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A Life

Written by Blake BaileyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Blake Bailey

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On Sale: March 10, 2009
Pages: 736 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27137-2
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

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 Cheever’s massive journal, only a fraction of which has ever been published—Bailey’s Cheever is a stunning example of the biographer’s art and a brilliant tribute to an essential author.

Excerpt

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’s Ghosts.

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 a Cheever,” 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 of Accidence: 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 of Falconer. 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 boots were on display in the Peabody Essex Museum, filled with authentic tea from the Boston Tea Party. In fact, it is Lot Cheever of Danvers (no known relation) whose tea-filled boots ended up at the museum; as for Benjamin, he was all of three years old when that particular bit of tea was plundered aboard the Dartmouth on December 16, 1773. Also, there’s some question whether Benjamin Hale (Sr.) was actually a ship’s captain: though he appears in the Newbury Vital Records as “Master” Cheever, there’s no mention of him in any of the maritime records; a “Mr. Benjamin Cheever” is mentioned, however, as the teacher of one Henry Pettingell (born 1793) at the Newbury North School, and “Master” might as well have meant schoolmaster. Unless there were two Benjamin Cheevers in the greater Newbury area at the time (both roughly the same age), this would appear to be John’s great-grandfather.

The ill-fated Aaron was the youngest of Benjamin’s twelve children, and it was actually he who had (“presumably”) brought back that ivory-laced fan from the Orient: “It has lain, broken, in the sewing box for as long as I can remember,” Cheever wrote in 1966, when he finally had the thing repaired and mounted under glass.


My reaction to the framed fan is violently contradictory. Ah yes, I say, my grandfather got it in China, this authenticating my glamorous New England background. My impulse, at the same time, is to smash and destroy the memento. The power a scrap of paper and a little ivory have over my heart. It is the familiar clash between my passionate wish to be honest and my passionate wish to possess a traditional past. I can, it seems, have both but not without a galling sense of conflict.


To be sure, it’s possible that Aaron had sailed to China and retrieved that fan—as his son Frederick pointed out, most young men of the era went out on at least one voyage “to make them grow”—but his future did not lie with the China trade, which was effectively killed by Jefferson’s Embargo Act and the War of 1812. By the time Aaron reached manhood, in the mid-nineteenth century, the New England economy was dominated by textile industries, and Aaron had moved his family to Lynn, Massachusetts, where he worked as a shoemaker. But he was not meant to prosper even in so humble a station, and may well have been among the twenty thousand shoe workers who lost their jobs in the Great Strike of 1860. In any event, the family returned to Newburyport a few years later and eventually sailed to Boston aboard the Harold Currier: “This, according to my father,” said Cheever, “was the last sailing ship to be made in the Newburyport yards and was towed to Boston to be outfitted. I don’t suppose that they had the money to get to Boston by any other means.”

Frederick Lincoln Cheever was born on January 16, 1865, the younger (by eleven years) of Aaron and Sarah’s two sons. One of Frederick’s last memories of his father was “playing dominoes with old gent” during the Great Boston Fire of 1872; the two watched a mob of looters, the merchants fleeing their stores. The financial panic of 1873 followed, in the midst of which Aaron—driven by poverty and whatever other devils—apparently decided his family was better off without him. (“Mother, saintly old woman,” writes Leander Wapshot. “God bless her! Never one to admit unhappiness or pain . . . Asked me to sit down. ‘Your father has abandoned us,’ she said. ‘He left me a note. I burned it in the fire.’ ”) After Aaron’s departure, his wife seems to have run a boarding house to support her children, or so his grandson suspected (“If this were so I think I wouldn’t have been told”), though Aaron’s fate was unknown except by innuendo. As it happens, the death certificate indicates that Aaron Waters Cheever died in 1882 of “alcohol & opium—del[irium] tremens”; his last address was 111 Chambers (rather than Charles) Street, part of a shabby immigrant quarter that was razed long ago by urban renewal.

