Uncollecting Cheever

Peter Kurth reviews 'Uncollecting CheeverThe Family of John Cheever vs. Academy Chicago Publishers' by Anita Miller.

By Peter Kurth
Published November 25, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

In the long and dispiriting tradition of literary cannibalism, few writers have had their bones picked over as thoroughly as the late John Cheever, the "sage of Ossining" and foremost chronicler of American suburban anxiety. Cheever died of cancer in 1982, four years after his selected "Stories" won him the Pulitzer Prize and gave him a measure of financial security for the first time in his life. Money was forever on Cheever's mind, from the day in 1930 when he sold his first short story to the New Republic for a whopping $87, to the moment he scrawled an "X" on his last will and testament and opened the gates to a decade of litigation over his literary legacy. That Cheever even had a legacy to litigate would probably have surprised him. "I don't anticipate that my work will be read," he declared late in his life. "I might be forgotten tomorrow; it wouldn't disconcert me in the least."

Those it would disconcert, on the evidence of Anita Miller's "Uncollecting Cheever," are Cheever's widow, Mary, and his three children, especially the elder two, Susan and Benjamin. "Uncollecting Cheever" is the blow-by-blow account of the Cheevers' famous legal battle with Academy Chicago, a small Midwestern publishing house owned and run by Miller and her husband, Jordan, who in 1988 hoped to publish a volume of Cheever's previously uncollected short stories. The idea for the book came from Franklin Dennis, a New York book publicist who did work for the Millers and was also a neighbor of the Cheevers in Ossining. Mary Cheever at first agreed to the project, signing a contract and receiving half of a $1,500 token advance for what she later insisted she had envisioned as "a small edition for libraries, for students," and not a major commercial work. Only when Franklin Dennis had unearthed more than 60 Cheever stories from magazines and anthologies, and when paperback rights to the collection were sold for $225,500 in advance of publication, did the Cheevers -- and, for that matter, the Millers -- realize that they might have "a gold mine" on their hands. Mary Cheever tried to break the contract; the Millers responded with a lawsuit to enforce its terms; the Cheevers countered with a suit to protect their copyright, and one of the great literary court battles was born.

"Uncollecting Cheever" is unabashedly partisan in its retelling of the case, which the Millers eventually lost before the Illinois Supreme Court. The book moves sentence to sentence and page to page in exhaustive declarative terms: "On May 20, Judge Goettel held his hearing into Mrs. Cheever's complaint"; "On Wednesday afternoon, August 3, Paul phoned in great excitement to tell us that Goettel's opinion had come down" -- pausing only for Miller's occasional wry aside and bitter commentary on the power of big publishing houses, big agents and big lawyers against small independent firms. It was "a ridiculous case," Miller concedes, but one that had to be fought. Wandering through her account are the Cheevers themselves, who seem deranged when not strictly mercenary and deceitful, and a variety of literary and legal notables, among them Erica Jong (during her tenure as president of the Authors Guild), killer agent Andrew Wylie and intellectual property lawyer Martin Garbus, all of them taking the Cheevers' part and thus coming in for their share of swipes and jabs. It's hard not to sympathize with the Millers in their predicament, but "Uncollecting Cheever" would have fared better had it been written by someone not attached to the case.

Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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