When F.O. Matthiessen jumped to his death from a twelfth-story window of a Boston hotel on April 1, 1950, the shock reverberated far beyond his established orbit as a literary critic and Harvard professor. At the time there were other dramatic refusals to enter the second half of the twentieth century: notably that of Klaus, the eldest son of Thomas Mann, who gave up striving to find his own identity as a writer, and that of the gifted Cesare Pavese, who had begun by translating Moby-Dick into Italian and was scheduled to translate Matthiessen’s most important book, American Renaissance. Officious voices were immediately raised to interpret the latter’s suicide as an episode in the cold war. His latest book, From the Heart of Europe, had been an honest if ineffectual testimony for communicating across the Iron Curtain even as it was coming down. Active more and more as a Christian Socialist, starting from undergraduate activities at Yale, he had seconded the nomination of Henry Wallace for president in 1948. He had been in friendly touch with Bronson Cutting, Jerry Voorhis, Harry Bridges, and the Trotskyist labor leader Ray Dunne. He had reported on the miners’ strike at Gallup, New Mexico, presided over the Harvard Teachers’ Union, participated in fellow-traveling committees, and had freely signed many a left-wing petition.

During his forty-eight years he had thus become a public figure, as well as a remarkably productive and imaginative scholar-teacher. Insofar as literature was concerned, American Renaissance became the monument of the movement toward American studies that had developed in the United States before the Second World War and spread to Europe shortly afterward. Thoroughly committed to his teaching and taken up for a while in academic administration, with increasingly frequent leaves of absence, he was able to produce a richly substantial body of writing, and his contributions to the revival of Henry James were second only to those of Leon Edel. He had absorbed and broadened the inspirations and instigations of Van Wyck Brooks and Lewis Mumford, V.L. Parrington and D.H. Lawrence, and—more generally—of T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards, and Edmund Wilson. His approach was “adhesive,” to use a Whitmanesque word; while concentrating on the texts of major writers, it set them into context by synthesizing aesthetic and social considerations. Influence was creative; he drew upon it and passed it on; and he generously acknowledged the interactions that affected all his books. Chapter by chapter, some of them were read aloud to his friends; and, since he was more interested in other styles than in his own, he utilized assistance when revising his manuscripts.

Spokesmen for the Communist Party, to which he had never belonged, loudly signalized his suicide as a political gesture. It could be remarked that the manner of it paralleled the recent defenestration of Jan Masaryk, whose acquaintance in Prague he had cherished as a last point of contact with the hope for a free postwar Europe. But Matthiessen himself was careful to write in a note, which he left in the hotel room along with his keys, his glasses, and his fraternity emblem: “How much the state of the world has to do with my state of mind I do not know.” Louis Hyde, his Yale classmate, close friend, literary executor, and the editor of the present collection, opens his introduction by recalling that Matthiessen had experienced a similar impulse in December 1938, when a nervous breakdown intervened to block his work on American Renaissance. In the reflective and retrospective journal he briefly kept at the mental hospital, he mentioned more than once the recurrent fantasy “that it would be better if I jumped out the window.” His physician, he wrote, “talks of the aggression that I am turning against myself.” This would be the purport of the reply he gave my wife at a dinner some eleven years later, a week or so before he acted out that fantasy, when she had attempted to rally his low spirits by telling him that he was not being as aggressive as usual.

I must frankly say that it came with an emotional repercussion for me to encounter, in the proof sheets of this book, a letter addressed to myself—but unfinished and unsent—during Matthiessen’s period of hospitalization forty years ago. There he expresses his perplexity over “what accounts for a slip of nerve.” He had an innately powerful will, and would need it to carry through his fatal resolution. Meanwhile, he continues in his aborted communication, “there remains that damnable deathwish that I haven’t yet been able to shake off.” Happily, he managed to shake it off, to complete his major work, and to establish himself as a prominent force in American letters. The difference between that earlier crisis and the final one lay in the presence and absence of the painter Russell Cheney, who died in 1945. So Mr. Hyde suggests in his opening observation, and those who knew the two men intimately will agree. Other pressures were then building up in Matthiessen’s complex and sensitive mind, and he found his contacts less humanly rewarding both within the university and in the world at large. But the personal foundation on which his career depended was his relationship with Cheney: a love affair which lasted twenty years, a ménage for fifteen years centered in the little house they shared at Kittery, Maine (now the residence of Mr. Hyde).


