When The Wapshot Chronicle was published in 1957, John Cheever was already recognized as a writer of superb short stories. But The Wapshot Chronicle, which won the 1958 National Book Award, established him as a major novelist.
Based in part on Cheever’s adolescence in New England, the novel follows the destinies of the impecunious and wildly eccentric Wapshots of St. Botolphs, a quintessential Massachusetts fishing village. Here are the stories of Captain Leander Wapshot, venerable sea dog and would-be suicide; of his licentious older son, Moses; and of Moses’ adoring and errant younger brother, Coverly. Tragic and funny, ribald and splendidly picaresque, The Wapshot Chronicle is a family narrative in the tradition of Trollope, Dickens, and Henry James.
About the Author
John Cheever, best known for his short stories dealing with upper-middle-class suburban life, was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1912. Cheever published his first short story at the age of seventeen. He was the recipient of a 1951 Guggenheim Fellowship and winner of a National Book Award for The Wapshot Chronicle in 1958, the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Stories of John Cheever, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and an American Book Award. He died in 1982, at the age of seventy.
Date of Birth:May 27, 1912
Date of Death:June 18, 1982
Place of Birth:Quincy, Massachusetts
Place of Death:Ossining, New York
Read an Excerpt
St. Botolphs was an old place, an old river town. It had been an inland port in the great days of the Massachusetts sailing fleets and now it was left with a factory that manufactured table silver and a few other small industries. The natives did not consider that it had diminished much in size or importance, but the long roster of the Civil War dead, bolted to the cannon on the green, was a reminder of how populous the village had been in the 1860s. St. Botolphs would never muster as many soldiers again. The green was shaded by a few great elms and loosely enclosed by a square of store fronts. The Cartwright Block, which made the western wall of the square, had along the front of its second story a row of lancet windows, as delicate and reproachful as the windows of a church. Behind these windows were the offices of the Eastern Star, Dr. Bulstrode the dentist, the telephone company and the insurance agent. The smells of these offices -- the smell of dental preparations, floor oil, spittoons and coal gas -- mingled in the downstairs hallway like an aroma of the past. In a drilling autumn rain, in a world of much change, the green at St. Botolphs conveyed an impression of unusual permanence. On Independence Day in the morning, when the parade had begun to form, the place looked prosperous and festive.
The two Wapshot boys -- Moses and Coverly -- sat on a lawn on Water Street watching the floats arrive. The parade mixed spiritual and commercial themes freely and near the Spirit of '76 was an old delivery wagon with a sign saying: GET YOUR FRESH FISH FROM MR. HIRAM. The wheels of the wagon, the wheels of every vehicle in the parade were decorated with red, white and blue crepe paper and there was bunting everywhere. The front of the Cartwright Block was festooned with bunting. It hung in folds over the front of the bank and floated from all the trucks and wagons.
The Wapshot boys had been up since four; they were sleepy and sitting in the hot sun they seemed to have outlived the holiday. Moses had burned his hand on a salute. Coverly had lost his eyebrows in another explosion. They lived on a farm two miles below the village and had canoed upriver before dawn when the night air made the water of the river feel tepid as it rose around the canoe paddle and over their hands. They had forced a window of Christ Church as they always did and had rung the bell, waking a thousand songbirds, many villagers and every dog within the town limits including the Pluzinskis' bloodhound miles away on Hill Street. "It's only the Wapshot boys." Moses had heard a voice from the dark window of the parsonage. "Git back to sleep." Coverly was sixteen or seventeen then -- fair like his brother but long necked and with a ministerial dip to his head and a bad habit of cracking his knuckles. He had an alert and a sentimental mind and worried about the health of Mr. Hiram's cart horse and looked sadly at the inmates of the Sailor's Home -- fifteen or twenty very old men who sat on benches in a truck and looked unconscionably tired. Moses was in college and in the last year he had reached the summit of his physical maturity and had emerged with the gift of judicious and tranquil self-admiration. Now, at ten o'clock, the boys sat on the grass waiting for their mother to take her place on the Woman's Club float.
Mrs. Wapshot had founded the Woman's Club in St. Botolphs and this moment was commemorated in the parade each year. Coverly could not remember a Fourth of July when his mother had not appeared in her role as founder. The float was simple. An Oriental rug was spread over the floor of a truck or wagon. The six or seven charter members sat in folding chairs, facing the rear of the truck. Mrs. Wapshot stood at a lectern, wearing a hat, sipping now and then from a glass of water, smiling sadly at the charter members or at some old friend she recognized along the route. Thus above the heads of the crowd, jarred a little by the motion of the truck or wagon, exactly like those religious images that are carried through the streets of Boston's north end in the autumn to quiet great storms at sea, Mrs. Wapshot appeared each year to her friends and neighbors, and it was fitting that she should be drawn through the streets for there was no one in the village who had had more of a hand in its enlightenment. It was she who had organized a committee to raise money for a new parish house for Christ Church. It was she who had raised a fund for the granite horse trough at the corner and who, when the horse trough became obsolete, had had it planted with geraniums and petunias. The new high school on the hill, the new firehouse, the new traffic lights, the war memorial -- yes, yes -- even the clean public toilets in the railroad station by the river were the fruit of Mrs. Wapshot's genius. She must have been gratified as she traveled through the square.
