cheever was about, according to the writer, was "a long lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light... and almost everybody wore a hat."

Yet, as Blake Bailey's epic door-stopper of a writer's biography, Cheever: A Life, meticulously details — counting every morning swig of alcohol — like all the best writers, Cheever was a faker. And in a life filled with feints and contradictions, the biggest fake of all was quite possibilty his New Yorker-bred reputation as a merciless New York chronicler. Regionalism is a slippery thing to characterize writers with these days, as anything beyond New York, California, "the South," or some prep school New England is nearly alien. But there's a streak of Massachusetts to Cheever's work, steeped, specifically, in Boston-area Irish Catholicism. It was the side of Cheever that he denied for his first seventeen years, and it blossomed in the central tension of most of his stories: class divides and the gulf between who you are and who you want to be.

According to the great Boston bard Henry Adams, Massachusetts residents are shaped by the weather: "winter and summer, then, were two hostile lives, and bred two separate natures." It's a state that prides itself on its liberalism, while also being filled with staid, conservative-of-mind Yankees who never chance, and who would never admit to anything like Californian self-help or New York neurosis. Cheever, born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1912, was a prime example, and his divided sides fought their way into his work. He had a gimlet eye for the ways that people mess up in life, from the morose Lawrence of "Goodbye My Brother" or "The Swimmer's" poor Neddy, vigorously moving through chlorinated oblivion, and he turned these sad stories into something transcendent with his trademark humanistic scope.

at home in Ossining, New York, 1979.Cheever presented his childhood in Quincy through rose-colored glasses, implying that he arrived in the world, fully formed as a man in his 17th year, where he dropped out from Thayer Academy while selling a short story called "Expelled" to The New Republic. (He claimed, of course, that he was en route to Harvard, yet Bailey notes that he was certainly not Harvard material as a student.) In a 1969 interview with The Paris Review, Cheever explained his aversion to his childhood: "If I looked over my shoulder I would die. I think frequently of Satchel Paige and his warning that you might see something gaining on you." And yet the events of Cheever's childhood, both traumatic and idyllic, certainly influenced The Wapshot Chronicle's family of eccentrics, be it his mother's embarrassing route from middle class austerity to the owner of a tchotcke shop, or his once-great shoe salesman father's fall into drink, and his confession that he thought John should've "never been born."

While Cheever kept mum on the specifics of his Quincy childhood, he "improvised a background for myself — genteel, traditional — and it is generally accepted." He exaggerated his once-seafaring family's past glories, claiming the Cheevers came over on the Mayflower, and a great-grandfather's boots were on display in the Peabody Essex Museum, when in reality, they were shoe salesmen. It's the type of hubris that sticks: as Bailey recounts in his Cheever prologue, later in life, deep in the throes of alcoholism, during a winter teaching at Boston Universtiy, Cheever would walk down Commonwealth Avenue in freezing weather, sans overcoat, since his father said overcoats make one "look Irish." When a cop came upon the writer, sharing fortified wine on a bench with a bum, he threatened arrest. Cheever's reply? "My name is John Cheever (pronouced Chee-vah). You're out of your mind."

Rock bottom came for Cheever when he was teaching at Boston University in 1974. Perhaps there's some sort of symmetry there — a man born in Boston, running away from it his whole life, spilling its secrets and odd little traditions down in song — the minute he gets back there for an extended period of time, that is when he can't function. Boston is a city shaped by loss; it was, at one point, the defacto capital of the country, until New York took proper hold as the greatest city in the nation. But in a particularly Yankee form of not letting go of a grudge, the city of Boston was shaped and still smarts from this loss. The dominant Irish Catholic culture in Boston's "Athenian twilight years" take a self-hating pride in keeping track of lineage, lines, and the class divides that come from money, as if keeping track of the ways in which people are different can potentially return you to your former glory.

