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.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »