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Novelists: Ovid in Ossining

29 minute read


(See Cover) My mind is bent to tell of bodies

changed into new forms. Ye gods, for

you yourselves have wrought the

changes, breathe on these my undertakings,

and bring down my song in

unbroken strains from the world’s very

beginning even unto the present time.

When the Roman poet Ovid wrote this supplication, “the present time” was roughly the time of Christ, when it was far easier to think of gods becoming men, beasts or monsters and to see the palpable world as the creature of unseen magical forces.

It is the peculiar and original genius of Novelist John Cheever to see his chosen subject—the American middle class entering the second decade of the Affluent Society—as figures in an Ovidian netherworld of demons. Commuterland, derided by cartoonists and deplored by sociologists as the preserve of the dull-spirited status seeker, is given by Cheever’s fables the dignity of the classical theater.

All this has escaped attention largely because the U.S. bourgeoisie has not been encouraged to think well of itself; indeed, it has been made accustomed to having its very virtues excoriated by the writing classes. More important, Cheever, like a demiurge disguised in street clothes, has hidden the demonic quality in his work under the conventional natural-shoulder style of the realistic story.

But at least popular neglect seems to be coming to an end. The Wapshot Scandal (TIME, Jan. 24), the second of his two novels, is selling at a brisk 2,000 copies a week, and has already topped the total sales of his first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle—although the Chronicle won the National Book Award in 1958. Movie rights to both have been bought for $75,000, but it seems likely that any movie will mirror merely the realism. Cheever has been long acknowledged as a master of the short story, of which he has written over a hundred. Some are merely slick or O. Henryish, but some, such as The Country Husband, The Death of Justina, Goodbye, My Brother, are as perfect as a short story can get, and have dimensions and echoes far beyond their relatively small compass.

A Local Habitation. Cheever’s art deals less with what is called character and idiosyncrasy than with archetypes: father, son, brother, husband, wife, lover, seen in situations so intensely felt as to claim universality. His people move like characters in classic drama; the actors wear their fixed masks and are not expected to change one mask for another in the course of the action. Over the formal masks are fitted others modeled in the naturalistic detail required by the conventions of realism. He is able to give to the abstract personalia of this theater a local habitation and a name—a habitation so truly seen in detail that it becomes more real than the town’s tax rolls. But the easygoing realism that accepts wife-swapping or any impiety of evaded obligation with a sociological shrug enrages him, for at bottom he is a New England moralist.

In real life, Cheever country is that strip of New York’s Westchester County that stretches from the Rockefeller estate in the Pocantico Hills along the wooded ridges of the Hudson’s east shore to the estuary of the Croton River. “Except that he does not commute, John leads a fairly orthodox commuter’s life,” says his friend E. J. Kahn Jr., one of The New Yorker’s most versatile reporters-at-large. According to hour and season, Cheever skates and swims, drinks, dines, visits and walks. His home in Ossining is satisfactorily old (1790) in its history and comfortably modern in its appointments. Cheever has all the mannerisms of the proud landowner. He fiddles with his rotary mower or chain saw, or flails away with limited competence with an ax. He engages in target practice with his son, Ben, 15, who owns a Daisy air rifle. He worries about his unpruned apple trees, or Dutch disease in the elm where the orioles nest.

Only the walking seems old-fashioned enough to be eccentric. Almost any Sunday, Cheever’s small figure may be seen tramping on the back roads around Croton Dam trailed by his two Labradors. His lined, nut-brown face, like that of so many Americans of the middle class, is that of an aging schoolboy, and his clothes that schoolboy uniform—tweed jacket, khaki drill pants and scuffed loafers.