A kindred spirit to Cheever's divisions, Boston native William Monahan, the Oscar-winning writer of The Departed, had sharp insights about the splits and doubles that define the city. A Boston state of mind, for Monahan, meant "a double world where I wasn't part of anything or invested in anything, because I was Irish, and very Irish, but also the other part of my family, not that it had airs, or money, was descended form the first minister on Cape Ann in the 1620s. So in Boston terms I was everyone and no one, with no social investment, no social insecurity, sort of Imitation of Christ in one hand and The Education of Henry Adams in the other, and because I was part of nothing I could observe everything without having anything personal invested in the findings."

with john updike

Because I was part of nothing, I could observe everything — those are fighting words for a writer, and words that could easily be applied to the Massachusetts life of John Cheever. Growing up in this state may have split the writer in two, but he was taking notes on the divide, prepared to sell people out. "Expelled" was the story that led to Cheever's escape — he left Thayer Academy (claiming, of course, that he was expelled in real-life, as well), and he left the South Shore of Massachusetts, the so-called Irish Riveria, and never looked back. Despite his likely denials, Cheever's first story, and all his stories afterwards, were sharp explorations of Massachusetts and its foibles, the scars that Massachusetts leaves you with; and it was a Massachusetts state of mind that would prove to be a constant muse for one of the great writers of the 20th century.

Elisabeth Donnelly is the senior contributor to This Recording. She last wrote in these pages about Joachim Trier's Reprise. She tumbls here and twitters here.

with his daughter, Susan, in 1976, photo by nancy crampton

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Reader Comments (1)

I greatly enjoyed this post, and the writing is lovely, but a few random thoughts I thought I'd throw out there...

I don't doubt the existence of a "Massachusetts state of mind", but there's a very strong tendency amongst many contemporary writers and filmmakers to dwindle that complex, evolving identity down to a very peculiar (and historical) amalgam of class-conflict and Irish-Catholic guilt, (or angst, or sense of humor, or whatever). Of late as I'm sure you've all noticed this general milieu has manifested itself in films like the departed, the fighter, gone baby gone, mystic river, the town, even some of the overblown institutional biases at play in the social network...

I wonder if this isn't a bit like the 'magazine cover' phenomenon, where you know a trend is pretty much over based upon the amount of coverage it receives. That's not to say the forces at work as described in this essay *didn't* exist in Cheever's time, or didn't inform much of his writing... but the present reality is a bit more complicated, and I think the distinction between past and present is worth delineating in more detail.

In my (Indian-American, Hindu) case there weren't actually that many Irish Catholics in the town I grew up in, though there were a lot of Jews, South Asians, Chinese, and Russians. And there wasn't much of a class divide either... like the vast, vast majority of Boston's suburbs (where much of the state lives), it was pretty comfortably upper-middle-class, which is befitting for one of the wealthiest states in the country. And the class divide which does exist is much more of the black / Hispanic vs. white / Asian variety (just like the rest of the US).

Cheever's Quincy? 1 in 5 residents now are Asian, and the proportion is even higher amongst the young.

Mickey Ward's Lowell? Besides Long Beach, CA the highest percentage of Cambodians of any city in the United States.

Boston - a city shaped by loss that takes "a self-hating pride in keeping track of lineage, lines, and the class divides that come from money"?

Well, maybe. Except that it's now a majority-minority city, has some of the highest housing prices in the country, and has managed to carve out a pretty nice economic niche for itself as a center for healthcare, technology, finance, education, tourism, etc (while currently experiencing some of the highest job growth in the nation).

And *that* is the real point. In 21st century American terms the state generally and the city specifically is really just an upstanding, relatively well-functioning member of the great East Coast megalopolis. It is not really possible to divorce any of the constituents of the BosNYWash corridor as they all serve distinct but critical functions.

(Sure the political class still skews heavily Irish-Catholic, but that's no different than the overall American political class skewing white male. These things take time.)

I think part of this mild fetishization is because of the fact that the country *is* changing so rapidly, and these changes are only going to increase in the coming decades. And part of what we may be seeing in film and in writing is a kind of obituary for a unique and interesting and painful and vital world which may be still ever-so-slightly hanging on, but whose days are ultimately numbered. My point in bringing up all the demographic points above is that all the kids growing up in *today's* world aren't going to share in Cheever's experiences, and are going to be writing their own stories.

So yeah. The Adams quote still stands though. The weather *is* pretty rough round this time of year.

But that doesn't mean the precise nature of identity conflicts remains forever frozen in place... Although, as has been noted elsewhere, sometimes we see what we want to see.

February 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchirag

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