A friend of Matthiessen’s who has been both his student and his colleague is bound to read these letters with mixed feelings, one of which is the question whether they should have been published. Matthiessen himself, after all, brought out a splendid monograph on Cheney’s life and work, with numerous illustrations and a text interwoven from his correspondence.1 (One of those letters, not reprinted here, is revealing enough to contain the phrase: “you who are such a man’s man.”) Matthiessen was soon commemorated by a special issue of The Monthly Review, a socialist periodical in which he took great interest, subsequently republished in hard covers.2 George White, who has been preparing a full-length biography, has already contributed a long informal revaluation to a symposium which first appeared in Tri-Quarterly.3 Richard Ruland has devoted a central chapter to Matthiessen in his useful study of our literary historiography, The Rediscovery of American Literature.4 An entire volume on the subject, Giles Gunn’s F.O. Matthiessen: The Critical Achievement, is both systematic and suggestive.5 A short but interesting memoir by Kenneth Lynn, one of his later students, has recently figured in The American Scholar. 6 So far as Matthiessen’s “achievement” is involved—and the word was stressed by his book on Eliot—it has received and will long be receiving the attention it so well deserves, notwithstanding the backhanded afterthoughts in Alfred Kazin’s latest biography.7

As for the violation of his privacy, I have little doubt that Matthiessen would have hated it, and Cheney was even more self-conscious about the stigmata of homosexuality. Of course it may well be argued that a new generation has become more sympathetic, or at least more tolerant, and that the example of two fine people thus attaining mutual fulfillment may exercise a liberating effect on others subjected to conventional suspicions or constraints. Yet Matthiessen had a strong sense of cultural contexts, and was intensely aware of the double life he was taking pains to lead. A casual comment on his soft voice by a fatuous professor of public speaking set him to wondering: “Am I just like any fairy?” Attributing to Watteau the sentiment “Let’s be gay,” he could scarcely have realized what the adjective would come to connote; nor could he, in his inherent seriousness, ever have accepted that connotation. Unquestionably these revelations bring out the disingenuousness of May Sarton’s effort to center a novel upon his person while ignoring the basic psychological facts.8 But Auden, who observed far less discretion in his modus vivendi, enjoined his correspondents to burn his letters. Eliot, however, who wanted no biography, has latterly been the victim of some rather far-fetched endeavors to reinterpret his poetry in a homosexual light.

Though the letters of distinguished persons ought to be preserved and made available to biographers and qualified researchers, I am old-fashioned enough to believe that they should be classified when they were so clearly not intended for the eyes of outside readers, and that the secrets of lovers should be respected as such. Here their private pet-names, which could have little meaning for others, are not only emblematized in their signatures but flaunted together in the title. Since the executor-editor has chosen to present this material to the reading public, something must be said about his technique of presentation. As an editorial job it is not very competent. Several holograph facsimiles, included among the illustrations, make it possible to test the reliability of the transcriptions against the manuscript copy. There are occasional errors, not many, but the sampling is small; a proportionate number for the whole would be damaging. We have lost a significant detail when the word “Sung” is dropped from Cheney’s description of a “piece of pottery.” There are few footnotes, and some of these go astray, as with the quotation attributed to Baudelaire (via Eliot), which is actually from Villon: “Quand [it should have been Que] toutes mes hontes j’ai bu.” Names and identifications, as listed in a “Cast of Characters” at the end, have been all too frequently garbled.

Mr. Hyde informs us that the correspondence mounts up to about 3,100 letters: 1,400 from Matthiessen, 1,700 from Cheney. By his word-count he has given us one sixteenth of the total wordage. Almost from their first meeting they had decided to keep some account for one another of every day they spent apart, so that the sequence constitutes a pair of journals, in which the interruptions stand for their sojourns together. Mr. Hyde’s selection leans heavily toward the earliest stages. The longest section covers the first year of their companionship, 1924-1925; the second section deals substantially with 1929-1930, when Matthiessen was beginning to teach at Harvard and Cheney was painting in the Southwest; the third is focused on the brief and painful interlude when Matthiessen was hospitalized, 1938-1939; and the fourth falls within a year of Cheney’s death, 1944-1945. Hence the interstices in the record are overwhelming, and they are inadequately bridged by the editor’s sketchy transitions and excerpted quotations. Cheney, though his settings were varied, and though his descriptions are vividly pictorial, pursued a retiring pattern of daily activity, and was uninterested in politics. Whereas Matthiessen was widely and dynamically engaged, and functioned as a kind of percipient conscience for a good many others—an “ethicist” as opposed to “artist,” in his own formulation.


