Literary Daybook, June 18

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published June 18, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On June 18, 1815, Sergeant Thenardier saved the life of Colonel Pontmercy at the Battle of Waterloo.
-- "Les Misérables" (1862)
by Victor Hugo

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1982, John Cheever died, at the age of 70, in Ossining, N.Y. In 1977, the novel "Falconer" was No. 1 on the bestseller lists and Cheever was on the cover of Newsweek. A year later, Cheever won a Pulitzer for his 700-page retrospective collection, "The Stories of John Cheever," a book regarded as an essential chronicle of middle America, in a style that made its author, as critic John Leonard put it, "the Chekhov of the suburbs." In his personal life, too, Cheever seemed triumphant: He had finally won his battle with alcoholism and kicked the two-packs-a-day habit; he had also found some accommodation for both his marriage and his bisexuality. In her 1984 memoir, "Home Before Dark," Susan Cheever described her father during this period as not so much having arrived as returned: "It wasn't just that he didn't drink anymore ... it was like having my old father back, a man whose humor and tenderness I dimly remembered from my childhood." Cheever's journal entries said much the same, as here in the summer of '81:

"So I sit at the kitchen table drinking black coffee and thinking of Verdi. ... And I think of what an enormous opportunity it is to be alive on this planet. Having myself been cold and hungry and terribly alone I think I still feel the excitement of that opportunity ... the privilege of living, of being alive."

This is in a different spirit than a journal entry from 1948, in which we see both the little detail and the dark cloud from which Cheever crafted his stories:

"Last night, folding the bath towel so the monogram would be in the right place (after reading a piece on Rimbaud by Zabel), I wondered what I was doing here. This concern for outward order -- the flowers, the shining cigarette box -- is not only symptomatic of our consciousness of the cruel social disorders with which we are surrounded but also enables us to delay our realization of these social disorders, to overlook the fact that our bread is poisoned."

During Cheever's last years the invader from within was a perplexing series of seizures, and then cancer. Though tempted to despair and flight -- "When it grows dark, I would like a drink ..." -- his journal reports him remaining beneath the "roof and settle" of home and family, planting broccoli. In their obituary notice, the hometown paper found a comparison to a Russian, but not Chekhov: "Cheever was as closely associated with Ossining as Emerson with Concord, or Tolstoy with Yasnaya Polyana."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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