According to family legend, Sarah Cheever was notified by police of her husband’s death and arranged for his burial in stoic solitude, without a word to her son Frederick until after she’d served him supper that night. Among the few possessions she found in his squalid lodgings was a copy of Shakespeare’s plays, which came to the attention of a young John Cheever some fifty years later, at a time when he himself was all but starving to death in a Greenwich Village rooming house. Noting that “most of the speeches on human ingratitude were underscored,” Cheever wrote an early story titled “Homage to Shakespeare” that speculates on the cause of his grandfather’s downfall: “[Shakespeare’s] plays seemed to light and distinguish his character and his past. What might have been defined as failure and profligacy towered like something kingly and tragic.” As a tribute to kindred nobility, the narrator’s grandfather (so described in the story) chooses “Coriolanus” for his older son William’s middle name, rather as Aaron had named his older son—John Cheever’s uncle—William Hamlet Cheever.





When asked how he came to keep a journal, Cheever explained it as a typical occupation of a “seafaring family”: “They always begin, as most journals do, with the weather, prevailing winds, ruffles of the sails. They also include affairs, temptations, condemnations, libel, and occasionally, obscenities.” These last attributes were certainly characteristic of Cheever’s own journal, though one can only imagine what other men in his family were apt to write; the few pages his father left behind were more in the nature of memoir notes, benign enough, some of them quoted almost verbatim in The Wapshot Chronicle as the laconic prose of Leander Wapshot: “Sturgeon in river then. About three feet long. All covered with knobs. Leap straight up in air and fall back in water.”* When Cheever first encountered these notes, he found them “antic, ungrammatical and . . . vulgar,” though later he came to admire the style as typical of a certain nautical New England mentality that “makes as little as possible of any event.”

During his hardscrabble youth, Frederick was often boarded out at a bake house owned by his uncle Thomas Butler in Newburyport, where he slept in the attic with a tame raven and relished the view from his window: “Grand sunsets after the daily thunder showers that came down the river from the White Mountains,” he recalled, with a lyric economy his son was right to admire. Life at the bake house was rarely dull, as Uncle Thomas was a good friend of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and the house served as a station for the Underground Railroad. John Cheever often told of how pro-slavery copperheads had once dragged his great-uncle “at the tail of a cart” through the streets of Newburyport—though Cheever always saw fit to call this relative “Ebenezer” (a name he liked for its Yankee savor), and sometimes it was Ebenezer’s friend Villard who was dragged, or stoned as the case may be. At any rate, the story usually ended with an undaunted “Ebenezer” refusing a government contract to make pilot biscuits for Union sailors—and indeed, as Frederick wrote in his notes, “[Uncle Thomas] said [biscuits] not good enough for sailors of US to eat. Others did it made big coin.” John vastly improved that part of the story, too: “A competitor named Pierce,” he related in a letter, “then accepted the [biscuit] contract and founded a dynasty” that became Nabisco, no less—which, for the record, was founded by Adolphus Green (not Pierce) in 1898.

“Bill always good to me,” Frederick wrote of his much older brother, who apparently filled the paternal vacuum, if only for a while. Bill “called [him] down” when Frederick stepped out of line, and paid a friend—Johnny O’Toole at the Massachusetts Hotel (“Very tough joint”)—to give Frederick haircuts as needed. John Cheever always used his uncle’s more evocative middle name, Hamlet, when referring to this rather romantic figure: “An amateur boxer, darling of the sporting houses, captain of the volunteer fire department ball-team”— a man’s man, in short, who, like his namesake in The Wapshot Chronicle, went west for the Gold Rush. “[There] isn’t a king or a merchant prince in the whole world that I envy,” Hamlet writes his brother Leander in the novel, “for I always knew I was born to be a child of destiny and that I was never meant . . . to wring my living from detestable, low, degrading, mean and ordinary kinds of business.” By the time the real-life Hamlet arrived in California, however, the excitement of 1849 had faded considerably, and he later settled in Omaha, where he died “forgotten and disgraced”—or rather he died “at sea” and “was given to the ocean off Panama,” depending on which of his nephew’s stories one chooses to believe. Cheever invariably described his uncle as a “black-mouthed old wreck” or “monkey,” since their occasional meetings were not happy. “Uncle Bill, Halifax 1919,” John’s older brother noted beside a photograph of a prosaic-looking old man rowing his nephews around in a boat. “Bill Cheever came from Omaha for a visit—the only time I ever saw him. He wasn’t much fun.” A later meeting with John would prove even less fun.