Nymph & Satyr. To the casual eye, this dog walker, churchgoer and drinker of neighborly gins could be just another exurbanite worried about taxes and with strong views on zoning. But this is an obsessed man. Re-created in his novels and stories as Shady Hill, Bullet Park or Proxmire Manor, the suburban region is subjected to terrible metamorphosis. It is not Sing Sing Prison straddling the New York Central tracks by the Hudson shore that is the worst destination of the inhabitants, but a netherworld of damnation. In Metamorphoses, one neighbor has suffered a magical transformation into Actaeon, torn to pieces by his own hounds. In another story, his wife has become the enchantress who converted her daughter into a swimming pool. Even the A. & P. supermarket has been peopled by Cheever with a crowd “moaning and crying” as they are “reviled and taken away” to some enigmatic doom.

But in this transfigured world, there is delight as well as drama. On a quiet evening, “a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over mountains,” a common citizen might see a door across the way fly open, “and out comes Mrs. Babcock without any clothes on, pursued by her naked husband. Over the terrace they go and in at the kitchen door, as passionate and handsome a nymph and satyr as you will find on any wall in Venice.”

Cheever’s demonic quality is just beginning to emerge in his fiction from its buttoned-up Brooks Brothers carapace of realism. It has always been recognized in the private pre-Ovidian Cheever. “He is a magician,” says his friend Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, recalling the old women who lurked in the back parlors of the Negro section of Oklahoma City where he grew up. “He can take a watch chain or something and tell you the whole man.” Even Mary Cheever subscribes to the theory that her husband is not as other men. She recounts with some awe the story of how John, having completed a deeply painful story about his older brother Fred, became convinced that something was amiss with him in real life, rose from bed, drove through the night for three hours, and indeed found his brother in Connecticut helpless, alone and in dire medical straits.

Story Machine. Cheever is not a writer with a public personality to flourish and exploit, such as Hemingway or Norman Mailer. He has appeared on TV but once. He is rarely quoted in the newspapers. He has no scandalous opinions, and few opinions on any public subject. “In the presence of more than half a dozen people, he shrinks to the point of anonymity,” says a friend. The essential point about this complex man is made by his veteran editor at The New Yorker, William Maxwell. Quoting Gertrude Stein on the absoluteness of creation, Maxwell once said: “If ‘a rose is a rose is a rose,’ a rose is also a rose-making machine. Cheever is a storymaking machine.” To untangle the somewhat lush botanical metaphor, this means not merely that Cheever is a natural writer, who thinks best about events in the pattern of a fable, but that he himself has become his own best-realized character.

On the level of realism, the Cheever biography is just another success story —of a man reaping the modest rewards of recognition after a lifetime of devoted apprenticeship, journeyman years, and final mastery of a difficult trade. His spiritual biography is something else again, seen clearly only in terms of his own severe moral vision. He sees man not in modern terms as any individual but as the center of a system of obligations. Evasion or betrayal of these obligations may be punishable by metamorphosis into some monstrous, less-than-human form. Life, he writes, is “a perilous moral journey.” The freaks are those who have fallen from grace. Piety is rewarded by full humanity. His “piety,” of course, is in the Latin sense of pietas. He is pious in what Webster notes as a second meaning: “Loyal devotion to parents, family, race, etc.” And his pieties have been paid as son, husband, father and brother in stories which point the moral perils of each condition.

Chosen Roots. Being so caught up, so concerned with the orderly structure of society, it is not surprising that Cheever is much obsessed with roots—particularly his own. Los Angeles, on a brief visit, horrified him as the haven of all the U.S.’s displaced persons. In a final statement of pity and contempt for one character, he wrote: “He doesn’t come from anyplace really. I mean he doesn’t have anything nice to remember and so he borrows other people’s memories.”

It is typical of Cheever, both as realist and fabulist, that his own roots are partly invented. As Novelist Ellison observes: “Some people are your relatives but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you want to have as ancestors. You create yourself out of those values.”

