The Journals of John Cheever.
by Robert Gottlieb.
Knopf. 399 pp. $25.00.
A seasoned admirer of the fiction of John Cheever is likely to go through these journals, which he kept from about the late 40’s until his death in 1982, in a kind of feverish disturbance, as memorable scenes and characters from the novels and short stories come alive but with a different coloration, with thicker strokes, and with haunting, sometimes astonishing biographical details.
In the dry, isolated passages of these journals, the Breughelesque men, women, children, and pets of Cheever’s autumnal upstate New York and Connecticut landscapes become grotesque, bleak, Hieronymus Bosch gargoyles. Thus, the tipsy, aggrieved wife out of a Woody Allen black comedy, who, after a morning tiff with her husband, is busy putting price tags on the furniture when he brings a client home for dinner, emerges, crudely and almost cruelly, as a member of the Cheever household. So does the hateful, punitive lout who marks a line through the days of the calendar in which he will not speak to his wife. The philistine brother who grievously offends the narrator has lineaments of Cheever himself.
In Cheever’s fiction, gracelessness, coarseness, indecency, insensitivity, unkindness, lapses from rectitude are equated with aspects of evil, failures to abide by compelling ethical and aesthetic correctness, to do or to be good. Story after story and, in the Wapshot novels, passage after passage urgently and emphatically reject self-indulgence, crassness, heartlessness, masochistic charity. In one short story, a boozing Madison Avenue executive pulls himself together after his divorce and the loss of his job to escape the attentions of a nurturing, self-sacrificing woman habitually dressed in black, an “angel of death” who collects losers just before they go completely under. In another, a distraught wife, whose “enormous” radio picks up the private quarrels of neighbors in her Manhattan apartment house, turns out herself to be living in the sort of maudlin entanglements on which she has been compulsively eavesdropping. The husband who lashes his wife with silence is literally forced to his knees, to grovel, by a lowly secretary he has mistreated. Now, from sketches, hints, repetitions, and shards in the journals, we can gather how Cheever’s fiction gave body to periods of acute guilt and consequent punishment, or the need for punishment, in his personal life.
Yet in his fiction Cheever rises above the limits of the ordinary, while his journals are weighed down with the dutiful solemnity that is part of the diarist’s commitment to be honest and specific. We find in these day-by-day jottings little of the wild, nearly surrealistic comedy that leaps out happily and unexpectedly to brighten the shaped, imagined prose. Nor do the entries always reveal an artist’s awareness of the authority of compression. A single short story may be enough to allow a reader to experience the range of Cheever’s wit and moral complexity; we have to read long patches of the journals to get the same effect.
Still, the journals do lay out the appealing record of a man gnawed by a guilt that makes him kin to sinners he keeps discovering all around him, like the naïf in Hawthorne’s biting story, “Young Goodman Brown.” The book’s editor, Robert Gottlieb, has skillfully turned the shreds and morsels of rumination and memory into a sustained essayistic, elegiac discourse. And a curious thread of continuity connects Cheever’s virtual chanting of guilt and apology with the self-conscious declarations by his son Benjamin, who introduces the text, and by Gottlieb, who provides a concluding note. Both assure and reassure us that Cheever himself and his wife, two sons, and daughter wanted these journals, with all their discomfiting particulars, to be published.
The intensity of these protestations generates a lingering discomfort. Benjamin Cheever, loyally but I think inadequately, accounts for the publication of the journals as follows:
The remorse he felt about his bisexuality had been almost unendurable when he was a young man. By 1980, he could write: “In the 30’s and 40’s men seemed to fear homosexuality as the early mariners feared sailing off the end of the ocean in a world supported on a turtle’s back.”
A simpleton might think that bisexuality was the essence of his problem, but of course it was not. Nor was alcoholism. He came to terms with his bisexuality. He quit drinking. But life was still a problem. The way he dealt with that problem was to articulate it. He made it into a story, and then he published the story. When he discovered that he had written the story of his life, he wanted that published too.
Putting aside this overly simple explanation, let us concede that Cheever’s revealing the journals to Benjamin before he died, and his expecting them to be published afterward, satisfied some special need, perhaps related to supporting his delicate sense of having established himself as a literary figure. Let us also concede that satisfying that need was, for the family and Gottlieb, justification enough to publish. The question still arises, how much of a social need, or how much of a scholarly need, the disclosure of such extensive soliloquy genuinely satisfies. It was originally uttered secretively and was preserved (not always legibly) in supposedly inviolable privacy, protected from unveiling as any nightmare or fantasy normally is, and for purposes having nothing to do with literature. Its publication will inevitably and gratuitously be distressing to persons callously or ungenerously referred to, and possibly and pointlessly corrosive of Cheever’s total reputation.
The widespread furor over the publication of H.L. Mencken’s diaries a few years ago focuses the general issue sharply. Mencken’s published writings were the work of a shrewd, enlightened, brilliant observer of politics, literature, social habits. As a public man Mencken had befriended and worked closely with a wide range of persons. What then are we to make of the ugly, petty entries we discover after his death about blacks, Jews, and close associates? The most we can say is that the diaries reveal a troublesome but not all that astounding mix of generous outward conduct with concealed, whimsical, possibly pathological, consciously suppressed swinishness; of gracious and graceful public expression with vomitous spurts, of value only to clinicians.
Much of the private writing that publishers and scholars have gone to inordinate lengths to uncover in recent years has done suprisingly little to enlighten, in proportion to the damage risked. James and Nora Joyce’s “dirty letters,” as they have come to be called, if ever published, may marginally illuminate Joyce’s method in Ulysses of using his wife as a source for Molly Bloom’s sexual sensations. But is it worth violating the Joyces’ and their survivors’ privacy for any such minute addition to an already solidly made and accepted observation? For all the high-minded academic emphasis on the importance of the message over the messenger, on the song over the singer, literary study keeps descending to profitless, sensational biographical exposure.
Like medieval peasants, we have become awed by supposedly holy fragments of bones and rags, relics, intimate revelations. Or is it that we derive from them the satisfaction of the leveler? We now have a library of books and articles, some admittedly speculative, some actually plausible, some irresponsible and disreputable, some just distasteful or ill-advised, all in some measure demeaning of respectable, rigorous literary discussion—on Shakespeare’s, Kipling’s, and Hemingway’s putative homosexuality; Milton’s sexual naiveté; Lewis Carroll’s and James Barrie’s pedophilia; Henry James’s impotence; Shelley’s domestic messiness; Byron’s incest and bisexuality; Emily Dickinson’s abortion; G.B. Shaw’s and Max Beerbohm’s failures to consummate their marriages; Willa Cather’s lesbianism; Virginia Woolf’s rape; T.S. Eliot’s callousness toward his first wife. It is not a matter of putting into a portrait the warts and other blemishes which properly provide particularity, shading, and depth; it is a matter of painting a new portrait that distracts, blurs, titillates, and that can help us little or not at all in understanding a writer’s words.
I sense a worthy admonitory ambivalence on the part of those responsible for publishing Cheever’s journals. As it happens, the journals are not completely irrelevant, they do not really distort, and the tensions they engender are of the essence of Cheever’s rueful irony. Still, even after the intelligent editing, they offer raw and inessential matter that most artists in the end commonly bring themselves to expunge or repress, and they contain little that challenges us to reassess the body of Cheever’s created work.