Robert Gottlieb, editor The Journals of John Cheever.
Knopf, 399 pages, $25
What an unenviable posthumous career John Cheever has had! In 1984, two years after his death, his daughter, Susan, rushed into print with a tell-all memoir; in 1988 came a dull biography by Scott Donaldson and a collection of letters that made Cheever seem almost doltish. The correspondence was edited (and outfitted with an astonishingly self-indulgent running commentary) by the author’s son Benjamin; for the journals, the family has wisely called in a pro, Robert Gottlieb. The book, which covers the years 1948 to 1982 and contains only the twentieth part of Cheever’s journals, proves to be as vibrant, poignant, and authentic as much of his fiction and as beautifully written, at its best, as anything he ever published.
It is also, alas, unrelievedly depressing. Cheever tirelessly proclaims his anxiety and gloom; his intermittent expressions of joy seem desperate. The sense of doom is awe- some—he predicts that “I will end up cold, alone, dishonored, forgotten by my children” (ha!)—and awesome too is the self- hatred: “Oh, to be so much a better man than I happen to be.” The main reason for this self-hatred was his homosexuality, which he saw as profane and unmanly, couldn’t reconcile with his role as paterfamilias and Westchester country squire, and, as late as 1966, wouldn’t even discuss with his shrink. He agonizes endlessly about the threat his sexual urges represent to his family life (“Every comely man, every bank clerk and delivery boy, was aimed at my life like a loaded pistol”), and agonizes too about the furtive affairs and heavy drinking to which those urges drove him.
When he isn’t despising himself for his betrayal of marital vows, Cheever is scorning his own work. He notes in 1953 that his stories “didn’t seem too good”: “I … found pitiful evidences of poorly informed snobbism, an exaggerated wish to impress my knowledge of Army prose upon the reader, and associated with this a tendency to use verbatim conversation rather than the remarks that should be made by my characters.” Reading Mailer, he despairs of his own “confined talents” and decides he’s not “in the big league”; perusing reviews of Bellow, he laments that in “this big, wild, rowdy country, full of whores and prizefighters,” he’s “stuck with an old river in the twilight and the deterioration of the middle-aged businessman.” In 1975 he reads a short-story anthology and decides its editors were right to exclude him: “The tone of the stories chosen—most of them excellent—is much more substantial and correct than my flighty, eccentric, and sometimes bitter work, with its social disenchantments, somersaults, and sudden rains.”
The flip side of Cheever’s self-reproach was a formidable self-absorption—a “contemptible narcissism,” in his words. Though he declares his love for family and friends, they function here largely as occasions of guilt; he rarely frets about their troubles except insofar as they provide him with an opportunity to thrash himself. Nor, for all his preoccupation with the literary competition, does he have much of value to say about literature—or about art, culture, and society generally. There are frequent, and fervent, references to religion; one is surprised by Cheever’s enraptured profession of faith, by the degree to which he (an Episcopalian who attended church irregularly) saw himself as a sinner tested by temptation. In a 1956 entry he tells of his prayer “to understand the transports and infirmities of my flesh; not to be spared the pain of sickness and hurt but to understand it; and to be spared the pain of what I think of as moral uncleanness.” Here and throughout these annals of quiet desperation, Cheever bares depths of emotion and experience that, had he felt freer to explore them in his fiction, could have helped him to become the more substantial, less confined artist he longed to be.
NEW CRITERION, November 1991