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By Scott Donaldson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2001 Scott Donaldson
All rights reserved.
The Cheevers lived first in the flat part of Quincy, near the trolley tracks. It was there, in a small house at 43 Elm Avenue, that John William Cheever spent the first seven years of his life. He was born on May 27, 1912, almost seven years after Fred. There were no other children. John's parents had not planned on his birth, as he was often to hear in the years ahead. His mother was thirty-nine, his father forty-nine when he was born.
Looking back on his youth in a 1978 interview, John Cheever said that it could be divided into an extremely sunny childhood and an extremely troubled adolescence. The childhood was probably not as happy as all that, however. His mother kept busy, and was not given to shows of affection. His father was often away from home on sales trips, and when in residence devoted substantially more time to John's older brother, Fred, than to him. Fred was so much older that he and John could hardly have played together. Cheever remembered little of those first years. What he did remember suggests that things were less sunny than he stated publicly.
In his earliest recollections of his mother, she almost always appears as dominating if not tyrannical, cruel if not heartless. Much of the time, she was too busily occupied with charity projects and home-front war work to pay much attention to her younger son. Yet it was she who tore him from the arms of a maid he had grown fond of, as she fired her for petty thieving. And it was she who snatched the broom from him, with the exasperated comment that he "swept like an old woman."
By 1920 the Cheevers had moved up the hill to Wollaston, Quincy's solid Ward 5, the Republican stronghold, the best neighborhood in town. For two years they stayed in a two-family house at 396 Highland Avenue. By 1922, however, they were living in their own eleven-room home a few blocks away, at 123 Winthrop Avenue. The house was Victorian, and so was the heavy, comfortable furniture that Mary Liley Cheever installed. Weekdays John walked to Wollaston Grammar School, near the corner of Highland and Beale Street. On Sundays he attended Episcopal Sunday school. The family fortunes were at their peak. Father went off to work in Boston or Lynn, but rarely took long trips on the road. Mother became a clubwoman, a "Madame President." Gentility reigned.
Wollaston in the early 1920s was "very much turn of the century." Draft horses still clopped through the streets, bringing merchants and their wares. The milkman delivered before 5:00 A.M. You set a large square card in the window for the iceman, turned to indicate how much ice you wanted, twenty-five, fifty, seventy-five, or one hundred pounds. Children tagged along behind the ice wagon to cadge a free sample. Mr. Holman the vegetable man, famous for his high-stepping horse, stopped in at kitchens to sell housewives his products. He might have a special on "native grass" (asparagus) or on oyster shells to be spread on sidewalks. Hawkers toured the streets in open delivery trucks with roll-down side curtains in case it rained. "Strawbeeeries! Strawbe-e-e-ries! Forty cents a box," they hollered, and the box held a quart. Junkmen came by with horse and wagon and a spring-operated hand scale to buy scrap metal and bundles of old newspapers. Kids from down the hill sometimes tossed stones or ripe fruit on the Baileys' tennis court, but there was no serious crime. There were no minorities either, except for Jimmy Tab, who ran the bicycle shop and whose son was the only black child at Wollaston Grammar. Otherwise everyone was white and Christian and well-to-do. If anyone deviated from the norm in some way, it was noticed but discussed, if at all, quietly, quietly.
On the surface John Cheever seemed much like the other children on Wollaston hill. He played kick-the-can, hide-and-go-seek, hoist-the-green-sail, and nine-ten-red-light. He climbed the backyard pear tree he named the Duchess. He lost three teeth riding his brother's bike without permission. He went fishing in the summer and skated in the winter. He swam naked in the woods beyond Furnace Brook Parkway. He loved swimming in the brook, in Black's Creek, and in Quincy Bay off Wollaston Beach. Black's Creek joins the sea at the south end of the beach, and there, his friend Rollin Bailey distinctly remembers hearing, Cheever once threw a ring into the creek and "thus married the creek near where it married the ocean." That was so curious a tale that Bailey stopped telling people about it. They didn't believe it or couldn't imagine such a gesture or didn't know John Cheever anyway.
The theatricality of the gesture fitted Cheever's boyhood personality even as it suggested a lack of emotional bonding within the family. Young Cheever spent much of his time in fantasy worlds. He loved playacting. On one Washington's birthday, he saw to it that all the neighbor youngsters were outfitted in Revolutionary War regalia. As organizer he reserved the role of General Washington for himself. When others took over charge of neighborhood play, he was assigned less glamorous roles. In the Robin Hood band that Rollin Bailey organized, for instance, he was cast as Friar Tuck, and logically so. Like the good friar, he was roly-poly and affable.
When he was still in grade school, Cheever suffered an attack of pulmonary tuberculosis. His mother had the disease herself and may have communicated it to her son. Yet she neglected him in his distress, the boy thought, and he never forgave her. For a time thereafter, he became an indoor child and brought his fantasy world inside with him in the form of puppet shows. At their simplest these were performed in the attic for one or two other children. Sometimes there were more public presentations. The tiny theater with its colorful backdrop was his own creation. "He built his own puppet theater, designed the scenery, and dyed the materials for the costumes," next-door neighbor Helen Howarth remembers. She was enlisted to sew the costumes, advertise the shows, and take in pennies and safety pins. Then John would take over. "He did the talking (in appropriate voices for the characters), manipulating them and narrating the story themes before the acts."