Mr. Wapshot -- Captain Leander -- was not around. He was at the helm of the S.S. Topaze, taking her down the river to the bay. He took the old launch out on every fine morning in the summer, stopping at Travertine to meet the train from Boston and then going across the bay to Nangasakit, where there were a white beach and an amusement park. He had been many things in his life; he had been a partner in the table-silver company and had legacies from relations, but nothing much had stuck to his fingers and three years ago Cousin Honora had arranged for him to have the captaincy of the Topaze to keep him out of mischief ...The Wapshot Chronicle. Copyright © by John Cheever. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Reading Group Guide
The Wapshot Chronicle Introduction
The Wapshot Chronicle is the telling of the history and circumstances of the eclectic Wapshot family. The small, perhaps antiquated, New England river town of St. Botolphs is the home of the Waphot family: Honora, born on Oahu of missionary parents but raised by her paternal Uncle Lorenzo; Leander, an aging and gentle ferryboat operator and would-be suicide; his wife Sarah (Coverly) Wapshot, mother of Moses, the errant and mischievous elder brother to Coverly, the adoring and somewhat lambent brother. The Wapshot Chronicle is an exploration of the clash between pious and bourgeois respectability, the slippery mores of a new and vigorously changing America and the inner drives of hearty, small-town New England stock.
- Describe the Wapshot family. What is it, beyond the tie of blood relation, that connects them? How attuned are they to each other's internal strife? Describe the family dynamic -- why do Leander and Sarah allow themselves to continue to be bound to Honora? Is it only that she controls the family purse strings and their income? Is the wielding of this control a flaw of Honora's character? Is this the only element of control that Honora impresses upon them?
- Even though it is Moses who is commanded to leave St. Botolphs, Coverly follows him. Why does Coverly also leave St. Botolphs? What do Moses and Coverly stand to gain by seeking futures outside of St. Botolphs and what do they actually accomplish? Do they cling to one another at the expense of their individuality -- or does their separation release them and allow them to grow independently of oneanother?
- Uncle Lorenzo, whom we never directly meet, travels to the South Pacific on a voyage of expiation with his wife, where, subsequently, Honora is born. How do Honora's standards of decency live up to the missionary precedent set by her parents? How does she diverge from those standards? What do the townspeople come to expect of Honora, what does she expect from herself, and how is this brought to bear on other Wapshots?
- Leander keeps a journal in which he regularly writes rules by which a man should live. To what extent did Leander live by these rules? What did he gain in his specificity? To what extent did the other residents of St. Botolphs, including the Wapshots, organize their lives by rules? Did the mores of the town reflect the changing mores of the nation?
- Purity and carnality are major themes in Cheever's works. Which of the characters abide by traditional sexual codes? How does their behavior reflect their attitudes about mid-20th-century America? Are the male characters more concerned with carnality than the female characters?
- The Wapshot Chronicle is a family saga that focuses on intergenerational differences. Think about the differences between the earlier, esteemed Wapshots, Thaddeus and Lorenzo, and a comparison of Honora, Leander, and Sarah's generation to that of Coverly and Moses. How does each generation come of age? Does St. Botolphs nurture them all in the same way?
- The Wapshots traditionally place great importance on family lineage. Do you think this was a factor in the choice of brides for either Moses or Coverly? How do Melissa and Betsey compare to Sarah and Honora? How do they compare to their husbands?
- The beginning of the novel is comparable to that of the Bible's Genesis. What place, if any, does God occupy in the lives of the Waphsots? Why did John Cheever structure the novel in this way? What response from readers might he have been trying to evoke?
- Did Honora apply her moral dictates to her own behavior? Who was Honora's fiercest judge? Does Honora see the new and emerging America as powerful and progress-minded? Does she harbor a patriotism for the nation that matches her love of St. Botolphs?
- Many of Cheever's characters feel a compelling need for rebirth. The desire human beings have for a cleansing or baptism is universal and is evident in his characters. How do Leander and Sarah achieve this? To what extent is the Topaze a part of it? Are Cheever's women more desirous of inner rebirth than the men?
About the author
A writer for most of his life and best known for his short stories, John Cheever was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1912. He published his first short story at the age of 17 and, in 1979, was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for his collection of short stories, The Stories of John Cheever. He was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1951, a Howells Medal Award (awarded by the National Academy of Arts and Letters for The Wapshot Scandal) in 1964, and winner of the 1978 American Book Award for The Stories of John Cheever. His later novels include Bullet Park (1969), Falconer (1977), and Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1982). The Journals of John Cheever was published posthumously in 1991. He died in 1982, at the age of 70.