With Hamlet seeking his fortune a continent away, it was necessary for young Frederick to help support the household. From the age of ten or so, he “never missed a day” selling newspapers before and after classes at the Phillips School, where he graduated at the head of his class on June 27, 1879, and was presented with a bouquet of flowers by the mayor of Boston. In later years he’d wistfully recall how the flowers wilted before he could take them home to his mother, and on that note his formal education ended: “Wanted to go to Boston Latin,” he wrote. “Had to work.” For so bookish a man (he spent much of his lonely dotage reading Shakespeare to his cat), the matter rankled, and he’d insist on sending his sons to good private schools while boasting—à la Leander (“Report card attached”)—of his own high marks as a boy.

For the next fifty years, Frederick Cheever worked in the shoe business, always bearing in mind the fate of his poor father, whose life was “made unbearable by lack of coin”: “The desire for money most lasting and universal passion,” he wrote for his own edification and perhaps that of his sons. “Desire ends only with life itself. Fame, love, all long forgotten.” While still in his teens, he worked at a factory in Lynn for six dollars a week (five of which went to room and board) in order to learn the business; a photograph from around this time shows a dapper youth with a trim little mustache, his features composed with a look of high purpose, though its subject had glossed, “Look like a poet. Attic hungry—Etc.” John Cheever would one day find among his father’s effects a copy of The Magician’s Own Handbook—a poignant artifact that brought to mind “a lonely young man reading Plutarch in a cold room and perfecting his magic tricks to make himself socially desirable and perhaps lovable.” In the meantime, once he turned twenty-one, Frederick began to spend almost half the year on the road selling shoes (“gosh writer has sat in a 1001 RR stations . . . ‘get the business’ or ‘get out’”), often bunking with strangers and hiding his valuables in his stockings, which he then wore to bed.


*The parallel passage in Frederick’s notes reads as follows: “On the way [from Newburyport to Amesbury via horsecar] you saw sturgeons leap out of river—they were 3–4 feet long—all covered with knobs.” One might add that, as Cheever suggests, his father was quite diligent about noting the weather—always, for instance, in the top right corner of the letters he wrote his son. Thus, from October 10, 1943: “Cold this am 45 [degrees] Big wind from East No. East. Heavy overcoat—woodfire and oil kitchen.”


From the Hardcover edition.
Blake Bailey|Author Q&A

About Blake Bailey

Blake Bailey - Cheever

Photo © Mary Brinkmeyer

Blake Bailey is the author of Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson. His other books include A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Cheever: A Life, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Francis Parkman Prize, and finalist for the Pulitzer and James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He edited a two-volume edition of Cheever’s work for The Library of America, and in 2010 received an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Virginia with his wife and daughter.

Author Q&A

Q: Your biography of Richard Yates, A Tragic Honesty, not only led to a resurgence of interest in Yates, but also got glowing reviews and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. What initially drew you to literary biographies?
A:
What indeed? It was a total fluke. I’d published a book about the sixties, and then for several years I tried writing fiction, until I finally wrote a novel that was good enough to interest a decent agent, but not good enough to sell. She suggested I go back to nonfiction: “Write a book-proposal about a subject that interests you.” At the time, what interested me was Richard Yates—a writer of canonical importance (I thought) who’d never gotten the attention he deserved, and never mind the lurid life he’d apparently led. As it happened, my proposal coincided with a new Vintage reprint of Yates’s first and most famous novel, Revolutionary Road, as well as the imminent publication of his collected stories. The rest is (very minor) history.