Presumably there should be much in the full collection, not put into print, which would have illuminated Matthiessen’s intellectual development, his educational views, his critical principles, and his critique of society. One is curious to learn more about his firsthand response to his chief graduate mentors, Irving Babbitt and John Livingston Lowes (regarded then as polar opposites), or his encouragement of such younger talents as Delmore Schwartz or Charles Olson. Above all, students of American culture would like to trace his course of rediscovery, after his eighteenth-century immersion at Yale and Oxford and his Harvard thesis on Elizabethan prose. He describes his own epistolary prose as “a jumble of half-thoughts, events, and ideas.” But Mr. Hyde has preferred to stress the personal relationship, as it is highlighted by love letters. His candor in exposing sexual intimacy is ironically counter-weighed by his discretion in veiling a certain institutional commitment. That Matthiessen was an extremely loyal member of the Yale senior society, Skull and Bones, had a formative impact on his character, and made him a lifelong party to an old-boy network which reached high in the establishment. Faithfully observing its code of secrecy, Mr. Hyde deletes all references to it, and substitutes such bracketed euphemisms as “[a little group of intimate friends].”

The uninitiated should not be tempted into speculation over the particular effects of this cult of brotherhood on a disposition like Matthiessen’s. To the reader of Proust it might suggest his running analogy between homosexual circles and the mysterious confraternity of the Jews. Yet it seems evident that the bonding ritual prompted Matthiessen into some sort of confession, which must have been agonizing for him and embarrassing for his clubmates. To their credit—in the era when the norms of masculinity were set by Percy Haughton and the shade of Dink Stover—they were not unsympathetic. But their sympathy must have taken the form of encouraging a conversion to heterosexuality, and apparently he acceded to the extent of hoping to be happily married some day. The ambiguities of that situation were unexpectedly resolved a year or two later, after his decisive encounter with Cheney on a transatlantic liner, which led to his realization that he was what he was “by nature,” and that he could accept his nature by working out a way of living with Cheney. Characteristically, the “prologue” that informs us of the decision is an excerpt from a letter to his “[close friend],” Russell Davenport, a college poet who would edit Fortune and celebrate the American Century. Matthiessen’s arrangement with Cheney had to be confirmed by secretly announcing it to their brethren.

For a unique human being, Matthiessen had a classic case history. Slight in stature, delicate in feature, anxious to avoid his somewhat bisexual forename (Francis), he was the youngest child of a broken family. His immigrating German-Danish grandfather had made a fortune by manufacturing Big Ben alarm clocks. Matty had little from it until his last years; indeed he had to borrow a thousand dollars to subsidize the publication of American Renaissance. He abhorred the callous playboy father he scarcely knew, and adored his New England mother, by whose grave he is buried in execution of his request. His psychosexual inclinations came out in his prep school days, and tended to fix upon older men. He would not fully relate this need to “the empty space where my father should have been” until his therapeutic sessions at the McLean Hospital. That he could feel “no female sexual attraction” he had tested on an unlikely occasion when, of all people, Rudy Vallee—the crooning bandmaster, a Yale alumnus, though not likely to have been a Bones man—had rushed him into an evening at “the toughest dive in Europe.” There he had felt “half ashamed” at not responding to a London whore, he confessed to Cheney, who sympathized. Yet Matthiessen had several affectionate friendships with women, two of the closest with former wives divorced from his male friends.

Cheney was his senior by more than twenty years. He too was a youngest child (with ten siblings), the wayward son in a silk manufacturing dynasty solidly located at South Manchester, Connecticut. He too had adored his mother, and sealed his pact by setting Matthiessen’s photograph in the frame where he carried hers. A handsome man at his prime, he was never robust; having recovered from tuberculosis, he was troubled by other ills, not least by alcohol; the rhythms of his artistic career were punctuated by stays in sanatoriums. He had studied art in Paris and traveled widely to practice it, living on an independent income. Confessing that he was “not an arrived character,” he might have dallied into dilettantism, if his talent had not been reinforced by Matthiessen’s will power. He evolved his own distinctive—if not highly original—vein of Post-Impressionism, characterized by pastel shadings and heavy outlines. His style is always graceful and decorative, though it shows a tendency to convert portraits and landscapes into still lifes. Obviously, he could never have lived by his painting, but he exhibited professionally at regular intervals, and his work is represented in various museums. If he was an amateur, it was in the most positive sense: he really loved and cultivated the beautiful, and had a genuine flair for helping others to discern it.

