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The Modest and Charitable Humanism of John Cheever

by Ralph C. Wood

Ralph C. Wood's most recent book is The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists (Notre Dame). This article appeared in the Christian Century November 17, 1982, p. 1163. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


“It is not, somebody once wrote, the smell of corn bread that calls us back from death; it is the lights and signs of love and friendship.” Thus speaks the protagonist in one of John Cheever’s most celebrated stories, “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill.” His fictional testimony to the power of human virtue and solidarity is rendered especially poignant by Cheever’s recent death from cancer at age 69. Encouraged by his family and by such friends as John Updike, Cheever had made a heroic recovery from two heart attacks, severe alcoholism, and drug dependency. He seemed indeed to be a living witness to his own humanist creed. Now that Cheever’s voice has been silenced by death, it is time for homage to his much underpraised work. It is also an occasion, amid our fierce cultural crisis over the evils and benefits of humanism, to make a theological assessment of Cheever’s unapologetically humanist vision.

Many readers find Cheever’s art to be most convincingly realized in his prizewinning novels -- The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), The Wapshot Scandal (1964), Bullet Park (1969) and Falconer (1917). My own preference, however, is for his short stories. In the longer genre Cheever’s art and faith alike seem to lose much of their focus and control. His novels often read as though they were stories stitched together, and they make grandiloquent spiritual claims which neither their characters nor plots always justify. Cheever’s tales, by contrast, possess a Chekhovian deftness and mastery of form. And there Cheever’s humanism, far from being pretentious, is made admirably modest and charitable. His short fiction has been collected into a hefty but inexpensive paperback volume (The Stories of John Cheever, Ballantine, 819 pp., $3.50); and on this work, I am convinced, Cheever’s reputation will ultimately rest.

Nowhere is Cheever’s restrained but vigorous humanism more characteristically at work than in “The Fourth Alarm,” a late story about a man whose wife, Bertha, has undergone a modish liberation from the antique proprieties and conventions. She has won for herself a role in a pornographic play and comes home crowing that “To be naked and unashamed in front of strangers was one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had.” What is an old-fashioned husband to do when his bare-bodied spouse simulates copulation in public? “Should I stand up in the theatre,” he asks, “and shout for her to return, return, return in the name of love, humor, and serenity?” Instead, he tries dutifully to comprehend his wife’s newfound sexuality, even joining in the general nudity wherewith the play reaches a literal and figurative climax.

Yet while this uxorious little man consents to unsheathe himself with the rest of the audience, there is one act when he cannot bring himself to commit: he will not abandon the valuables -- his wallet and keys and watch -- which Bertha and the other sexual nihilists are taunting him to surrender. As he calmly observes, “None of it was irreplaceable, but to cast it off would seem to threaten my essence, the shadow of myself that I could see on the floor, my name.” Quietly but nonetheless courageously he returns to his seat, reclothes himself, and walks out into the snowy night “singing and jingling the car keys.”

This is a typical Cheever story because it ends with a triumph which, though small and comic, is still convincing and real. We find here none of Walker Percy’s apocalyptic wrath at a society which confuses fornication with art. Nor is there any of John Updike’s quasi-prurient interest in the anatomy of the exhibitionists. Still less is there of Albert Camus’s cheerless stoic call to moral sobriety in the face of bourgeois decadence. A man rescued by the contents of his pockets is not, after all, a noble ethical hero.

Cheever’s character knows, of course, that his wife and her fellow eroticists will regard his prudential act with disgust. Even so, he remains assured that his life has turned a corner and that he has made at least a small advance toward moral order and sanity. It is not smugness, therefore, but sheer rightness that this man should be cheered “not to have exposed my inhibitions but to have hit upon some marvelously practical and obdurate part of myself.”

“Obdurate” is a pejorative word which Cheever repeatedly transforms into a term of praise. Indeed, it lies at the heart of his humanist conviction that there is a hard and stubborn core of human character which survives all the changes and chances of time. Something knottily human perdures throughout all our rough commerce with the world, and it is this sturdy human reality which Cheever’s fiction celebrates. Our bedrock humanitas is, for Cheever, like the horse-drawn fire engines of his youth. Though they were gradually replaced by motorized trucks, in an emergency -- with the fire still raging despite three alarms -- a fourth call would summon the idle men and horses into action. In this late hour amid the firestorms of history, human obduracy remains as Cheever’s final hope for quenching the flames which would consume us.

Cheever does not consider such humanist confidence in our species as a contradiction of his own professed Christian faith. It is rather an integral aspect of his untutored natural theology, wherein there is an essential complementarity between human possibility and divine beneficence. In various interviews Cheever spoke of the “correspondences” he discerned between the sheer “miraculousness of the visible world” and the human quest for meaning and value. The surprising sacramentality of the created order convinced him, in fact, that our lives are surrounded and upheld by a grace which inheres in the very substance of things.

“The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” is perhaps Cheever’s vintage portrayal of this natural religion at work. It concerns a man named Johnny Hake, a suburbanite pleased to be living among cultured and leisured neighbors who “travel around the world, listen to good music, and given a choice of paper books at an airport, will pick Tliucydides, and sometimes Aquinas.” But when Hake finds himself in troubled financial waters, such cosmopolitan refinement proves inadequate for keeping him morally afloat. This civilized man-about-town begins to spend his late nights robbing the homes of friends whose parties he has attended earlier in the evening. No wonder that Cheever has been called “the Dante of the cocktail hour” and compared not only with a social documentarist like John Marquand but also with such real physicians of the human soul as Hawthorne, James and Fitzgerald.