Q: How did you come to write a biography of Cheever?
A: That, too, was something of a fluke. Cheever is one of my two or three favorite writers, and certainly I’d considered him as a subject, but at the time I had this fixed idea that I had to be the first biographer of a given writer—as with Yates—and Scott Donaldson had already published a Cheever biography in 1988. So I was still dithering around for a subject, when Janet Maslin wrote a very nice review of my Yates book for the daily New York Times. Now, it so happens that Maslin is Cheever’s daughter-in-law, and meanwhile she’d pressed A Tragic Honesty on her husband Ben, who wrote me a charming e-mail inviting me to appear on his book-chat show in Westchester. This I did, and we really hit it off. So afterward I was having dinner with Ben and Janet, and Ben made it clear, in so many words, that he’d welcome a new biography of his father. To make a long story short, I offered myself for the job and he graciously accepted.

Q: What access were you given to Cheever’s life that other researchers were not?
A:
Basically, I was given access to everything—every old letter, photograph, clipping, scribbled memo, and derelict address-book the family could find. You name it. The main thing, though, was Cheever’s journal: the original is twenty-eight volumes or about four million words, only a fraction of which has ever been published. Scott Donaldson didn’t get to use anything in the journal but a tiny, expurgated scrap on deposit at Brandeis—maybe 30 pages out of more than 4,000 in the original. At the time, the family hadn’t decided whether to publish the journal in any form, and meanwhile they’d had a falling-out with Donaldson: Not only was he denied access to the journal, but also he wasn’t allowed to quote from Cheever’s letters and other writings (except within the very limited parameters of “fair use”—ten words or ten percent of a given document, whichever was less). For my part, I was absolutely free to quote as much as I pleased, and frankly I think that’s essential in Cheever’s case.
K N O P F Q & A
Q: In your endnotes, you remark that although Cheever was a man who hated to dwell on the past, he left a remarkable paper trail. You used his journals, as well as numerous interviews, to compile the facts presented in CHEEVER. Describe the process of your research.
A:
Again, the family gave me a running start by loaning me a copy of the journal as well as anything else they could find; also, they suggested a number of people I should contact for interviews. From there, the momentum tends to build: you ask certain interviewees, for example, whether they know how to get in touch with X or Y, or just to suggest some names off the top of their heads, and on it goes. Also you make nice little discoveries in the course of regular library research. In the journal I kept finding references to Reuel Denney—the poet and scholar whose only claim to fame is having cowritten The Lonely Crowd (1950) with David Riesman and Nathan Glazer—who’d hitherto been regarded as a minor figure in Cheever’s life. So I found a cache of Denney’s papers at Dartmouth, and sure enough there were some thirty wonderful letters from a very young and effusive Cheever, just lying there, totally undiscovered. And they completely opened up a crucial period of his life—his apprenticeship in the thirties—that had been vaguely known, at best. Another happy accident was discovering the whereabouts of Cheever’s first real girlfriend, Dodie Merwin, who is now in her nineties. An article about me had appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, and Dodie’s family in Cambridge dropped me a note suggesting I call her. Not only did she vividly remember Cheever—that is, the person he was then, which was quite different from the person(s) he became—but she was just a funny, insightful, very lovable person in general.

Q: Cheever once wrote, “I have no biography. I came from nowhere and I don’t know where I’m going.” As a biographer, how do you handle this? Do you think that your subject would have resented being chronicled?
A:
Yes and no. Cheever had many different personae, and one of these was a rather austere Yankee who eschewed sentimentality and softness of any kind—this is the Cheever who threw away almost every letter he ever received. This is also the Cheever who claimed to find all publicity vulgar, and had a positive horror (for good reason) of having his privacy invaded. But there was another Cheever who adored fame and quite consciously cultivated a public image—that of a tweedy, bowtie-wearing, Labrador-breeding Westchester squire. This was the Cheever who, say, used to rent horses for photo shoots, so that readers would get the impression he was forever riding to hounds. Not only would that Cheever positively insist that his life be chronicled—and chronicled well, by God—but he might even laugh at some of the more sordid bits about bisexuality and so on. He finally began to see the humor in all that toward the end.

