The following essay appeared in the September, 2003
issue of Ingram's Advance e-letter, as part of
National Book Award Classics, a monthly series of essays
by Neil Baldwin, highlighting past Winners of the National
The Wapshot Chronicle
National Book Award Winner, 1958
my research for this month's column, I kept coming across
John Leonard's resonant reference to John Cheever (1912-1982)
as "the Chekhov of the suburbs." It struck
me as neat, convenient literary shorthand. It was predicated
upon a received image of suburban life that has become
all-too-common nowadays: on the surface, we see manicured
lawns, cars in driveways, children (mostly white) running
carefree in the streets; and then at the end of the
day, fathers walking slowly home from the train station,
tie loosened, briefcase in one hand, rolled-up newspaper
in the other, to be greeted by a smiling wife and dinner
in the oven. But as the lights go down, the darker dimension
takes hold, and all the carefully-concealed secrets
- alcoholism, adultery, dysfunctionality -- erupt to
the surface, and the huge metaphor is complete, revealing
raw facts about "the emptiness at the heart of
the so-called American dream."
Critics have attributed John Cheever's slow ascent
to recognition to the idea that he spent too much time
and energy focusing upon upper middle-class, suburban
characters; and also to his dedication to the short
story form. But let us remember that The Wapshot
Chronicle was a novel - his first novel, no less.
And in perfect symmetry, his selected Stories
won the National Book Award twenty years later.
Cheever was born in Quincy, Massachusetts on May 27,
1912. His father, Frederick Lincoln Cheever, was a shoe
salesman. His mother, Mary Liley Cheever, was English
by birth. At age fourteen, John enrolled in Thayer Academy
in South Braintree, where he failed to distinguish himself
academically; his father lost his job and savings the
same year, and his mother opened a gift shop and later
a dress shop, to help make ends meet. In the spring
of his senior year at Thayer, John was thrown out of
prep school ("I was quarrelsome, intractable, and
a lousy student") and his parents separated thereafter.
He wrote a short story based upon his humiliating if
liberating experience called "Expelled," and
sent it to The New Republic. The editor, renowned
critic Malcolm Cowley, immediately published the young
man's work, and thus John Cheever's literary career
was launched while he was still a teenager.
Cheever went to live with his older brother, Frederick,
in Boston, and then moved down to New York City where
he rented a tiny apartment, subsisted on bread and buttermilk,
and eked out a living writing short stories and screenplay
synopses for MGM.
He worked on the New York City guide published by the
WPA, married Mary Winternitz, and in 1942 enlisted in
the Army. The following year, his first collection of
short stories - he would eventually publish more than
one hundred of them in The New Yorker - was published,
called The Way Some People Live. This book set
the thematic tone for the divided life of so many of
Cheever's memorable characters, spending their days
in the competitive asphalt jungle of corporate New York,
and their evenings and weekends in the deceptive calm
of pastoral suburbia.
Five novels followed over the next four decades, standing
prominently among the landscape of his short fiction.
These included the Wapshot epics, as well as
Bullet Park, Falconer, and Oh What a Paradise
Wapshot Chronicle follows the family of the same
name over several generations of trials and tribulations
in the Massachusetts fishing village of St. Botolphs.
Perhaps I am going out on a limb here, but I guarantee
that after twenty-five pages you will give yourself
up to the talents of what I like to call "an old-fashioned
writer." The back cover of the new paperback edition
from HarperCollins (which has a wonderful Foreword by
Rick Moody) makes a praising analogy to the English
novelist Anthony Trollope (1815-1882), and I must admit
that I was halfway through Trollope's masterpiece The
Way We Live Now (1875) when I took up Wapshot
for this essay - and so I see the aptness of that point.
Aside from both having been the sons of fathers who
went bankrupt, and both having had "disjointed"
educations, Cheever and Trollope as writers take a healthy,
and welcome, lighter view of the mores of bourgeois
Unlike Dickens, Trollope does not concern himself too
much with layer upon layer of moral agony. Trollope
views his characters with affection and humor. He takes
an episodic approach to their daily round, cutting from
one social venue to another, from rural English country
estate to the labyrinthine highways and byways of London,
and back again. You get a similar feeling of narrative
movement in Cheever. And furthermore, Cheever takes
admittedly mixed emotions about the memories of his
own childhood and youth, and applies them as a kind
of patina over the relationship of the two Wapshot brothers,
Moses and Coverly.
Just as James Joyce -- another short story writer and
novelist -- might have half-denied he "was"
Stephen Dedalus, John Cheever infused himself into Coverly,
but it was not a direct translation; otherwise (as Cheever's
daughter, Susan, says in an interview) Wapshot
would not be a novel. There is a telling moment when
Coverly breaks the news to his parents that he has gone
off to Boston with his older brother and from there
will head to New York "to prove [his] self-reliance
know there is no finer place in the world than St. Botolphs,"
he writes them in a note left behind, "and when
I have made my mark I am coming back
But now I
am old enough to go out in the world and make my fortune."
Reading this passage and following Coverly Wapshot's
vicissitudes, we know that we are experiencing a bildungsroman
squarely in the modern tradition of Kafka, Joyce and
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Baldwin photo credit: Sandra Wavrick