The initiative was Matthiessen’s. When they met on the boat he was completing his Oxford B. Litt., while Cheney was heading toward the Continent. Their rendezvous at Christmas time in Italy was a honeymoon, and Matthiessen would be disciplined at New College for overstaying his vacation. It was likewise he who proposed that they set up a household. Cheney had his misgivings and hesitations, especially over Matthiessen’s firm condition that the bonded brothers be notified; and Cheney’s family would disapprove. “You can’t admit the situation openly,” he worried. It was he who sacrificed his freedom to attain comparative stability, but he was compelled by Matthiessen’s arguments. The alternatives, “Promiscuity and self-abuse are impure and ugly.” The worst alternative was the unbearable loneliness: “Here is our God-given chance not to be alone.” Other men have wives; and though there may be “other unions like ours,” we cannot draw upon them. “We must create everything for ourselves.” It would be “a marriage that was never seen on land or sea.” Therefore it should have no name or label; it is “beyond society.” Previous sexuality had been “lust,” from which he now disgustedly withdrew. Moreover, he maintained a punctilious line between friendship and pedagogy, on the one hand, and sex on the other. Doubtless there was sublimated eros in his teaching, as there has been from Socrates to Pater.

This was their opportunity to combine “mind, body, and soul” in a single union. Most marriages profess such an ideal; few of them achieve it perfectly; and theirs, beset with impediments, bravely overcame them so far as it could under the circumstances. Cheney’s drinking was already a problem, and Matthiessen helped him to fight it by chiding, pleading, and warning, which probably did much to postpone an inevitable surrender. Both of them felt occasionally tempted into lapses that ultimately strengthened their fidelity. Russell was a gentle, modest, and charming man, whose cultivation came naturally to him while Matty exerted himself—and that very exertion played its part in his success as a pedagogue. Yet he often profited from an awareness which had been sensitized and enlarged by the contributions of Cheney. These were most perceptibly exemplified in the synesthetic linkages between literature and the arts. But Cheney was also the cicerone to Europe and to languages, where Matthiessen was admittedly his pupil, and where Baudelaire’s French would have to be confronted. It was Cheney who first set Matthiessen to re-reading Whitman, even while the young Rhodes scholar was visiting Eton and Windsor, and who suggested and illustrated Matthiessen’s first book: a study of Sarah Orne Jewett, his mother’s relative, the accomplished storyteller of the region into which they had just settled down.

It was Cheney who expressly enacted the wifely role, in a manner which might not be called liberated today. He was an excellent cook, and often supplemented the pleasant meals of their black houseman, Nelson, on our visits to the cottage at Kittery, where a succession of fat and pampered cats enjoyed the freedom of the dinner table. Whenever Matty talked shop with a visiting colleague, it was Russell’s habit to converse with that colleague’s wife. All would join together for a view of the latest paintings in his studio, a long walk by the seashore or across the countryside, or a guided tour of historic Portsmouth across the harbor. Sometimes there would be a game or two of deck tennis, dominated by Matty’s driving spirit. “He is a fierce competitor,” as a familiar neighbor put it. “He usually wins—at whatever it is.” Roles changed when he underwent his failure of nerve, and Russell temporarily became the protective partner. But he could not be so for long, since the fear of Cheney’s death was “the obscure demon” that Matty was fighting: “whether I could face life without Russell.” During the five-year respite the two lived together in Boston more openly than before. Their apartment on Pinckney Street (Mr. Hyde skips over their previous domicile on Mount Vernon Street) would be the scene of literary gatherings and of their warmly remembered Christmas parties.