Fiction was his passion and also, he was to maintain, his salvation. "Perhaps the first thing in the world that I can remember," he told an interviewer in 1980, "is being read a story." In those "twilight Athenian years," reading provided the family entertainment. His grandmother read him Dickens, and he was also read Treasure Island and The Call of the Wild and some of the Tom Swift stories. As soon as he could, he tackled the books on his own. Even before that, though, he had begun to tell stories in school, without puppets or props. "If we did our class work satisfactorily then a period would be set aside during which I would tell a story." Sometimes these were serials. Usually they were "characterized by exaggeration, moving into preposterous falsehoods." When he walked to the front of the class, he often had no clear idea of what the story would be about. He simply started talking, and the story came.
At eleven he decided he wanted to be a writer, and told his parents. That was fine, they said, so long as he didn't expect to win fame or fortune. No, he said, he didn't care about such things. From the first, he found that telling stories had a therapeutic effect as relief from "a volcanic and early adolescence." Yet art was not merely an escape from his troubles, it was also a source of joy and understanding. Both the romantic and the realistic offered epiphanies, though of different nature. He was taken to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra play Tchaikovsky's Fifth and thought, "That's tremendous — that's the way I feel about life." He was taken to see Ibsen in repertory and became almost sick with excitement at the shock of recognition. His own fiction — sometimes fantastical, sometimes virtually photographic — helped him, as he often said, "to make sense of his life."
The capacity to be moved by art — not entertained or laved by sentiment but genuinely moved — is rare enough, and when aligned with Cheever's still more remarkable ability to invent his own stories, it set him apart from other children. So Robert Daugherty, who was his classmate for the first eight years of school, thought of the public yarn-spinner and puppeteer as an introvert. What he meant, specifically, was that the chubby youth with the engaging manner and the stories in his head was not athletically inclined and rarely participated in such team sports as baseball and football. Baseball, especially, he avoided like a pestilence, and revealed why in "The National Pastime" (1953), another of those uncollected autobiographical stories in which he explored his origins.
The difficulty started with his father. Frederick Lincoln Cheever, who reached fifty before his younger son's first birthday, generally made it clear that he could be expected to do very little for the boy. He had formed a bond with his older son and namesake, Fred — often taking him sailing in Quincy Bay, for example — but John was born too late. One son was enough for his father, and perhaps for his mother as well. "If I hadn't drunk two manhattans one afternoon," she told him, "you never would have been conceived." But it was his father, she also told him, who wanted him aborted and who went so far as to invite the abortionist to dinner. The unwanted-child motif crops up repeatedly in Cheever's fiction. The abortionist appears at the dinner table both in The Wapshot Chronicle and in Falconer. "Farragut's father, Farragut's own father," the latter novel reflects, "had wanted to have him extinguished as he dwelt in his mother's womb, and how could he live happily with this knowledge ...?"
It cannot have been easy, either for Ezekiel Farragut or for his creator. In "The National Pastime" Cheever confronted his feelings about his father openly. Usually the fictional father figure is romanticized in his eccentricity. In this story, though, he is cruelly selfish, too wrapped up in himself to teach his son to play baseball.
"To be an American and unable to play baseball is comparable to being a Polynesian and unable to swim," the story begins in generalization, and then moves rapidly to the unnamed boy and his father, Leander (the story belongs to the Wapshot saga, but was not included in The Wapshot Chronicle). According to this story, he was nearly sixty when his son was born. Moreover, he has become nearly suicidal about his failure in business. Despite these extenuating circumstances, his thoughtlessness toward the boy is hardly forgivable. At nine the youth decides he will be a professional baseball player, acquires some equipment, and asks his father to play catch with him. At first he refuses, but the boy's mother overhears, and after they quarrel, Leander comes out to the garden and asks the boy to throw the ball to him.
What happened then was ridiculous and ugly. I threw the ball clumsily once or twice and missed the catches he threw to me. Then I turned my head to see something — a boat on the river. He threw the ball, and it got me in the nape of the neck and stretched me out unconscious....
When he comes to, his father is standing over him. "Don't tell your mother about this," he says, and leaves. The boy now has a problem to deal with.
In school one spring day, the gym instructor takes the students outdoors. He is carrying some baseball gear, and as soon as the boy — whose very anonymity suggests his identification with Cheever — sees the bats and balls, "the sweet, salty taste of blood" comes into his mouth, his heart begins to pound, and his legs go weak, and to escape the game he sneaks under the field house. Lying there, he feels "the horror of having expelled myself from the light of a fine day" but also feels the taste of blood "beginning to leave his mouth." The fault, he decides, is his father's, and he decides to ask him again. "The feeling that I could not resume my responsibilities as a baseball player without some help from him was deep, as if parental love and baseball were both national pastimes." Leander once again fails to help his son over this rite of passage. He is asked, to be sure, after he has returned from selling some of his own father's and grandfather's books to help support the family. And had he looked more closely, the narrator acknowledges, he "might have seen a face harried with anxiety and the weakness of old age," but instead he expects his father "to regain his youth and to appear like the paternal images" he's seen on calendars and in magazine advertisements.
