What Cheever Can Tell Us About Writing Through Another Depression

Daniel Torday

In January of 1955, John Cheever took his first teaching post, running a creative writing workshop at Barnard College. Cheever had never even graduated high school—a headstrong Bostonian who had published his first story, “Expelled from Prep School,” in the New Republic at age eighteen, Cheever had moved to New York to seek the peripatetic education of an autodidact—and the idea of teaching at a prestigious Manhattan girls’ college after having had some real success publishing his work in the New Yorker and the New Republic appealed to the writer. Without any experience on either side of the desk in a college classroom, Cheever rested heavily on his experience as a writer, and spent most of his time reading aloud from a work that would become The Wapshot Chronicle, and burdening his students with tales of the vicissitudes of his own path to literary fame. As biographer Blake Bailey recounts in Cheever, his masterful new biography of the greatest post-war American short story writer:

He mentioned that it would be much harder for them to pursue writing as career than it had been for him in the Depression, when it ‘wasn’t a crime’ to be a writer without a job—that said, they needn’t act like bohemians to succeed, and he warned them explicitly against sleeping with editors (particularly at the New Yorker).

Bailey’s biography is sure-handed, thorough and comprehensive. Not unlike his previous work, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, which was at once a revelation and a frank look at a self-destructive dipsomaniac (and which propelled him into the first ranks of working literary biographers), Bailey’s Cheever book inevitably devotes much of its second half to the vertiginous life of the closeted homosexual who succumbs to debilitating alcoholism (in his case, Cheever did eventually sober up through AA). Cheever’s self-destructive habits hardly come as news: between daughter Susan Cheever’s Home Before Dark (1984), son Ben Cheever’s annotated Letters (1988) and Robert Gottlieb-edited The Journals of John Cheever (1991), most of the now-legendary, then-surreptitious gay life Cheever led has long since been laid bare. But in the early parts of that life in Bailey’s book we learn of a Cheever we might need as an example as we head into life after financial cataclysm: one whose career started, as he recounted to those Barnard students, in the impecunious throes of the Great Depression.

While Cheever might have cast that lifestyle as a kind of counterintuitive benefit to his students, Bailey’s book reveals both the aesthetic and pragmatic effects of writing in the years following the Crash. Shortly after moving to New York, Cheever bounced between stints at the artists’ colony Yaddo and daily life in Manhattan. Unable to follow up on his precocious success after selling that first story to New Republic editor Malcolm Cowley, Cheever settled into a life of penury on Hudson Street:

The place was mostly occupied by unemployed longshoremen, and Cheever’s own room was so exquisitely squalid that Walker Evans would later photograph it—a quintessential Depression tableau—for the Museum of Modern Art. As Cowley remembered: “[Cheever’s] only capital was a typewriter for which he couldn’t often buy a new ribbon”—nor could he summon much energy to writer. Some days he’d simply sit in Washington Square with a friend and discuss the phases of starvation, and once he actually collapsed on Hudson Street.

As Cheever toiled at writing without remuneration, Cowley provided him advice that would become anecdotal literary legend. Magazines were losing advertising revenue fast and were desperate for space. When Cheever, then twenty-two, came to his New Republic editor for advice, “Cowley suggested he try a different approach. ‘Your stories are too long for other magazines to accept from new writers,’” Cowley told his disciple. “Tomorrow, try writing a story of not more than a thousand words, say three and a half of your pages. Write another on Sunday, another on Monday, and still another on Tuesday. Bring them all to the office on Wednesday afternoon, and I’ll see if I can’t get you some money for them.” Cheever did, and promptly sold three of those stories—one went immediately to Cowley, and not long after, Katherine White took a short called “Buffalo” for the New Yorker. It was the first of 122 Cheever stories to appear there.

Cheever was encouraged, but hardly saw his way immediately out of penury from these early sales. Not long after, he found himself desperate for a paycheck. Many writers were beginning to rely on the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project. Cheever was, along with Bellow, Nelson Algren and Richard Wright, probably the most famous beneficiary of the program. In the spring of 1938 he signed on to the FWP’s American Guide Series, making $2,600 a year. But while he was being paid, Cheever found he didn’t have the time or wherewithal to write fiction. He quickly proclaimed “Washington a dreary place” and his “FWP duties left him frazzled and depressed,” and after six months Cheever quit. The program had paid him when he was in need of a paycheck.