Cheever’s vision of a New England social and moral aristocracy can probably not be substantiated by historical research. But it is a genuine vision which he successfully imposed upon the fictional past of St. Botolphs in creating The Wapshot Chronicle. Maybe St. Botolphs is not Quincy, Mass., where Cheever was born 51 years ago, but it is St. Somebody’s; its topography is drawn in Cheever’s mind. As such, it has become one of the great home towns of American fiction, like Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Mo., or Thomas Wolfe’s Altamont, in the state of Catawba. Like Altamont, St. Botolphs, Mass., may be found not in a state of the Union but in a state of mind. In its New England fashion, St. Botolphs is as much an in carnation of the demonology of history as Faulkner’s Jefferson, Miss., where the living deal with the ghosts of a subject race and the unappeased guilt of the fratricidal Civil War. In St. Botolphs it is easier than it is in actual 20th century Quincy to see life as a system of divinely imposed sanctions, and to be aware that a nation founded by theological zealots ignores at its mortal peril the severe moral system of its Puritan progenitors.

Myth Is Reality. For all its period paraphernalia and local coloration of bicycles, Fourth of July parades, clambakes and the richly detailed human flotsam and jetsam of a tidewater town, The Wapshot Chronicle is essentially a simple drama of destinies and moralities. Father Leander Wapshot’s wonderful journal (found in a trunk in the attic) recites like a Greek chorus the ancient obligations to race and region. He had taught his sons to “fell a tree, sow, cultivate and harvest, save money, countersink a nail, make cider with a hand press, clean a gun, sail a boat, etc.” But Leander was defeated in his patriarch’s role when his ferryboat was beached by women and turned into a gift shoppe. Leander’s two sons, Moses and Coverly, were expelled from the paradisial St. Botolphs, but in the case of Coverly (who doubles for Author Cheever), he never really left it or rejected it; his life’s task was “to create or build some kind of bridge between Leander’s world and that world where he sought his fortune.”

In the currently bestselling Wapshot Scandal, this world takes on baffling shapes—both more familiar and more strange. The scene is contemporary, but the solid modern pavement on which the characters walk is fractured by the inexplicable convulsions of the Space Age. Coverly, exiled to the noncommunity of a missile base, finds the apparently human personnel recognize each other’s existence no more than so many shades in a picture-window limbo of tract houses. His brother Moses, apparently better equipped than his dreamy brother to achieve success and enjoy its rewards, is defeated by the metamorphosis of his wife Melissa. Once the personification of love, she is transformed into a spirit of hostile chastity, and then into a voracious nymphomaniac, with Circe’s vile power of turning men into beasts. Intended as a design in “improbability,” Cheever’s Scandal is saying that the bizarre, inexplicable and mythical event is closer to the truth of 1964 than any realistic report.

Missionary on the Terrace. In both his novels and stories, Cheever has taken, more or less intact from the past, the ancient American moral severities and told a hundred parables to show that the emancipated middle class about which he now writes must pay homage to his tribal gods of purity and order. He has added (his ancestors might have thought it a subtraction) a lyrical delight in natural creation. The American wilderness is a sacred grove (not an inimical principle, as it was to Hemingway). Cheever’s world is one of delight for those who obey the gods. He has rejected Puritanism and its “habits of guilt, self-denial, taciturnity and penitence” as a mere limitation of life.

His faith belongs to the lyrical sonorities of the Book of Common Prayer or the incantatory praises to life of the Song of Solomon, which delights equally in woman and God. The grace-before-meat he says in his own house is likely to pay a tribute in doubtful Latin to the quality of the roast. Like a missionary in native costume (Ivy League in this case). Cheever has infiltrated the permissive, prosperous characters who people High Suburbia and is apt to show up on the cocktail terrace or dining room to disconcert his agnostic friends with a pulpit message and scandalize the merely pious by preaching it on a text from Ovid involving the couplings of goddesses and beasts.