"Will you please play catch with me, Poppa?" I asked.
"How can you ask me to play baseball when I will be dead in another month!" he said.
Leander does not die in the following month, nor for years thereafter, and neither does the baseball phobia. The narrator hides inside a shed the next time the class goes out for baseball, neatly buries a ball to avoid a picnic game, and some years later is fired from a teaching position when, forced into playing and having struck the ball, he runs toward third base and knocks down a teammate coming in to score. Yet the story has a happy if improbable ending, when the narrator — now grown with sons of his own — takes them to Yankee Stadium and makes a one-handed, barehanded catch of a foul line drive off the bat of Mickey Mantle. The pain is excruciating, but is "followed swiftly by a sense of perfect joy. The old man and the old house seemed at last to fall from the company and the places of my dreams, and I smelled the timothy and the sweet grass again...."
So in fancy Cheever resolved the predicament bequeathed him by an inattentive and unsuccessful father. In actuality, the resolution may never have been achieved. In The Wapshot Chronicle he tried to make his peace with his father, but he knew well that he'd touched up the picture to make Leander more sympathetic. Privately he always felt that his father had failed him and resolved to do better with his own two sons. His son Federico recalls his father spending "endless afternoons" with him, "playing catch with half-inflated footballs or chewed-up softballs." It never did much good, Federico added: the practice did not make a ballplayer out of him. But those afternoons on the lawn were important to a father who was nearly forty-five when Federico was born yet was determined to give him the proper athletic instruction.
Aside from his bouts with tuberculosis and the national pastime, Cheever led an active boyhood life. He played with his dog, an Irish terrier that he loved. He went on summer trips to New Hampshire, and then to Cape Cod. He went to Boy Scout camp. He went to school.
His memories of New Hampshire centered on his mother. She took him to the Cutter House in Jaffrey, where one Sunday, after chicken dinner, the hotel went up in flames. Thereafter they stayed at the Monadnock Inn, named for the nearby mountain. All one July they communed with Mount Monadnock, John's mother at a respectful distance, the boy by climbing it day after day. It was there, too, that he learned to ride horseback.
Back in Quincy, Cheever was happiest outdoors. With other boys he snuck into the woods to smoke cigarettes made of cedar bark and toilet paper. One memorable day he went to Paragon Park at Nantasket Beach in Hull, a ten-mile trip from Wollaston, and rode the bumper cars and the whip and saw himself distorted in the hall of mirrors. At twelve he was spirited off to Camp Massasoit, located on three ponds — Gallows, Long, and Little Long — eight miles below Plymouth in heavily wooded territory. There he lived in a tent for a month during the summers of 1924 to 1926, and had a wonderful time. The summer's highlight was the appearance of a Quincy banker named Delcevare King, whose family, then as now, served as benefactors to the Boy Scouts. For the occasion, King took off his three-piece suit and, dressed as an Indian chief, led the campers in Indian songs. Cheever remembered the words all his days, and remembered too the swimming, sailing, canoe trips, and nature hikes, and the joy of friendship.
At camp he solidified his relationship with Faxon Ogden, the closest friend of his youth. The two boys played marbles together and swam together and slept in the same tent and confided in each other. In the fall they went to school together. They were together so much that they even began to look alike, people said.
Cheever's school — his only school, after Wollaston Grammar — was Thayer Academy, in nearby South Braintree. Thayer was named for General Sylvanus Thayer, a superintendent of West Point who left a bequest for the founding of the academy. Coeducational from its beginnings in 1877, Thayer was designed to "offer to youth the opportunity to rise ... from small beginnings to honorable achievement." John's brother, Fred, graduated from Thayer in the spring of 1924 and went off to Dartmouth that fall. At the same time John himself entered Thayerlands, the new junior school adjacent to the academy.
Thayerlands would not have existed at all without the beneficence of Anna Boynton Thompson, a distant cousin of John's father and another in young Cheever's gallery of impressive and eccentric women. A spinster, Anna Boynton Thompson taught Greek, history, and literature at Thayer for forty-four years, from its opening in 1877 to 1921. She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from Radcliffe and her doctorate from Tufts while carrying a full teaching load. On her summer travels she dug for ancient artifacts in Egypt and continued her studies at Oxford and in Greece. She brought back a collection of Greek casts and friezes from one such trip, and installed them in the halls of the main building at Thayer. She donated her salary one year to enable trustees of the school to purchase land for playing fields. And she bequeathed her home, at her death in 1922, for use as the new junior school, Thayerlands. It could be said, justly, that she devoted her life to the school.
Excerpted from John Cheever by Scott Donaldson. Copyright © 2001 Scott Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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