Lisbon and Hackensack in Cheever's 'The Swimmer.' (John Cheever)

By Piwinski, David J. | Studies in Short Fiction, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Lisbon and Hackensack in Cheever's 'The Swimmer.' (John Cheever)


Piwinski, David J., Studies in Short Fiction


The opening of John Cheever's "The Swimmer" contains the following passage describing the atmospheric conditions on the Sunday that Ned Merrill undertakes his quasi-epic swim through the succession of swimming pools he names the "Lucinda River": "It was a fine day. In the west there was a massive stand of cumulus cloud so like a city seen from a distance--from the bow of an approaching ship--that it might have had a name. Lisbon. Hackensack" (603). Considering that there are well over two dozen critical analyses explicating nearly every detail of this richly allusive story, it is surprising that only one critic has commented on the possible significance of Cheever's citation of Lisbon and Hackensack, a rather odd coupling of seemingly unrelated cities.

William Rodney Allen, in his reading of "The Swimmer" as "a critique of compromised American ideals" (291), connects Ned Merrill with the Puritan settlers of America whose projected Biblical "city on the hill" was never realized, their vision of a New Jerusalem having been eroded by the gradual corruption of American values. Thus, according to Allen, "the city in the clouds as viewed from the sea becomes over time only an ugly city with an ugly name--Hackensack" (291).

Allen, however, does not attempt to explain Cheever's reference to Lisbon in this same passage, and neither Allen nor any other commentator on "The Swimmer" has considered that Cheever's juxtaposition of these two cities is based on the origins of their names. The conflation of allusions evoked by these two cities' names allows the reader to anticipate the mythic and metaphorical framework of "The Swimmer." Cheever's citation of Lisbon, a city whose name is associated with Ulysses, foreshadows that Ned Merrill, like his Homeric counterpart, will embark on an epic water voyage, while the name "Hackensack" alludes to "The Swimmer's" metamorphosis of the Odyssey's mythopoeic Mediterranean Sea into a metaphorical "river" of suburban swimming pools.

In analyzing the correspondences between "The Swimmer" and Homer's epic, George W. Hunt describes Cheever's story as "his Odyssey, a surrealistic epic, deftly shortened, of a man condemned to wandering and eager to return home" (280). Appropriately, the reference to Lisbon in the story's opening complements Cheever's intention of giving Ned's journey an epic resonance, because, according to legend, Lisbon was founded by Ulysses, from whom the city's ancient name Olisipo, a variant of Ulyssipo, was derived (Hubbard 686). …

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