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Home Before Dark: A Biographical Memoir of John Cheever by His Daughter (Contemporary Classics)by Susan Cheever
My father was always a storyteller. His home room teacher at Thayer Academy used to promise her class that John would tell a story if they behaved. With luck, and increasing skill, he could spin the story out over two or three class periods so that the teacher and his classmates forgot all about arithmetic and geography and social studies. He told them stories about ship captains and eccentric old ladies and orphan boys, gallant men and dazzling women in a world where the potent forces of evil and darkness were confounded and good triumphed in the end. He peopled his tales with his own family and friends and neighbors from the surrounding Massachusetts South Shore towns: Quincy, Hingham, Hanover, Braintree, Norwell, and Wollaston, where he lived in a big clapboard house on the Winthrop Avenue hill with his mother, an Englishwoman whose family had immigrated to Boston when she was six, his father, a gentleman sailor who owned a prosperous shoe factory in nearby Lynn, and his older brother, Fred, who was going away to Dartmouth in the fall.
My father told these stories over and over again all his life. He wrote them into short stories and novels, and he passed them on to his children. He won the National Book Award, and the Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Medal for Literature. He also kept us amused. Still, he never got the stories quite right. Otherwise, how can you explain the way he kept changing them, embroidering some anecdotes and shifting the emphasis in others, adding sequences and even characters, as if he was searching for some ideal balance that might set him free?
As he grew older, my father became increasingly reluctant to talk about his early years, especially to psychiatrists, who invariably zeroed in on his anger at his dominating mother and his identification with his weak father. Later, when he became famous and journalists' questions forced him to talk about his childhood, he patched together a background of suggestions and half-truths that implied a happy youth and a slow but steady progress in his chosen career. It wasn't so.
"It seems that in my coming of age I missed a year — perhaps a day or an hour," he wrote in his journal twenty years after he left home. "The consecutiveness of growth has been damaged. But how can I go back and find this moment that was lost?"
The critical moment was almost certainly lost in the mid-1920's, when my father was an adolescent and the Cheever family's comfortable way of life began to disintegrate. His father had sold his interest in the shoe factory, Whitteridge and Cheever, and invested the profits in stocks that dwindled in value during the late 1920's and became worthless after the stock-market crash of 1929. By 1926, my grandmother had opened a little gift shop on Granite Street in Quincy to help support the family, but in the fall Of 1928 money was so short that my grandparents could no longer pay tuitions, and my father dropped out of Thayer Academy and enrolled in Quincy High School; his grades slid from gentlemen's C's and C minuses to D's and E's. When he returned to Thayer in 1929 to repeat his junior year, his mother was paying the school bills. Fred left Dartmouth and came home to look for a job. When he arrived, still redolent with the glamour of campus life, he met and co-opted my father's girlfriend, Iris Gladwin.
My grandfather, once a dapper, literate businessman who read Shakespeare to his sons, became desperate and bitterly sorry for himself. In 1930 he was forced to begin borrowing from the Wollaston Cooperative Bank against the fine house at 123 Winthrop Avenue. (In 1933 the bank repossessed the house and tore it down.) The family's financial disaster became a personal disaster. My father's parents were separated, and although they were later reconciled, no one in the family was ever reconciled to their new circumstances. His mother expanded her business to a larger gift shop on Hancock Street and began running a tearoom during the summers. Being supported by his wife was a humiliating experience for my grandfather. At home there were angry fights and terrible silences. My father's parents, locked in their private agonies, hardly seemed to notice him. Had they ever noticed him? The unhappiness of those years cast deep shadows over the past as well as the future.
His parents' separation was symbolized for him by "an afternoon when he returned home from school and found the furnace dead, some unwashed dishes on the table in the dining room and at the center of the table a pot of tulips that the cold had killed and blackened," he wrote in his journal in the 1950s, expressing his feelings through a third-person narrator, as he often did. "The realization that anger had driven them both out of the house, that their passionate detestation of one another had blinded them to their commitments to the house and to him traveled crookedly up through his heart like a fissure made by an earthquake in a wall, leaving on one side innocence and trust and on the other the lingering ruefulness and gloom of an orphaned spirit. He never quite escaped the chill of that empty house, and all the symbols of exile — the lighted window on the distant farm, the watch dog's barking, the ship going out to sea, the bright voices of children playing in the distance — held for him so unnatural a force that they could make it seem as if his heart had turned over."
My father's story, as he usually told it, begins with his final departure from Thayer Academy in March of 1930, his junior year, and his flight to New York City. There his first short story, "Expelled," was published by The New Republic in October 1930, when he was eighteen. Typically, there are many different versions of these events.
"It didn't come all at once," the story in The New Republic begins. "It took a very long time. First I had a skirmish with the English department and then all the other departments. Pretty soon something had to be done."
In the story, a boy filled with lively curiosity, quick intelligence, and the love of nature clashes with a school where knowledge is less important than college admissions and curiosity is not allowed. The boy is expelled. He is right, but he is all alone. Autumn comes.
"Everyone is preparing to go back to school," the story explains. "I have no school to go back to.
"I am not sorry. I am not at all glad."
Sometimes my father would say that he had been kicked out of Thayer for smoking. Sometimes he suggested that his attitude as a student had left something to be desired. He once let drop that he had taught himself German in order to show up a mediocre teacher's interpretation of Goethe. Once or twice he told me that he didn't like the quality of the teachers and administrators at Thayer. He had won a scholarship to Harvard, he said, but when his name was read out in morning chapel on a list of students being considered for suspension, he had walked out of the chapel and the school forever.
The Cheevers are very good at walking out. "When I remember my family, I always remember their backs," he wrote in his journal. "They were always indignantly leaving places...They were always stamping out of concerts, sports events, theatres. If Koussevitzky thinks I'll sit through that! That umpire is a crook. This play is filthy. I didn't like the way that waiter looked at me. They saw almost nothing to its completion, and that's the way I remember them, heading for an exit."
At other times, my father would say he left Thayer after the bank foreclosed on the Wollaston house and his family moved temporarily to Aunt Mary Thompson's farmhouse in Hanover — although in fact this did not happen until a few years later. The world seemed to have gone awry. His father was drinking heav
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