Cheever Journals: Do Writer's Personal Details Help Understanding of Art?


October 13, 1991|By TIM WARREN | TIM WARREN,Tim Warren is book editor of The Sun.

With the publication this month of "The Journals of John Cheever," we confront a recurring question in literary biography: How does our knowledge of the personal side of a writer help us to understand the artistic side?

Certainly the "Journals," written over a span of 40 years, until just before his death in 1982, tell the reader in excruciating detail about Cheever's often miserably unhappy marriage, about the constant self-doubts of his literary worth ("I read a short-story anthology from which I have been conspicuously excluded and see how right they were to leave me out"), his decades-long battle with alcoholism and his tortured struggle to accept his bisexuality.

A reader of only a few of Cheever's short stories or novels wouldn't be surprised that his journals have a dark side, but the bitterness and anguish that fill the pages become at times almost too much to bear.

Only two years ago, readers had an eerily reminiscent dilemma. "The Diary of H. L. Mencken" was showing the Sage of Baltimore in a distinctly unflattering light, with derogatory comments about Jews, blacks, poor whites and even some reputed close friends.

Mencken had never been seen as an especially jolly soul, but the diary revealed him as uncommonly bitter, really to be more pitied than feared, some believed.

Others, such as Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, whose biography of Mencken is due in 1995, were able to separate the private writings from the public figure. While allowing that the diary doesn't change her view that Mencken's achievements "were very commendable," she will use it nonetheless in her biography. "The biographer is always trying to unlock the door," she says."

So, too, will readers of "The Journals of John Cheever." It certainly is an eloquent book, with much of the polish that is so evident in Cheever's fiction. Even in the most painful passages, there is graceful and precise writing. Take this entry from 1962: "Mary takes the boys off to see the Nativity play, and I sit around the dining room playing records; Schumann and Louis Armstrong. I plan a large cocktail party; I write a letter to the Social Register. I give my daughter away in marriage. I should read. I should write. I should translate a page of Italian. But all I do is polish the candlesticks. . . ."

Yet despite nearly 400 pages of the most intensely revealing writings in the "Journals," one must ask: Do you understand any better the man who is generally acclaimed as a 20th century master of the short story ("Goodbye, My Brother," "The Swimmer," "The Country Husband") and a very fine novelist ("Falconer," "The Wapshot Chronicles")? For, ultimately, what disappoints most about the "Journals" -- to the literarily inclined reader, at least -- is not what is put in, but is left out.

Cheever's son Benjamin writes in the introduction that the journals "were the workbooks for his fiction. They were also the workbooks for his life." This is certainly true of the latter, but I suspect only indirectly of the former. His father made astonishingly few references to his work in the "Journals."

His 1954 short story, "The Country Husband," which Vladimir Nabokov (a hero of Cheever's, no less) praised as "a miniature novel beautifully traced," merits one mention in the "Journals" -- Cheever tells of giving the story to friends to read and watching their reaction. There are intermittent references to "The Wapshot Chronicle" and "The Wapshot Scandal." "Falconer," considered by many to be Cheever's finest novel, merits hardly a nod, except for this passage in 1977: "Waiting for another photographer and interviewer, I operate at a thoughtless level. Phil Roth calls to say that he received 'Falconer,' and could I give him John Updike's address. The rivalry among novelists is quite as intense as that among sopranos."

We do get an entry that describes at some length the thematic underpinnings of "The Swimmer" -- "I would not like to do the Swimmer as Narcissus," he writes. But in general we hear more about what he thinks of other writers -- he especially admires Nabokov and Saul Bellow -- than get any real insights into his work.

Perhaps most surprising is that Cheever makes no reference to having won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for "The Stories of John Cheever." Cheever's biographer, Scott Donaldson, tells us that it "meant a great deal to Cheever," and in the "Journals" the author tosses in this aside in 1953, "To tell the truth, I bemuse myself at three in the morning with the day I win the Pulitzer Prize."

Robert Gottlieb, who edited the "Journals," acknowledges he includes only about one-twentieth of the journals, but surely he, as editor of Cheever's last five books, would not have left out such an obviously important passage.

Since most readers already knew of Cheever's drinking problems, marital woes and struggle with his sexuality through Mr. Donaldson's biography and through "Home Before Dark," a 1985 memoir by Cheever's daughter, Susan, the "Journals" ultimately offer us little new.

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