Q: Cheever’s alcoholism is now well known, and it was nearly his undoing. In what respect do you think it shaped him as a man or a writer?
A:
Cheever had a gift that was separate from his alcoholism, but I doubt he would have been quite so driven to cultivate that gift were it not for the demons that drove him to drink. It’s not easy being a writer in America, much less a fiction writer. You’re not appreciated much. You’re not elected president like Václav Havel or appointed culture minister like André Malraux—in fact, people don’t know who the hell you are, and aren’t impressed when you tell them. In Cheever’s case this was complicated by the fact that he lived in the Westchester suburbs for most of his adult life, and rather coveted the good opinion of his neighbors. This meant he had to be the sort of man’s man who played touch football and scrub hockey all the time, who joined the volunteer fire department and so forth. Given Cheever’s secret life—at a time when any sort of sexual deviation was widely reviled—this was a strain, to say the least, and drove him all the more to drink. And just think of all those cocktail parties he had to attend, telling dentists and lawyers and advertising men that he was, well, a writer. According to Cheever, his neighbors would invariably reply that they themselves would have written any number of novels by now, if only they didn’t have to work.

Q: Cheever’s The Enormous Radio was published around the same time as J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, and you write that a comparison of the books was the basis of one of the most wounding reviews of Cheever’s career. What ultimately came of the rivalry between these two men?
A:
Aside from his talent, Cheever’s way of clambering up the greasy pole was by dint of his incomparable charm, and he tried this vis-à-vis Salinger. A year after The Enormous Radio and Nine Stories were published in 1953, Cheever and the writer Jean Stafford thought it would be a good idea to publish a collaborative volume featuring a few of their stories and a few of Salinger’s—that way, critics would see how silly it was to pit one volume against the other, one writer against the other, as had happened to some extent with Cheever and Salinger. Also, of course, Cheever was being charming: One of his favorite maxims was, “Literature is not a competitive sport” (this despite his being one of the most competitive writers who ever lived), and so this was a chance for Cheever to prove that he regarded Salinger more as a friendly colleague than a rival. But Salinger wasn’t having any. He declined—politely—to participate in the collaborative volume (published as Stories in 1956), and Cheever had to recruit William Maxwell and Daniel Fuchs instead. I guess the simplest way to sum up the rivalry was that Salinger galled Cheever: At least until he stopped publishing in the sixties, Salinger was a household name while Cheever was still sweating away in the salt mines—and never mind that Cheever regarded himself (quite rightly, I think) as the better writer.

Q: Around the time of Cheever’s death, you note that he was ranked third (behind Bellow and Updike) in a Philadelphia Inquirer survey of living American writers whose work would be relevant for generations—incidentally, well ahead of Salinger. Do you think he would be on such a list today?
A:
Oh no, definitely not. As I point out in my book, Cheever’s reputation has declined in recent years—or rather, he’s been forgotten somewhat by the general reader. And this is odd, since The Stories of John Cheever (1978) was perhaps the most successful collection of literary short stories ever published by an American writer. The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for six months and won almost every prize from the Pulitzer down. Which, come to think of it, might help to explain why critics—academic critics anyway—don’t bother with Cheever much anymore: maybe they figure, you know, any writer who sells that many books can’t be any good. Cheever was an astonishingly versatile writer, always evolving, and that makes it hard to pigeonhole him in some neat theoretical way. Some of Cheever’s work reads a bit like Chekhov, some like Fielding, some like Barth or Barthelme (both of whom he preceded, by the way, as a writer of surrealist fiction)—but finally he’s just Cheever. At any rate academics tend to throw up their hands, and literary reputations are perpetuated, after all, in the classroom.

But Cheever’s due for a revival. For one thing, other writers adore him, especially those of the (relatively) younger generation—Rick Moody and Dave Eggers wrote ecstatic forewords to recent reprints of the Wapshot novels—though Cheever is much too entertaining to be considered simply a “writer’s writer” (that terrible compliment). I hope my book does a little something to restore him to the bestseller list, not to mention the so-called canon; the forthcoming Library of America volumes should also help.

