9781400079681

Cheever

by
  • ISBN13:

    9781400079681

  • ISBN10:

    1400079683

  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2010-03-09
  • Publisher: Vintage
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Summary

John Cheever spent much of his career impersonating a perfect suburban gentleman, the better to become one of the foremost chroniclers of postwar America. Written with unprecedented access to essential sources-including Cheeverrs"s massive journal, only a fraction of which has ever been published-Baileyrs"sCheeveris a stunning example of the biographerrs"s art and a brilliant tribute to an essential author.

Author Biography

Blake Bailey is the editor of a two-volume edition of Cheever’s work, published in 2009 by The Library of America. His last book, A Tragic Honesty, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2005, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Slate, The New York Times, the New York Observer, and elsewhere. He lives in Virginia with his wife and daughter.

Excerpts

Chapter One

1637–1912

Many skeletons in family closet,” Leander Wapshot wrote in his diary. “Dark secrets, mostly carnal.” Even at the height of his success, Cheever never quite lost the fear that he’d “end up cold, alone, dishonored, forgotten by [his] children, an old man approaching death without a companion.” This, he sensed, was the fate of his “accursed” family—or at least of its men, who for three generations (at least) had seemed “bound to a drunken and tragic destiny.” There was his paternal grandfather, Aaron, rumored to have committed suicide in a bleak furnished room on Charles Street in Boston, a disgrace too awful to mention. One night, as a young man, Cheever had sat by a fire drinking whiskey with his father, Frederick, while a nor’easter raged outside. “We were swapping dirty stories,” he recalled; “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.” By then Cheever’s father was also poor and forsaken, living alone in an old family farmhouse on the South Shore, his only friend “a half-wit who lived up the road.” As for Cheever’s brother, he too would become drunken and poor, spending his last days in a subsidized retirement village in Scituate. No wonder Cheever sometimes felt an affinity to characters in Ibsen’sGhosts.

Despite such ignominy, Cheever took pride in his fine old family name, and when he wasn’t making light of the matter, he took pains to impress this on his children. “Remember you are aCheever,” he’d tell his younger son, whenever the boy showed signs of an unseemly fragility. Some allusion was implicit, perhaps, to the first Cheever in America, Ezekiel, headmaster of the Boston Latin School from 1671 to 1708 and author ofAccidence: A Short Introduction to the Latin Tongue, the standard text in American schools for a century or more. New England’s greatest schoolmaster, Ezekiel Cheever was even more renowned for his piety—“his untiring abjuration of the Devil,” as Cotton Mather put it in his eulogy. One aspect of Ezekiel’s piety was a stern distaste for periwigs, which he was known to yank from foppish heads and fling out windows. “The welfare of the commonwealth was always upon the conscience of Ezekiel Cheever,” said Judge Sewall, “and he abominated periwigs.” John Cheever was fond of pointing out that the abomination of periwigs “is in the nature of literature,” and it seems he was taught to emulate such virtue on his father’s knee. “Old Zeke C.,” Frederick wrote his son in 1943, “didn’t fuss about painted walls—open plumbing, or electric lights, had no ping pong etc. Turned out sturdy men and women, who knew their three R’s, and the fear of God.” John paid tribute to his eminent forebear by giving the name Ezekiel to one of his black Labradors (to this day a bronze of the dog’s head sits beside the Cheever fireplace), as well as to the protagonist ofFalconer. However, when an old friend mentioned seeing a plaque that commemorated Ezekiel’s house in Charlestown, Cheever replied, “Why tell me? I’m in no way even collaterally related to Ezekiel Cheever.”

Cheever named his first son after his great-grandfather Benjamin Hale Cheever, a “celebrated ship’s master” who sailed out of Newburyport to Canton and Calcutta for the lucrative China trade. Visitors to Cheever’s home in Ossining (particularly journalists) were often shown such maritime souvenirs as a set of Canton china and a framed Chinese fan—this while Cheever remarked in passing that his great-grandfather’s

Excerpted from Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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