Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Underachiever?

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Underachiever?

Article excerpt

It may be hard to believe now, but there was a time when some people talked about The New Yorker as if it were nothing less than the Platonic ideal of a magazine, a holy object beyond the criticism of mere mortals. As John Updike wrote in his later years, recalling how thrilled he had been when he first appeared in its pages, "it seemed very obvious to me . . . that The New Yorker knew best, was best." Then along came Tom Wolfe, who in a two-part article that ran in New York, the weekly supplement to the Neiu York Herald Tribunein 1963, gleefully burst that bubble, calling The New Yorker a "suburban women's magazine" and sneering at the stories it ran by men who "meditate over their wives and their little children with what used to be called 'inchoate longings' for something else," stories invariably set in "some vague exurb or country place or summer place or something of the sort." Wolfe noted that The New Yorker's founding editor, Harold Ross, had dubbed its stories "casuals" because he frowned on "literary striving, vessel-popping, hungry-breasty suffering. . . . After all, a girl is not really sitting out here in Larchmont waiting for Stanley Kowalski to come by in his ribbed undershirt and rip the Peck & Peck cashmere off her mary poppins." William Shawn, who succeeded Ross in 1951, retained his policy: to quote Updike again, Shawn scorned "violence and sexual explicitness" and stories that showed "effort"; two of Updike's submissions were rejected because (he was told) "we don't use stories of senility" and "stories about visitors to New York City made [Shawn] nervous."

As it happens, Wolfe's account of the fiction that The New Yorker ran in its heyday, if uncharitable, is a pretty fair description of a typical story by John Cheever, who between 1935 and 1981 appeared in the magazine somewhere upwards of 120 times, and who has now been honored with inclusion in the Library of America.1 These two volumes, plus a new biography by Blake Bailey - who also edited the Library of America collections - seem intended to revive a reputation that peaked with the 1978 publication of the omnibus Stories of John Cheever and that has been in decline ever since his death four years later.2

Cheever started early. Expelled at seventeen from a private high school in his hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts, he wrote a story about the experience that appeared a few months later in The New Republic and that would, over the years, become legendary. (Reading it for the first time in the Library of America edition of his stories, I was surprised by its mediocrity.) Five years later, having since moved to New York, he began his association with The New Yorker, contributing stories set in his own Upper East Side neighborhood and often featuring protagonists who are in desperate financial straits and worried about their social status. In 1951, Cheever and his family - he and his wife, Mary, whom he married in 1944, had three children, Susan, Benjamin, and Fernando - moved to Westchester, where they rented a small house on the estate of a millionaire named Vanderlip, relocating ten years later to an Ossining farmhouse that remained Cheever's home until his death in 1982. The move from the city signaled a shift in his stories' settings - many of his protagonists now lived in the imaginary suburb of Shady Hill - but the themes of financial and social insecurity continued to dominate. "We're poor, Will," the wife in one 1955 story tells her husband. "Did you know that we're poor? Nobody realizes that there are people like us in a community like this. We can't afford eggs for breakfast. We can't afford a cleaning woman. We can't afford a washing machine."

Tolstoy had the Napoleonic wars; Cheever had mid-twentiethcentury American middle-class angst. Born into a New England family with colonial roots, he was deeply traumatized when, in his teens, he saw his father - who had always emphasized the illustriousness of his ancestry ("remember: You are a Cheever") - undergo financial reversals that obliged Cheever's mother to open a gift shop. …

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