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On John Cheever

John Cheever died on June 18, 1982. The following was read at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in December.

John and I met at irregular intervals all over the US. I gave him lunch in Cambridge, he bought me a drink in Palo Alto; he came to Chicago, I went to New York. Our friendship, a sort of hydroponic plant, flourished in the air. It was, however, healthy, fed by good elements, and it was a true friendship. Because we met in transit, as it were, we lost no time in getting down to basics. On both sides there was instant candor. The speed at which necessary information was exchanged was wonderfully amusing. Each of us knew what the other was. We worked at the same trade which, in America, is a singularly odd and difficult one practiced by difficult people who are not always pleased by the talents of their contemporaries. (Think of that wicked wizard, the late Nabokov, who coined terms like “ethnopsychic novelists,” dismissing us by the platoon.) John was not in the least grudging or rivalrous. Like the late John Berryman he was fabulously generous with other writers. Yes, an odd lot, poets and writers of fiction, and to those who write novels about it the country, too, is singularly paradoxical, very different from the “normal” America that businessmen, politicians, journalists and trade unionists, advertising men and scientists, engineers and farmers live in.

I think that the difference between John and me endeared us more to each other than the affinities. He was a Yankee; I, from Chicago, was the son of Jewish immigrants. His voice, his style, his humor were different from mine. His manner was reticent, mine was—something else. It fell to John to resolve these differences. He did this without the slightest difficulty, simply by putting human essences in first place: first the persons—himself, myself—and after that the other stuff, class origins, social history. A fairly experienced observer, I have never seen the thing done as he did it—done, I mean, as if it were not done at all but flowed directly from his nature. And although his manner was reticient there was nothing that John would not say about himself. When he seemed to hesitate he was actually condensing his judgments, his opinions, his estimates of his own accomplishments in order to give them greater force. He spoke of himself as he would speak of anybody else, disinterestedly and concisely. He preferred short views and practiced the same economy in speech as in writing. He might have said, as Pushkin did, “I live as I write; I write as I live.”

Miss Kakutani of The New York Times used excellent judgment in choosing the quotation with which she began John’s obituary. “The constants that I look for,” he once wrote, “are a love of light and a determination to trace some moral chain of being.” I’m sure that John didn’t relish making statements about morals and being, that wasn’t his style. I see it as a reluctant assertion, something he had at last to say to correct distortion by careless readers, book reviewers and academic category makers. I suppose that he felt it necessary at last to try to say what he had been doing with himself for some fifty years.

There are writers whose last novels are very like the first. Having learned their trade, mastered it once and for all, they practice it with little variation to the very end. They can be very good novelists. Think of Somerset Maugham or Arnold Bennett (you can supply American names of your own), exceedingly proficient and dependable servants of the reading public. What they lack is the impulse to expand. They do not develop, they seldom surprise. John Cheever was a writer of another sort, altogether. He was one of the self-transformers. The reader of his collected stories witnesses a dramatic metamorphosis. The second half of the collection is quite different from the first. Rereading him, as I have recently done, it became apparent to me, and will certainly be evident to anyone who reads him attentively, how much of his energy went into self-enlargement and transformation and how passionate the investment was. It is extraordinarily moving to find the inmost track of a man’s life and to decipher the signs he has left us. Although the subjects and themes of his stories did not change much, he wrote with deepening power and feeling.

With characteristic brevity and diffidence he only tells us, toward the end, that he loved the light and that he was determined to trace some moral chain of being—no simple matter in a world which, in his own words, lies “spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream.” His intention was, however, not only to find evidence of a moral life in a disorderly society but also to give us the poetry of the bewildering and stupendously dreamlike world in which we find ourselves. There are few people around who set themselves such a task, who put their souls to work in such a way. “Normal America” might ask, if it were inclined to formulate such a question, “What sense does that actually make?” Perhaps not much, as “sense” is commonly defined. But there are other definitions. For me no one makes more sense, no one is so interesting as a man who engages his soul in an enterprise of this kind. I find myself, as I grow older, increasingly drawn to those who live as John did. Those who choose such an enterprise, who engage in such a struggle, make all the interest of life for us. The life John led leaves us in his debt, we are his debtors, and we are indebted to him even for the quality of the pain we feel at his death.

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