While none of the work he did there found its way into Cheever’s published work, the same wasn’t necessarily true for Bellow. Cheever’s longtime friend—along with Updike, Cheever considered Bellow part of a three-man coterie—found a breakthrough in The Adventures of Augie March that’s impossible to extricate from the lives those writers led in the early-to-mid ’30s. After reading Augie, Cheever claimed to “[have] the experience, that I think of as great art, of having a profound chamber of memory revealed to me that I had always possessed but had never comprehended.” (Bailey translates this as, simply, “an incitement to do better.”) In Augie’s work for his outsized employer, Einhorn, Bellow planted the very hunger that defined both Cheever’s early writing years and his own: “I went to work for Einhorn,” Augie tells us early in the novel, “when I was a high-school junior, not long before the great crash, during the Hoover administration, when Einhorn was still a wealthy man.” But not unlike so many of Cheever’s early employment opportunities, Augie’s paid work for Einhorn would dry up: “The Crash was Einhorn’s Cyrus and the bank failures his pyre, the poolroom his exile from Lydia and the hoodlums Cambyses . . . . He officially let me go then, saying weakly, ‘You’re a luxury to me, Augie.’” But where Bellow learned a kind of expansive, prolix aesthetic lesson from the Depression, Cheever’s advice from Cowley led him in a different direction. As Bailey expresses overtly, the Depression never appears in The Wapshot Chronicle, a novel that took Cheever more than a decade to complete.

Cowley himself found upon Wapshot’s publication that his protégé was at bottom a short story writer, and the novel too episodic: “Perhaps you could have given the book a little more of a novelist air by adding a few sentences here and there to answer some questions left hanging,” Cowley told him. This estimation of Wapshot is certainly no final pronouncement on what in many ways is a masterpiece, if a diffuse one; but it’s difficult not to reach the conclusion that despite gaining fame as a novelist, Cheever never cut his roots as a short story writer. Writers who make their living from short stories often blame their lack of novel-writing on time and money. Like Hemingway and Kafka before him, both novelists whose legacies lie with their short stories, Cheever’s lasting monument is in that famous red book, edited by Gottlieb, with the “C” on the cover—and which Bailey reminds us restored Cheever to his true mantel upon its publication in 1978. The most iconic of these stories—“The Enormous Radio”; “The Five-Forty-Eight”; “The Swimmer”—tend to clock in at around ten or so pages. So does “The Country Husband,” and one can’t help but note the resonance of that title with perhaps the most important example of writerly compression in the twentieth century—the Kafka shorts collected as A Country Doctor. While Kafka wasn’t under such directly fiduciary immediacy as a Depression when he was writing those stories, each of them generally one to three pages, he lived in Eastern European squalor. When reading the best of Cheever or of Kafka, one can’t help but be reminded of Hemingway’s response upon reading the stories of that other great prose compressionist of the twentieth century, Isaac Babel: “[His style] shows what can be done,” Hemingway said. “Even when you’ve got all the water out of them, you can still clot the curds a little more.”

One wonders if this isn’t something of what’s ahead for us after the recent troubles in the publishing world: less space, fewer outlets, and above all else a need to do just what Cowley asked of Cheever—write short. Maybe the hidden lesson of Cowley’s advice to write four short pieces in four days was the other side of that coin: Don’t just write short, but write often. Cheever didn’t lose that lesson even late in his career; perhaps his true masterpiece is “Reunion,” written in 1962 and packed into the back of the Collected Stories. In the three-page story, a young man comes to Grand Central Station to meet his estranged father. The two haven’t seen each other for years; the father has his secretary set up a lunch which goes from drink-y to drunken. When the two first meet at Grand Central, Cheever gives his narrator one of those moments you never lose once you’ve heard it: “He put his arm around me, and I smelled my father the way my mother sniffs a rose. It was a rich compound of whiskey, after-shave lotion, shoe polish, woolens and the rankness of a mature male.” It’s not lost on the reader that like so many of Cheever’s characters, this man is a post-war businessman, one who has survived the Depression and succeeded. But in Cheever’s hands this empirical experience—yes! we want to say, tell us just how everything smelled!—is preceded by an even more evocative observation: “I knew that when I was grown,” the narrator tells us, and we can’t help but think of the effect of the Depression on Cheever here, “I would be something like him; I would have to plan my campaigns within his limitations.”

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