De Maupassant’s fiction has been likened to that of “a peasant eating the good side of a wormy apple.” It is Cheever’s peculiar distinction to make his readers relish the Winesap flesh at the same time as he etymologizes on the worm: the importance of his fiction comes from the urgency of his moral insights. This puts his work in a different order of art from that of John O’Hara, a man of greater technical skill with a harder eye for the surface detail of current U.S. life, but one who is limited to a bleak and ironical view of existence in which nothing can compensate for economic and social defeat or deprivation of status. He has surmounted the limitation which renders jejune the social chronicles of John Marquand; Cheever can place his people as unerringly as Marquand in the social pecking order, but they are seen finally as naked spirits, not ladies and gentlemen at all.

Flawed Memories. The first Cheever in America was a Puritan schoolmaster who was eulogized by Cotton Mather for “his untiring abjuration of the devil” and who believed that “man is full of misery and all earthly beauty is lustful and corrupt.” Cheever’s mother and her parents emigrated from England, and, he says, “there was a certain air of shabby gentility about the whole thing. I hate to speak about the twilight of Athenian Boston and all that, but Cousin Randall would play two Beethoven sonatas after dinner, and everyone would sit around and belch.”

But some of the specifics of Cheever’s childhood let him down—a fact which may have something to do with the fact that today he wears Brooks Brothers shirts with their conspicuously missing pockets and would never consider having a mongrel dog. Unlike its St. Botolphs counterpart, the old family homestead in Quincy was not the biggest house in town, and his family was not the first family, and Quincy, of course, is a fairly routine middle-class “suburb” of Boston.

Cheever’s father, a model for Leander in the Wapshot books, was a shoe salesman—”a commercial traveler with a flower in his buttonhole,” says Cheever. He had a way with and an eye for the ladies, did not marry till late in life. He was 49 when John was born. Soon thereafter he began to have financial trouble.

His mother was tiny (under 5 ft.) but determined. She opened a gift shop to keep the family going, and after the 1929-30 crash his father lost his job and never worked again. Says Brother Fred: “Mother was a madam president, but she was never really the president of anything, always just the second level. But Mother used to throw it around: ‘I’m a businesswoman,’ she would say. John was very hurt by this.” Admits Cheever: “It was one of the reasons I left home so early. I’d be damned if I would be supported by a gift shop.”

Divided Loyalty. Cheever obviously was torn. Mother was worthy, but father was a character. Like Leander, he kept a journal, and his style is Leander’s style. “He was a great storyteller and a great guy with the dolls,” says Fred. “He didn’t drown, as John has Leander doing in the book. He died sitting in a wing chair with a cup of tea by his side. We think he may have had a girl there with him.”

The bony structure of many of Cheever’s mature stories came from such skeletons in the family closet. Cheever today is at peace with the past; the fabulist’s art has exorcised the family dead of the power to hurt the living, and Cheever now gives the impression that he could deal with a whole ossuary of colonial skeletons. “There is something very dark and mysterious about my family,” he says with great relish. “My parents would never tell me much about it. Once, when I was old enough to talk to my father as an adult, we were sitting together in front of a big fire, a nor’easter roaring outside. We were swapping dirty stories, the feeling was intimate, and I felt that this was the time when I could bring up the subject. ‘Father, would you tell me something about your father?’ ‘NO!’ And that was that.”

Cheever was an obviously gifted child. His mother took him to Ibsen plays in Boston, and he got nosebleeds out of sheer excitement. He was chubby then and no athlete, but he early discovered his talent for storytelling, and used to gather a crowd of his contemporaries around him on the family veranda on a summer afternoon while he held forth. In his early teens, he sneaked off to Boston, where he hung around that citadel of burlesque, the Old Howard, cadging an occasional pat from the strippers. Cheever’s academic career, in which he never took much interest, ended abruptly when he was expelled from Thayer Academy at the age of 17—chiefly for neglecting his studies and smoking.

