Oh, What a Chaos It Seems

Cheever bequeathed his biographer a journal as messy as his life.

“Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less),” John Cheever wrote in his story “The Death of Justina.” The art of biography, such as it is, grapples with the same dilemma, and yet the stuff of life tends to remain stubbornly chaotic. Still, the great challenge is to impose order, order, and then more order: to find the most salient themes (flesh lusteth contrary to the spirit was a big one in Cheever’s life) and their concomitant narrative threads, and thus to reconcile the paradoxes of an exquisitely complicated nature. The more a biographer knows, the better—since, of course, to know all is to forgive all, and the goal (my goal, at any rate) is to strive to be compassionate.

Cheever’s fiction was the refinement of an often very messy life, the raw materials of which are found in his journal—perhaps the most exhaustive record of a first-rate American writer’s inner life, and a very messy artifact in itself. I waded into this mess and endeavored to clean it up the way Wall-E rolls around the devastated, polluted planet, the way Sisyphus pushes his rock—because, as a biographer, it’s what one does. The sheer mechanical drudgery had a happy result, though: It melded my mind all the more with my conflicted subject and led to a surprising degree of empathy.

“I read last year’s journal with the idea of giving it to a library,” Cheever wrote in 1978, feeling the periodic tug of posterity. “I am shocked at the frequency with which I refer to my member.” This is true. Perhaps as a kind of masochistic, paradoxical Puritan impulse (instilled by his proud Yankee parents in Quincy, Mass.), Cheever made a point of noting his more sordid sexual encounters (including solo performances), his daily struggle with alcoholism, and his generally scornful observations about friends, colleagues, and, especially, family. (“She [Cheever’s wife] comes out very poorly [in the journal] and I am quite blameless which cannot be the truth,” he mused toward the end of his life.) There is plenty of sublimity, too, and needless to say the whole thing is gorgeously written. At any rate, Cheever ultimately overcame his misgivings about preserving this crucial part of his oeuvre in a library and was even “almost gleeful,” according to his son Ben, at the prospect of posthumous publication.    

The original journal—more than 4,300 pages, 28 volumes in all, mostly typed, single-spaced—was sold in 1990 to Harvard’s Houghton Library, whose staff has done a splendid job with the cosmetic side of things. They have removed the pages from their original three-ring binders (kept in a separate box) and placed them in protective folders. Nothing has been discarded. A billing receipt from Blue Cross Blue Shield, dated 1981 (when Cheever was dying of cancer), may be found in Vol. 17, otherwise concerned with the years 1967-68. One also finds train tickets, a postcard from “Alexandra” (who I later discovered was Cheever’s translator-cum-bedmate during a 1979 trip to Bulgaria), a telegram from Lauren Bacall, newspaper clippings (“Water Detected Outside Earth’s Galaxy”), and so on. Even the box of discarded binders is interesting. In the pocket of one, I found an unmailed letter to the pretty biographer of a great Romantic poet: “This is a proposal of marriage,” Cheever wrote. “I will dedicate my new novel to you. I expect you to dedicate your book to me. We will appear together on the book jacket, photographed in the garden of our 18th century farmhouse on the grassy banks of the Limpopo River.” The letter was written in the spring of 1967, a bleak time in the bleak, bleak history of Cheever’s 41-year marriage.    

Harvard’s neat presentation, however, is like the well-manicured entrance to a labyrinth. The librarians haven’t twigged that the pages of several volumes are almost chaotically jumbled, as if they’d been shuffled like decks of cards—an understandable oversight, since Cheever hardly ever dated his entries. This would explain certain peculiarities in The Journals of John Cheever, a selection of maybe 5 percent of the total edited by Robert Gottlieb and published in 1991. Gottlieb clearly struggled with chronology, and no wonder. The tangles are thickest in the early years, and he simply followed the library’s jumbled page-order of Vol. 2 (dispensing with Vol. 1 altogether), which begins in 1952 and then, a few pages later, lurches back to 1948. Other volumes of the Harvard journal are similarly jumbled, hence the many errors of chronology in the published version, though most are too esoteric to notice—except, say, for a “1960” reference to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, posthumously published in 1964. But then, how could Gottlieb have known (apart from that reference) that Vol. 8, from which the entry was taken, actually belongs between Vols. 12 and 13—or, rather, 12 and 14, whose entries actually precede 13, which begins in March 1965 and then segues into an account of a Russian trip with Updike in October 1964 …