Q: Known initially as a short story writer, it seemed Cheever spent much of his life trying to write a successful novel. He was quoted saying that a short story has “the life expectancy of a mayfly.” Since he was his harshest critic, how did this influence his own view of his work?
A:
I think Cheever was primarily a short story writer because he was a genuinely inspired writer—most of his best stories (though not all, by any means) were written quickly, in bursts of inspiration, after which he’d exhausted the subject and would move on to something else. Such a method is ill suited to the longer form, and so Cheever lingered for more than twenty-five years over his first novel, which finally became The Wapshot Chronicle. And this explains, too, at least somewhat, why Cheever’s novels tend to be a bit on the fragmented side, at least in terms of cause-and-effect narration, which Cheever never could take seriously anyway. This is not to say that the novels are incoherent: they have a high degree of thematic integrity—of craft—to say nothing of readability. You keep turning the pages.

Q: One of the popular responses to the publication of The Journals of John Cheever (1991) was that Cheever was, as opposed to his public image, a sad man, and it was a depressing read. Are you concerned about such a reaction to your book?
A:
I don’t think readers of CHEEVER will conclude that my subject was a sad man. He was a very lonely man, certainly, who had a hard time getting outside of himself and relating to the world in a satisfactory way. Again and again—whether reading Cheever’s journals, or interviewing his friends or the odd psychiatrist—I got the impression of a man who was forever on guard, forever standing a little back and assessing his effect on people. Why write millions of words in a journal if you can just as easily share your thoughts with loved ones? But Cheever was singularly incapable of that. As his younger son Federico pointed out, "No one, absolutely no one, shared his life with him. There was no one from whom he could get honest advice. Of course, this state of affairs was very much his own doing, but it must have been hard sometimes." It was hard, but there were plenty of mitigating factors: for one thing, it’s a lot of fun to be a great artist—some of the time anyway—and he was a lovable man, too. He once described himself, aptly enough, as “a cheerful man of forty-five who has been given everything in the world he desires but a degree of unself-consciousness.”

Q: While working on CHEEVER, your home was flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and you lost most of your belongings. How did this affect the book?
A:
Hardly at all. I was fortunate in that one respect. I had finished transcribing the last of my research to my laptop, oh, maybe a week or two before Katrina hit. But I did leave a large box of photos behind—that is to say, all my Cheever photos, most of them provided by the family and utterly irreplaceable. My wife and I figured we’d be back in a couple of days, since really it hadn’t occurred to us that National Guardsmen would soon be trolling around our house in motor boats.

Thank God for my sensible wife! We were about to leave, and she asked “Where are the photos?” As I recall, they were on the floor next to my desk. My wife (rolling her eyes) put them on top of a big box inside an armoire. The water line came within four or five inches of them. As for my paper research—and one does need to return to that from time to time—it was almost completely salvageable, except for the copy of Cheever’s journal that Ben had loaned me. This had been on the bottom shelf of my research cabinet, and when I came home it was four linear feet of solid mold. Again, I’d already read and transcribed everything I needed, so no big loss, but still: I’d spent a lot of time—a lot of time—arranging the 4,000-plus pages in proper order. The original journal at Harvard (from which mine had been Xeroxed) is a bit of a mess, despite the efforts of an excellent staff: somehow, somewhere, certain volumes had been shuffled like decks of cards, and you need a very precise knowledge of Cheever’s life to put things back in order. So Katrina destroyed the only copy of the journal in the world that was chronologically accurate, more or less.