End of Learning. Being expelled from school is easy stuff—thousands of Hoiden Caulfields do it every year; as the wounded adolescent swaggers out of the gates of the old academy, he swears that when he gets around to it, he will write up the whole story and restore justice to the shattered universe. Unlike most, young John Cheever actually did write it all down and sent the story to Malcolm Cowley at the New Republic, who promptly printed it. The really astonishing thing about Expelled was not that it was written and actually published, but that there was no self-pity in it.

Wrote the boy: “The orchards are stinking ripe. The tea-colored brooks run beneath the rocks. There is sediment on the stone and no wind in the willows. Everyone is preparing to go back to school. I have no school to go back to . . . If I had left because I had to go to work or because I was sick it would not have been so bad. Leaving because you are angry and frustrated is different. It is not a good thing to do. It is bad for everyone.” The frustrations seem to have been not much more than the military traditions of the school (named for Sylvanus Thayer, the “father” of West Point), and the fact that the English teachers were running on about Wordsworth and Galsworthy while Cheever was precociously reading Proust and Joyce.

But the expulsion left Cheever alone for a long time. He and his brother Fred, older by seven years, took off for Boston in spite of their mother’s bewildered tears. There and then, John Cheever, with no prospects in this world, was like to become a spiritual vagrant—one of that vocal tribe of U.S. intelligentsia whose identifying marks are alienation and a search for identity. Cheever never had any doubt as to his identity. As an economic unit, he was a zero—apparently just a lost boy hanging around Boston. But his brother Fred, who was as convinced as John himself that writing was John’s business in life, subsidized him with the midget sums necessary to keep him alive.

They fell in with a bohemian group of intellectuals led by Hazel Hawthorne, whom Fred describes as “one of the original beats,” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, a somewhat leftish drama professor at Columbia and Harvard. Dana subsidized Cheever modestly, and Hazel took him to Provincetown to visit the famed Playhouse. He was already keeping the meticulous diary in which he accumulated the incidents, sights, smells and thoughts that are the raw material for his books. Cheever even then seemed to have an infinite capacity for wonder, was constantly fascinated with how close reality came to the fantastic. He began to place an occasional story—earning him $25 in Story or little more than prestige in Hound & Horn. With such encouragement and support, he moved into New York’s Greenwich Village, met Dos Passes, E. E. Cummings, James Agee, Hart Crane, Ben Shahn, Gaston Lachaise.

Bleak Time. Cheever sold his first story to The New Yorker when he was 22, and the magazine soon became a regular Cheever customer. New Yorker rates were not what they are today, and his survival as a writer during the bleak years is a mystery to his friends and even to him. But he was determined from the start not to be diverted from fulltime writing by the mere need to eat. For a while he lived on stale bread and buttermilk in a $3 room on Hudson Street. Yaddo, the writers’ colony run by Mrs. Elizabeth Ames at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., became a home away from home. He stayed there off and on for several years, even through one winter when other writers had fled their literary monastery, working for his board on the woodlot, running supplies, and as general factotum.

Details of this bleak time are hard to come by from Cheever. The reason for this lies in a paradox of the fabulist’s imagination. Cheever’s stories enrich his life; he possesses it in a way denied to people who merely live it. Memory is important, but only memory transformed by the imagination; and to Cheever, those who have not dealt with their past and the painful realities of their origins are only half men.

Cheever’s kind of imagination carries practical penalties. If it has not been engaged in any event, it ceases to exist for him. Untouched by the magic of fable, whole areas of experience have disappeared. This includes an early walking tour of Europe with his brother Fred. Today Cheever unaffectedly cannot remember the countries he was in. “I suppose I was in France or Germany or some place,” he says, brushing off the subject forever.

The same blank extends to the whole decade of the ’30s. Cheever survived those politically obsessed times but did not live through them. While all his friends gathered themselves into ideological camps. Cheever remained simply a writer whose commitments were to his private moral vision; he was deaf to the whole public hullabaloo about ideologies, from the New Deal to literary Communism. Politics still bores him, except on the level where it might involve the school library or the new road that disturbs the kingfishers nesting in the reeds of the Croton estuary.

He wrote all the time, but in those days there was nothing much to distinguish his work from 20 other short-story writers. The tone of the time was bleak, flat, ironical. He achieved this style, but it was not really his. Nor did the times suit his lyrical temperament, which today can express itself in dithyrambic celebrations. This salute to the richness of life with all its surface shimmer is part of his faith as a writer and the central ritual of his faith as a man. In one of the few statements he is prepared to make about his religion, which is Episcopal, he says little more than “I do not think it is too much to get down on my knees once a week to thank God for the coming wonder and glory of life.”

The Family. His true theme is the family and the intricate web of emotional and moral tensions which compose it, and he could not thus become a writer until he had himself become involved in the complex spiritual pieties of a family.

The family was not his own; it belonged to Mary Winternitz. As Cheever tells it, he picked up Mary in the street, simply because she was beautiful and he fell in love with her. Pressed for details, he says that it was at 545 Fifth Avenue. Actually, their meeting was rich in social comedy of the ironic kind that Cheever simply doesn’t deal with or acknowledge when it is there. As Mary tells it, she was working as a sort of trainee-typist in the office of Cheever’s literary agent, Maxim Lieber. It is one of the ironies of the time that Cheever, least political of men, should then have been represented by one of the busiest left-wingers of them all, with a stable of New Masses writers.

Mary was clever. The English would call her “brainy” in a way that John has never been, and she came out of Sarah Lawrence College in 1939 full of all the vague, intense, liberal left-wingery of that period. “I thought all people who indulged in commerce were wicked,” she recalls.

Separate Room. On the surface, the story of John and Mary Cheever is a period piece of the ’30s. John called in a taxi at Mary’s rooming house and swept her off to his Village apartment, where they set up housekeeping. Actually, with vestigial New England punctilio, Mary was installed in a separate room. In any case, events shifted the story into a pattern closer to John’s anachronistic traditions. With all the pomp of an outraged Victorian parent, Mary’s father descended upon the pair and demanded to know John’s intentions. “Marriage, of course,” said John.

Father was indeed a formidable man, the redoubtable Dr. Milton C. Winternitz, dean of the Yale Medical School, spectacularly dynamic and articulate, and full of the authoritarian traditions of his profession. In short, a character to delight Cheever’s heart. To Mary’s faint astonishment, John immediately became a member of the family from which she herself had fled.

The family, indeed, could not have been better designed to excite the interest of a chronicler of domestic drama. Mary’s mother was Dr. Helen Watson, a daughter of that Thomas A. Watson who was on the other end of Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone conversation (“Mr. Watson, come here”). Dr. Winternitz himself was in a state of passionately transferred loyalties. Born a Jew, he had become what Freud, in his study on the technique of wit, called ante-Semitic. “When my mother died, he thought he would improve his social position by marrying a Whitney, but I don’t think he did,” Mary says drily, leaving no doubt as to her opinion of the high life at New Haven, Conn., which the Winternitz-Whitney family maintained.

Spacious Way. John’s filial pleasure in being provided with a new, ready-made family was unaffected, as was his delight in the spectacle of his father-in-law and stepmother-in-law having dramatic lovers’ quarrels in their 70s. The new family was huge. There were nine children in all, and the sense of size was enhanced by their spacious way of life. They lived in a huge baronial mansion on New Haven’s best street, had an estate in the New Hampshire hills consisting of a great central house and several flanking cottages to take care of the subfamilies involved. Cheever spent long weeks at both places, found a crackling and fond relation with old Dr. Winternitz, a man of astounding energy. In some curious way, immersion in the Winternitz family released Cheever from a kind of writer’s block that he had had about his own strained childhood, and led him eventually back to the Wapshots of St. Botolphs. True to the paradox of his art, he found a hope in the past and a memory in the future.