You see the problem—or, rather, my problem: Gottlieb could afford to be somewhat impressionistic, but a biographer (unless he’s writing a kind of Quest for Corvo) needs to have a precise idea of what happened when. Therefore, almost two years of my research were largely devoted to reading and reordering the pages of Cheever’s journal. Nobody knows how the pages got scrambled in the first place, though in the midst of my labor, I sometimes imagined the culprit was Cheever himself—the better to impose a further impish challenge on anyone who had the cheek to make sense of such a life.

The chaos was sometimes weirdly artistic, resulting in juxtapositions that shed light on Cheever’s prismatic nature. A page or two might reflect some consoling spiritual lull, abruptly interrupted on the next page by a burst of self-hatred belonging to some earlier or later phase. Sometimes a historical reference would come in handy, as when Cheever noted Adlai Stevenson’s defeat in the 1952 election (“in our national character there is a deep seated suspicion of perspicacity and wisdom”). But mostly I dated the pages with the help of a massive chronology I constructed of Cheever’s life based on thousands of letters and other sources. Thus I deciphered the various personal allusions: his sister-in-law Buff’s nervous breakdown at the family estate in New Hampshire? August 1946! Dawn Powell’s almost fatal nosebleed at Yaddo? April 1960! And every May 27, again and again, Cheever’s birthday was duly noted along with the invariable “drank too much.”

I finished re-sorting the journal in the spring of 2005, whereupon I transcribed what I needed to my laptop and took the last of many research trips to the Boston area. My final stop was a one-day visit to the Brandeis library archive, where I pored over typescripts of Cheever’s New Yorker stories, particularly intrigued by the marginal glosses of his editor at the magazine William Maxwell. (“What is a shapely day?” the literal-minded Maxwell jotted next to a description of a day “as fragrant and shapely as an apple” in “The Country Husband”; Cheever blithely disregarded the query.) With about 15 minutes to go before the library closed, I glanced at a 31-page portion of his journal that Cheever had donated in the mid-1960s—though obviously there was no need for me to do this, since I had my own (pristinely chronological) copy of the journal. But I couldn’t resist.

Right away, I noticed something amiss: The Brandeis pages were too neatly typed, with a brand-new ribbon, no less. I found a passage on my laptop that I’d transcribed from the original—about Cheever’s meeting with Sophia Loren in the summer of 1967—and compared it with the Brandeis version. Sure enough, they were different! “She seems sincere, magnanimous, lucky and matteroffact,” Cheever had (sloppily) typed in the original, followed by a bit of dialogue between the two. “She seems sincere, magnanimous, lucky and intelligent,” reads the (immaculate) Brandeis version, and the subsequent dialogue has been deleted. Was it possible that Cheever had not only retyped but substantially rewritten many journal pages for the sake of a little academic posterity? To think what pains he might have taken (and therefore spared his biographer) if he’d decided to donate—and tidy up—the whole thing during his lifetime! I was about to investigate further when the nice librarian stuck her head in the room and whispered it was time to go.     

A month after that piquant visit to Brandeis, my family and I moved to New Orleans. My wife had been assigned to Tulane for her doctoral internship in clinical psychology, and though it was only a one-year program, we decided to buy rather than rent a lovely cottage in the neighborhood of Gentilly, about a mile from Lake Pontchartrain. As it happened, we lived there for about two months. When it came time to evacuate prior to Hurricane Katrina, I left my stately, repaginated version of Cheever’s journal on the bottom shelf of my research cabinet, hardly thinking that a few days later the National Guard would be trolling around our house in motorboats.

When I finally returned, a month or so later, the journal over which I’d labored with such loving care (two years!) was four linear feet of solid mold.