Readers of John Cheever’s stories, most of which appeared in the New Yorker before being collected in a Pulitzer-winning book in 1978, regarded the author as “the Ovid of Ossining,” the artist who showed the riches and wonders of suburban life. Alert to the transcendent in the everyday, he perceived a “moral quality” in the very light that fell on the Dutch Colonial homes and lush lawns of the commuter suburbs outside New York. His characters might drink too much, they might break their vows, but they are usually drawn back toward order and light. “Stand up straight,” he urged his readers. “Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord.”
It was something of a shock, then, when Cheever’s journals were published in 1991. The man who had hymned the love of man and wife was shown to be tormented by homosexual longing. (“Every comely man, every bank clerk and delivery boy was aimed at my life like a loaded pistol.”) The drunken escapades of his characters took on a darker cast when seen alongside his own grim battle with drink.
Even those who knew Cheever and had some sense of his contradictions were surprised by the journals. “They tell me more about Cheever’s lusts and failures and self-humiliations and crushing sense of shame and despond,” John Updike wrote, “than I can easily reconcile with my memories of the sprightly, debonair, gracious man, often seen on the arm of his pretty, witty wife.”
But perhaps the greatest surprise was Cheever’s deep religious feeling. Time and again, we find him seeking consolation at his village’s Episcopal church, moved by the sight of the Eucharist, consoled by the words of the Creed. “If my hands tremble with desire,” he wrote, “they tremble likewise when I reach for the chalice on Sunday, and if lust makes me run and caper it is no stronger a force than that which brings me to my knees to say thanksgivings and litanies.”
What was the nature of Cheever’s belief? He was not a dogmatic man. He took no interest in theology. But his keen spiritual sense had a definite tendency. Like so many of his countrymen, he sought to throw off his ancestors’ Puritan austerities. Rather than deny the flesh and despise worldly comforts, he sought to embrace all of life. His was an unascetic spirituality. Yet he could not escape ambivalence about the world he embraced.
John Cheever’s religious pedigree can be traced to Ezekiel Cheever, the first Cheever in America and headmaster of the Boston Latin School from 1671 to 1708. Samuel Sewall, a judge at the Salem witch trials, noted with approval that Ezekiel “abominated periwigs” (a fashionable item, which the schoolmaster would sometimes pull from his students’ heads). When Cotton Mather delivered Ezekiel’s eulogy, he praised the great man’s “untiring abjuration of the devil.”
Long after Puritanism had ceased to be a vital force, this severe inheritance was sustained in debased form. Christian Science, a bizarre nineteenth-century heresy that arose in the hard, stony ground of Congregationalist piety, disdains the material world as an illusion. Cheever’s mother adopted this faith, and her son recalled how she confessed “to having been so enchained by the flesh that a cancer was destroying her.”
Christian Science, with its optimistic, scientistic promise that men can be healed through right thinking, is a far cry from the high and grand faith of Plymouth Bay. But Cheever’s experience of it made him suspicious of the broader tradition of Christian asceticism. Cheever at times reproached himself for a lack of self-denial. “When have I known the taste of abstinence and self-discipline?” he wrote. But he tended toward viewing every form of carnal love—homosexual and heterosexual, adulterous and conjugal—as a good. “What can this capricious skin be,” he asked, “but a blessing?”
When Cheever developed tuberculosis at age twelve, his mother refused to get medical help. He later reproached her for leaving him alone in a dirty house, where he was spitting blood and flailing in sweat-soaked sheets, as she went to church to introduce an Armenian refugee.
Given this upbringing, it is unsurprising that Cheever’s god at times seemed to be the spirit of hearth and home. Cheever was capable of skewering suburban comfort—the homes that looked (as he put it in one story) like “the temples in a sacred grove, dedicated to monogamy, feckless childhood, and domestic bliss”—but he was irresistibly drawn to the vision of order presented by the freshly mowed lawn and well-laid table.
“The simplest arrangements,” he wrote in his journals, “trees, a line of bathhouses, a church steeple, a bench in a park . . . appear to have a moral significance, a continuity that is heartening and that corresponds to my whole sense of being.” For Cheever, these quotidian forms of order were signs that the world was finally ordered toward something divine. They gave him “a sense of fitness that approaches ecstasy—the sense of life as a privilege, the earth as something splendid to walk on.”
“Goodbye, My Brother,” the first of Cheever’s collected stories, offers a full picture of Cheever’s religious sensibility. The narrator represents Cheever’s more expansive, humane side, while the narrator’s brother, Lawrence, represents the more severe instincts that Cheever never quite managed to shake. He finds fault in every foible and superfluity—the excessive drinking, foolish spending, and wandering eyes of his family. He is a caricature of the Puritans, animated by “perpetual guilt and the deification of the scourge.”
Lawrence’s dark view of the world captures a great deal of truth, but it is vanquished by a rapturous vision of the glories of man and nature. “Oh, what can you do with a man like that?” Cheever’s narrator asks. “How can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life . . . ?” Just as the complaints of Job are overcome by a show of the majesty of God, Lawrence’s carping is overwhelmed by the grandeur of nature and humanity.
Such ecstatic moments may work well for concluding short stories, but they are not sufficient to sustain a happy life. The kind of order for which Cheever pined requires definite limits as well as vaulting realizations. On the morning after the birth of his youngest son, Cheever was standing on a balcony, watching a car full of rambunctious young men go by. He longed to join in their chaos and hell-raising. “But I have been [gallivanting] with the bucks,” he wrote, and “my longing for the permanence I have left is much more painful.”
In his journals, Cheever expressed his conflicting impulses in terms of a choice between two women. One, with yellow hair, stands for “a boundless chain of lighted rooms; the easy talk and laughter of friends and lovers; healthy pride, and a winning score.” The other, with dark hair, evokes a small, confined space. She is friendless, “and yet it is the declivity of her back that his fingers seem to want to trace.”
Cheever’s journals document his struggle to reconcile his simultaneous needs for chaos and order, a young man’s body and the love of a gentle woman. He chronicles his struggles in exacting detail, a self-examination equal to anything found in the spiritual diaries of Puritans. “I have not repaired the shutter on the west window. I have not got sand for the driveway or mixed fuel for the chain saw,” he wrote. “I have been drunken, dirty, unkind, embittered, and lewd.”
Cheever described the beauty of monogamy and conjugal love while failing to accept its constraints. He adored the language of the Book of Common Prayer—“the penultimate clauses spread out behind their predicates in breadth and glory”—but was not bound by its moral claims. He was right to resist the moralizing of some of his more politically engaged contemporaries. But his own stance verged toward complacency: “Without an indictment I seem to have no moral position—no position, in fact, at all.”
No position—but oh, what prose. Cheever was at his best in recording the splendor of the receding sun, the magic hours stretching from late afternoon to twilight: “The sun going down takes many forms,” he wrote, “gold, brass cauldrons, streaks of lemon yellow and then, unexpectedly, a field of rose.” It was fitting, then, that Cheever lived in the twilight hours of America’s Protestant settlement, in a land still warm from—but no longer illuminated directly by—departed certainties. As the memory of a Protestant consensus expired, Cheever gave us a doubting, wayward version of its spiritual poetry.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things.
Photograph © Nancy Crampton.