The Monogamist. The Cheever marriage is a subject of more than ordinary interest to their friends, seeing that the bulk of Cheever’s work concerns somehow a vexation or a crisis in relations between husband and wife. The heart of the matter is probably best deduced from the fact that John Cheever, almost alone in the field of modern fiction, is one who celebrates the glories and delights of monogamy.

It is the destructive principle in woman that has been the subject of his most bitter domestic story theorems. The most famous of these is The Well-Educated American Woman. The fable speaks for all men who think their wives are too busy with public events to cook, look after their children and love their husbands. When Cheever gave reign to his worst fears (a child dies of fever because mother was at a meeting), Mary didn’t take this too much to heart: “I did go to one or two meetings of the League of Women Voters, but I do think he should not have killed the little boy.” She has a husband that will spend all the eloquence at his command celebrating woman as Venus or Venus-matrix but never as Minerva, a woman likely to put modern man through more troubles than the Iliad of misery Hector suffered under her command.

The Cheevers have three children. Susan, 20, is a junior at Pembroke; Ben, 15, is at the Scarborough School; and Frederico, 7, goes to a local elementary school. The family moved to Scarborough, a heavily wooded community just south of Ossining, in 1950, renting what Cheever describes as a “remodeled tool shed” on the huge estate of Frank A. Vanderlip Sr., onetime president of the National City Bank. After M-G-M bought The Housebreaker of Shady Hill for around $40,000 in 1956 (it was never made into a movie), the Cheevers took off for a year in Italy, returned to buy a house in Ossining, a little way up the Hudson River from Scarborough. Mornings are devoted to writing, but Cheever happily spends afternoons doing an exurban homeowner’s chores and errands for his busy wife, who teaches English literature three days a week at nearby Briardiff College. Every Sunday he attends 8 a.m. Communion at All Saints Episcopal Church. He delights in dancing, enjoys his liquor with zest. His courtesy is immaculate, but in speech he is elliptical to the point of exasperation, with a tendency to finish only one in four of his sentences.

Moral Delight. Cheever is not a great expositor of character. Fiction as character study belongs to the Victorian novel, and this, he believes, is as obsolete as the world it moved in—the tight, homogeneous community, before mass communications smoothed out the world and blurred individuality. This tends to make his novels seem disjointed, but he defends it on the ground that disjunction is the nature of modern society.

Passions—abstracted from idiosyncrasy—and places are his concern. Thus the stage settings of his morality plays are important. In his stories, the places people live in are as eloquent of their lives as the words that issue out of their mouths.

Morality is his standard, but delight is his theme. And uniquely among latter-day writers, he argues that delight can come through morality, and perhaps only through it. No illicit pleasures commend themselves to Cheever. Says he, quoting Leander’s last testament to his sons: “Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord.” Cheever does not interpret this as restrictive.

Technically, his attempt is to “determine whether you can describe the world in its own terms, by what people talk about or dream about.”

Glad Tidings. “Writing,” he says, “must extend itself into a whole new sense of factuality. When you find a woman, for instance, obsessed with her plaid-stamp book, I think you perhaps have something there that would be in the nature of an altogether new truth. It is quite possible that a woman who goes to sleep and dreams of getting a new plaid-stamp book is not quite as undignified as she appears to be. People actually sidestep the pain of death and despair by the thought of purchasing things. I am a traditionalist. I live in an old house, come from an old family, but the time for gravity or even making fun of people who go to bed and dream of having 17 plaid-stamp books full is over. One has to accept these people as adult and useful, and people have had worse dreams.”

Ultimately, Cheever tries to “celebrate a world that lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream.” Says he: “One has an impulse to bring glad tidings to someone. My sense of literature is a sense of giving, not a diminishment. I know almost no pleasure greater than having a piece of fiction draw together disparate incidents so that they relate to one another and confirm that feeling that life itself is a creative process, that one thing is put purposefully upon another, that what is lost in one encounter is replenished in the next, and that we possess some power to make sense of what takes place.”

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