John Cheever is considered a master storyteller and one of America's most original writers. He is also deemed a virtuoso of characterization; the characters that people his works of fiction, short stories, and novels alike are a unique blend of individual glory and eccentricity. He was insatiably fascinated with the dynamics of human relationships and the unique responses of ordinary individuals to the shifting, if otherwise commonplace, entanglements of life. The Wapshot Chronicle and its sequel, published two years later, The Wapshot Scandal, illustrate the breadth and scope of Cheever's vision, his interests, and his narrative style.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Caution: The Wapshot Chronicle makes many coarse references to sex for hire. This language and the scenes described would probably earn this book an R rating if it were a motion picture. The Wapshot Chronicle is one of those big family stories that details parts of the lives of three generations, while providing a sense of those who came before. This is a family of sea-faring New Englanders who explored the far reaches of the Pacific and also produced missionaries who served in Hawaii. If you have read James Michener¿s Hawaii, you will have a picture in mind that will be accurate about the Wapshot forebearers. In the current generation, there¿s plenty of money in the hands of eccentric, elderly Cousin Honora. She provides for her cousin Leander, his wife Sarah, and their sons, Moses and Coverly. Cousin Honora does this in the spirit of honoring the family heritage, and she is quite interested in seeing the family continue on. The book focuses in on her efforts to encourage this continuity, and what resulted. John Cheever¿s greatest strength is his ability to conceive of highly original and interesting characters. In The Wapshot Chronicle, you will find two of the 20th century¿s most original fictional females, Cousin Honora and Justina Wapshot Molesworth Scadden. The men, by comparison, are pretty bland. They are so obsessed with their sexual desires and wanting to have a superior, independent position that they become predictably limited. His second greatest strength is that he is able to weave a novel out of a series of short-story-like episodes that have unexpected twists and cliff-hangers near their ends. Each is a gem, and glitters shiniest with understatement. A few words, a few concepts sketch out the beginnings of a pregnant circumstance. Then, he moves on . . . leaving you as the reader with plenty of room to imagine the actual circumstances. No two readers will describe what happens in this book the same way, because each will perceive the action to be quite different from everyone else. It is sort of like having The Lady or The Tiger continue on to a further story, but without resolving clearly which one lay behind the chosen door. Ambiguities pile atop ambiguities. The book¿s third greatest strength is an ability to use imagery to turn the same object into expressing its opposite meaning. This Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde quality imbues the book with a very deep irony seldom found in modern novels. Mr. Cheever uses names to good effect to reinforce this nuance. Clear Haven becomes anything but. The Wapshot name is traced to its Norman French roots as Vaincre-Chaud (loosely, defeating others in hot blood). The latest generation of Wapshot males is anything but that, so the name has had to change to reflect their humbler role. While the writing shines with rare beauty, the themes will often feel too trivial to be worthy of the attention lavished on them. What does it mean to be a man in a society in which women are strong, capable, and independent? Cheever seems to suggest a drone-like role like that in the beehive. Are we nothing more than our genes, our parents¿ child-rearing methods, and our environments? The characters seem to suggest that we are precisely and merely the sum of these influences. Can we accept help? The very generosity of the sharing seems to create shackles, rather than bonds of love and caring. In short, Mr. Cheever has a very jaundiced eye concerning modern humanity, and that leaves the book with a very downbeat feel. Unlike the existentialists who left us with nobility of spirit in facing meaningless events, Mr. Cheever sees nothing at all uplifting going on. You could think of this book as describing the emergence of the bland, disconnected, dependent modern city dweller. I wasn¿t persuaded by this view, and if you are like me, neither will you. I graded the book down accordingly, despite its stylistic genius. Be open to the po
Perhaps you've read and loved John Cheever's famous novel 'Falconer' or dipped into his celebrated short stories. You might then want to pick up his first novel, 'The Wapshot Chronicle.' This book follows family scion Leander Wapshot's attempts to keep his dignity intact in spite of encroaching old age and the loss of his career as a seaman. Leander's two sons, Moses and Coverly, have to make their own way in Cold War America armed with the airs and attitudes of 19th century New England WASPS; their encounters are both funny and poignant. In fact, 'funny and poignant' characterizes much of Cheever's writing: he can have you chuckling at situational comedy in one instant and then ping your heart with human frailty in the next. More than just a clever satire on the 1950s, or on New Englanders, 'The Wapshot Chronicle' is a novel with depth and meaning.
One sign of even a modestly good book is that you care about what happens to the characters. The Wapshots aren't worth the time. Worse still, John Cheever appears not to have read Huckleberry Finn and noted that Mark Twain offered readers more than enough of the n-word. A little n-word-less would have been welcome in this book.