Living there alone for five years after the loss he had feared, Matthiessen could not escape from an extended feeling of isolation. He took less and less satisfaction in his Harvard ties, criticized himself for wasting his energies in criticizing an unsympathetic administration, and seemed to be losing those resources of empathy which had met and captivated the minds of prior generations of students. He was on leave of absence during his final year, immersed in the rebarbative and cheerless fiction of Dreiser, who would be the subject of a posthumous book. He saw many people who were fond of, and concerned for, him; but they could hardly reconstitute his domestic partnership. At its inception he had written Cheney: “You’ll give me balance, a touch with life. And instead of being an energetic accurate little machine, I may be a personality.” He became one indeed, most abundantly; wholeheartedly he realized the precept that he had quoted from Piers Plowman: “Disce, doce, dilige (Learn, teach, love)”; and yet his shifting equilibrium had rested on the assurance of Cheney’s continued devotion. Prodding him for more letters in their earliest interchange, Matthiessen jocularly asked: “How else am I going to write your biography in the year 1970?” Yet I have heard Matty remark—and not in a moment of stress—that he never expected to live beyond the age of fifty.

Many of those who may have shared his unhappiness over the state of the world at mid-century, having been more securely insulated by more fortunate circumstance, still survive to be no happier about the current state of affairs. But Matthiessen was not an ideologue, not political by temperament, as Eliot justly surmised. He was in truth a devoutly religious man, temperamentally if not theologically or liturgically, with an increasing adherence to the Anglican faith. He could not be a Marxist because he was a Christian, as he often told his leftist friends, while he told his more conservative friends that, if he were not a Christian, he would become a Marxist. His final act was certainly not a statement for either Christianity or Marxism. Yet, when so well-defined an identity opts for the Stoic alternative of self-destruction, he leaves the rest of us feeling some sense of guilt for our mere survival. This I think he understood and intended to convey, as an unwritten message far more searching than these indiscreetly published letters. Thus his death reopened the existential question raised by the first two sentences of Albert Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus: “There is only one philosophical problem which is truly serious; it is suicide. To judge whether life itself is or is not worth the trouble of being lived—that is the basic question of philosophy.”

Any answer would be far from pointing toward the conclusion that Matthiessen’s own life had not been richly rewarding, to himself as well as to untold others. For him the judgment was a matter of timing, of weighing the rewards against the troubles. In the words he especially valued from Hamlet: “The readiness is all.” As an epigraph to The Achievement of T.S. Eliot he had cited an intuition of Yeats: “We begin to live when we have conceived life as a tragedy.” The framing paradox in his interpretation of American literature is that this conception had been balanced, seemingly overbalanced, by all the optimistic imperatives—“the smiling aspects,” in the byword of Howells, who once consoled Edith Wharton for a theatrical fiasco by telling her that what the audience expected was “a tragedy with a happy ending.” Matthiessen was as much committed to the Party of Hope as to the Party of Memory in their Emersonian conflict. But his preoccupation with the common man seems, like Whitman’s, to have been the mystique of an uncommon man. Consciousness of belonging to a harassed minority may have aided him to identify with unpopular causes, to transfigure a psychic alienation by standing “out in left field.” At the same time he was drawn ambivalently, through his Yale associations and his early recognition at Harvard (under the Lowell regime), into what he rather too seriously regarded as an elite.

Though the opposition between the academic establishment and the ideological left was not nearly so extreme as he conceived it, he came to hold an almost schizoid image of his existence. Alternatively an outsider on the inside or an insider on the outside, he consistently stood near the edge of the action. Individual experience, confirmed by social observation, deepened what he termed in American Renaissance “a profound comprehension of the mixed nature of life.” This made a striking drama out of his dialectical treatment of our greatest literary imaginations: the American dreams of Emerson and Whitman pitted against the darkening visions of Hawthorne and Melville. Thesis was countered by antithesis; but, though the book speaks hopefully of synthesis, there was none for its author; the buoyant particularities were outmatched by the tragic universals. That impulsion to leap from a precipice, which Poe has so dizzyingly detailed, had long been tantalizing Matthiessen. He was fascinated by the fall from the yard-arm in White-Jacket, and from the Tarpeian Rock in The Marble Faun, as he was by the concept of the Fall of Man in Judeo-Christian theology, occasioned by the angels’ primordial tragedy. In his ultimate choice he literally dramatized a response to the criticism of Walter Rathenau: “America has no soul and will not deserve to have one until it consents to plunge into the abyss of human sin and suffering.”

This Issue

July 20, 1978