John Cheever (based on photograph by Nancy Crampton)
“A lonely man is a lonesome thing, a stone, a bone, a stick, a receptacle for Gilbey’s gin, a stooped figure sitting at the edge of a hotel bed, heaving copious sighs like the autumn wind.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
“If I could catch the feeling, I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world,” Virginia Woolf wrote in contemplating the relationship between loneliness and creativity. Half a century later, Hannah Arendt considered how tyrants use loneliness as the common ground of terror. “Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise, [and] it can run deep in the fabric of a person,” Olivia Laing observed in her exquisite inquiry into the texture of loneliness in art and life.
Few writers have captured the way in which loneliness can rip the fabric of the psyche asunder between the poles of the creative and the tyrannical more articulately than John Cheever (May 27, 1912–June 18, 1982). Loneliness — its anguish, its expression, its antidotes, its eventual acceptance — permeates The Journals of John Cheever(public library), one of those rare masterworks of introspection radiating enormous insight into the universal human experience.
The journals — which Cheever’s son knew his father wanted published — were as much a workbook for the Pulitzer-winning writer’s fiction as they were a workbook for his character, his struggles, and his very self. His son, Benjamin Cheever, writes in the preface:
By 1979 John Cheever had become a literary elder statesman. “I’m a brand name,” he used to say, “like corn flakes, or shredded wheat.” He seemed to enjoy this status. He must have suspected that the publication of the journals would alter it.
Few people knew of his bisexuality. Very few people knew the extent of his infidelities. And almost nobody could have anticipated the apparent desperation of his inner life, or the caustic nature of his vision. But I don’t think he cared terribly about being corn flakes. He was a writer before he was a breakfast food. He was a writer almost before he was a man.
He saw the role of the serious writer as both lofty and practical in the same instant. He used to say that literature was one of the first indications of civilization. He used to say that a fine piece of prose could not only cure a depression, it could clear up a sinus headache. Like many great healers, he meant to heal himself.
And what he sought to heal most of all, what saturated his psyche more than anything, was his loneliness. His son writes:
For much of his life he suffered from a loneliness so acute as to be practically indistinguishable from a physical illness.
He meant by his writing to escape this loneliness, to shatter the isolation of others… With the journals … he meant to show others that their thoughts were not unthinkable.
His was a bone-deep loneliness that had afflicted him since childhood, despite his seemingly idyllic upbringing in a well-to-do family nestled into a genteel New England suburb. Cheever captures this hollowing alienation in an early journal entry:
Walking back from the river I remember the galling loneliness of my adolescence, from which I do not seem to have completely escaped. It is the sense of the voyeur, the lonely, lonely boy with no role in life but to peer in at the lighted windows of other people’s contentment and vitality. It seems comical — farcical — that, having been treated so generously, I should be stuck with this image of a kid in the rain walking along the road shoulders of East Milton…