Q: What is your favorite Cheever anecdote or moment?
A:
That’s like asking for my favorite Bushism: simply too many. Suffice to say, I laughed a lot writing this book. My wife would hear me tittering behind the door and wonder whether I’d lost my marbles.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards

Praise

A New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Time, Christian Science Monitor, Slate, Arizona Republic, and Kansas City Star Best Book of the Year

“A triumph of thorough research and unblinkered appraisal.”
—John Updike, The New Yorker
 
“A definitive, Dickensian rendering of a complete and complicated life, addictively readable and long overdue.”
—Bret Anthony Johnston, The New York Times
 
“Beautifully woven, deeply researched, and delightfully free of isms. . . . Here’s Cheever at the center of the storm.”
—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
 
“Fascinating. . . . Bailey counter[s] both his subject’s soaring enthusiasms and paranoid forebodings with clear-eyed judgment.”
—David Propson, The Wall Street Journal
 
“Mesmerizing. . . . Every inch the record that Cheever deserves. . . . [Bailey] gives us remarkable access to one of the greatest writers of his time.”
—Vince Passaro, O, the Oprah Magazine
 
“So wise and serious, so human an account. . . . Even more eloquent and resourceful than Bailey’s celebrated biography of Richard Yates.”
—Geoffrey Wolff, The New York Times Book Review
 
“Sympathetic and deeply engaging. . . . This book is also a portrait of the twentieth century.”
—Jacob Molyneux, San Francisco Chronicle
 
“[Bailey’s] life of Cheever is an impressive, even a beautiful, achievement.”
—Algis Valiunas, Commentary

“[An] expansive, wonderfully written biography. . . . Unstinting. . . . Bracing. . . . To read Bailey on Cheever is to arrive at a much fuller appreciation of a deeply gifted chronicler of American life.”
—Matt Shaer, Christian Science Monitor

“A portrait of the man drawn judiciously but compellingly and in harrowing detail . . . . [A] fine biography.”
—Richard Lacayo, Time

“Elegant. . . An insightful, clear-eyed life of the man.”
The Economist

“Surely definitive. . . . [Bailey] gets down his subject’s humorous staying power, even in the midst of spiritual turmoil.”
—William H. Pritchard, Boston Globe

“Masterful.”
—Nathan Heller, Slate

“Exceptional. . . . Along with sensitivity and dispassionate thoroughness, it’s his smooth blending of sources into a readable narrative that sets Bailey apart as a biographer.”
—Jeffrey Burke, Bloomberg News

“Exemplary. . . . Bailey has brought [Cheever’s] life into such eloquent relief that it’s easy to imagine Cheever, if only for a moment, finally feeling like someone understood him.”
—Gregg LaGambina, A. V. Club

“Definitive. . . . Judicious and nuanced. . . . Mr. Bailey’s research is impeccable and exhaustive—a mighty feat.”
—Adam Begley, The New York Observer

“A biography of monumental heft . . . that certifies Cheever’s enduring relevance.”
—James Wolcott, Vanity Fair

“Bailey’s thorough new biography completes the total revolution of our image of the man has undergone in the quarter century since his death.”
—Jonathan Dee, Harper’s

“Tremendous. . . . Magisterial. . . . Bailey [is] a great biographer, utterly dogged and indefatigable about telling details.”
—Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News

“Impressive. . . . Finely written. . . . Bailey has done a near-perfect job of making the connections between the man and his masterpieces.”
—Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times

“Fascinating . . . . Powerfully moving . . . . A brilliant example of literary biography at its best.”
—Doug Childers, Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Quite successfully sorts out the facts, masks and contradictions of this unique American life.”
—John Barron, Chicago Sun-Times

“The appearance of Bailey’s poised, thorough biography is both timely and corrective . . . Bailey presents his subject in all his contradictory fullness . . . Cheever: A Life succeeds by balancing insight, judgment, empathy, and clarity.”
—Floyd Skloot, Philadelphia Inquirer

“Bailey has achieved what I (along with many others) thought well-nigh impossible: an outstanding, exhaustive (but never exhausting), clear-eyed and evenhanded biography of Cheever and a literary triumph in its own right.”
—George W. Hunt, America
 
“Magnificent.”
—Maud Newton, Barnes and Noble Review

Awards

WINNER 2009 National Book Critics Circle Awards
WINNER 2010 Francis Parkman Prize
FINALIST 2010 Pulitzer Prize
FINALIST 2010 James Tait Black Memorial Prize

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