Wednesday

May 27, 2009

Counting the Mad

by Donald Justice

This one was put in a jacket,
This one was sent home,
This one was given bread and meat
But would eat none,
And this one cried No No No No
All day long.

This one looked at the window
As though it were a wall,
This one saw things that were not there,
This one things that were,
And this one cried No No No No
All day long.

This one thought himself a bird,
This one a dog,
And this one thought himself a man,
An ordinary man,
And cried and cried No No No No
All day long.

"Counting the Mad" by Donald Justice, from New and Selected Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer John Cheever, (books by this author) born in Quincy, Massachusetts (1912). His parents had once been wealthy, but his father's alcoholism brought about the family's financial demise. Cheever's mother opened a gift trinket shop to make ends meet, a situation that Cheever found humiliating. He flunked out of his prep school at age 17, and then wrote a short story called "Expelled," which he sold to The New Republic for $87; he was 18 years old. By the age of 22, he'd sold a story to The New Yorker,and a few year later was a regular contributor to the magazine, which would eventually publish more than 100 of his stories. His most famous stories include "The Enormous Radio," "Goodbye, My Brother," "The Five-Forty-Eight," "The Country Husband," and "The Swimmer."

Cheever went to great lengths to portray his life as a pleasant one of suburban gentility, and himself as a "New England gentleman." But his journals, published in 1991, eight years after his death, revealed the misery and wretchedness that Cheever seemed steeped in for much of his life. He wrote that he feared being "a small and dirty fraud." In his journals, he wrote about his intense struggle with alcoholism, about being tortured and conflicted over his bisexuality, and about constant bickering and feuds with his family. He wrote that he was afraid of becoming "the lonely boy with no role in life but to peer in at the lighted windows of other people's contentment and vitality."

Cheever is the subject of a new 770-page biography by Blake Bailey, (books by this author) Cheever: A Life. Bailey had been contacted by Cheever's three children to write an authorized biography of their father.

The Cheever children offered Bailey access to 4,300 pages of journals of John Cheever, more than 10 times as voluminous as the journal excerpts (which amounted to 400 pages) that had been published in 1991. Very few people had seen these unpublished journals. Bailey was a little wary of accepting the job of "authorized biography," and wanted to retain authorial control. In the end, he and Cheever's children compromised, Bailey said: "They were allowed to vet my manuscript for factual accuracy. [But] they couldn't say something like, 'Our father really wasn't a mean drunk.'"

Bailey's biography Cheever: A Life came out just a few months ago, in March 2009. Bailey said: "Cheever's comfort zone was his imagination, this alternative universe where his fiction came from. When the morning was over, when he had finished his writing, he had to enter the real world. And that was frightening to him. He lived with the terror that he thought his children would discover his sexual life. He felt like an impostor. He despised himself. And it was assuaged only by the next drink."

This year, the nonprofit publisher Library of America released a two-volume edition of John Cheever's work, containing all of his novels and more than 70 stories. The volumes were edited by Bailey.

John Cheever's stories were previously collected in various volumes, including The Stories of John Cheever (1978), which won a Pulitzer Prize. His novels include The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), The Wapshot Scandal (1965), Bullet Park (1969), and Falconer (1977).

Cheever said, "A page of good prose remains invincible."

Cheever once described the writer's task as to evoke "the perfumes of life: sea water, the smoke of burning hemlock and the breasts of women."

And he wrote, "The world that was not mine yesterday now lies spread out at my feet, a splendor. I seem, in the middle of the night, to have returned to the world of apples, the orchards of Heaven. Perhaps I should take my problems to a shrink, or perhaps I should enjoy the apples that I have, streaked with color like the evening sky."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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