Beneath the placid elms of suburbia no less than in Times Square, the human heart remains deceitful beyond all fathoming. Nor will a mere inward crisis of conscience convince Hake that his nocturnal thieving is turning him into a moral phantom. Only the force of a reality outside himself -- in the form of a sudden rain shower -- can restore his spiritual sense:

I wish I could say that a kindly lion had set me straight, or an innocent child, or the strains of distant music from some church, but it was no more than the rain on my head -- the smell of it flying up to my nose -- that showed me the extent of my freedom. . . . There were ways out of my trouble if I cared to make use of them. I was not trapped [pp. 318-19].

Hake’s moral metamorphosis seems sufficiently ironic and self-depreciating not to be taken as absolute. Yet critics have frequently objected to the transformation of Cheever’s characters by means of midnight cloudbursts or the beaming of light into a dark place. So simple and natural a cure, they contend, makes the human plight seem trivial rather than desperate. My own conviction is that Cheever does not underestimate the depth of human depravity so much as he misconstrues the nature of divine grace.

Like Dante, Cheever conceives of God as pure mystical light. He is a writer virtually obsessed, in fact, with the earth’s incandescence. Hardly a paragraph passes without Cheever’s invocation of the world’s wondrous luminosity. As he declared in an interview with John Hersey, the sun’s radiance is the emblem of an ineluctable mystical allurement that draws us either upward or downward:

It seems to me that man’s inclination toward light, toward brightness, is very nearly botanical -- and I mean spiritual light. One not only needs it, one struggles for it. It seems to me almost that one’s total experience is the drive toward light. Or, in the case of the successful degenerate, the drive into an ultimate darkness, which presumably will result in light [New York Times Book Review, March 6, 1977].

This mystical notion of spiritual light as arising immanently within us makes Cheever almost deaf to the classical Protestant emphasis on the transcendently revealed God who, as Karl Barth liked to say, “by himself alone can be known.” Cheever’s anti-Protestant spleen is reserved especially for the Puritan denial of the world’s marvelous goodness. “Goodbye, My Brother” is a story that ends with an erotic celebration of two women walking like naked Venuses out of the sea. Their semisacramental physicality is set in telling contrast to the taciturn and pleasure-scorning brother of the title:

Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with the acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? [p. 23].

Yet Cheever’s work tends not merely to exalt but to divinize human greatness and earthly beauty. It is his mysticism, I believe, that leads him astray. William Hamilton has observed that mysticism often confuses human self-transcendence with divine revelation, thus flirting unawares with atheism. What appears to be an experience of divinity may be nothing more than our own supra-animal need for order and significance in life. And as Cheever’s confession to Hersey makes clear, the real stress lies more on the human choice between darkness and light than on the sovereignty of God’s grace -- the divine goodness which must redeem not only our grosser sins but our noblest aspirations as well. This is perhaps why Cardinal Newman quipped that “mysticism begins in mist and ends in schism.” It is also why, ironically, Cheever’s humanism is least trustworthy when it is most mystical. For then his literary vision issues either in a misty optimism or a schismatic pessimism.

The gauziness of Cheever’s mysticism is most evident in Oh What a Paradise It Seems, his last work. There the aging Lemuel Sears finds himself religiously renewed both by a love affair with a real estate agent and by his efforts to save a Waldenlike pond from being turned into a landfill project. The novella closes with a paean to sex and nature that sounds embarrassingly like Hugh Hefner mixed with Carl Sagan. Sears vapors on about the sameness of his search for love and potable water, and Cheever’s own peroration reads almost like a transcendentalist hymn to the cosmos for “the great benefice of living here and renewing ourselves with love.”

Yet so to apotheosize earthly existence is, almost inevitably, to have gnostic contempt for it, to see it as the realm of darkness more than light. When worldly life proves to be terribly unparadisaical, the result is either the bitter cynicism of Bullet Park or else the truculent self-sufficiency of Falconer. In the latter, the gospel ceases being the good news of the sovereign redeemer and becomes the ill tidings of an all-too-human punisher. Ezekiel Garragut imagines God as a fierce force rather like himself, a dark diviner of souls who delights less in rewarding the pure with bliss eternal than in sinking sinners in an excremental hell.

Fortunately, the redemptive element in Cheever’s fiction lies elsewhere than in such alternately sappy and searing visions. The main tendency of his fiction, especially his shorter works, is against all such attempts to elevate humanism to the upper case. The oft-iterated theme of Cheever’s stories is that human life is caught in a contradiction which may be comic on the surface but is tragic deep down. This is why, I suspect, readers often remark upon the immeasurable sadness of his stories, their elegance and beauty notwithstanding. For all our obduracy, Cheever knows that we remain but frail constructions of time and will. Our selves are no more real than the shadows our bodies cast on the ground, than the identity cards we carry in our purses, than our names. Far from being the authors and finishers of our own lives, we are the creatures of what Cheever calls “an indecipherable collision of contingencies that can produce exaltation or despair.”

To call Cheever’s fiction tragic, however, is hardly to make a damning criticism of it. A faith in humanity which is anything other than tragic would have to blink the obvious. And a humanist fiction which proposed secular salvation would be idolatrous. Cheever commits neither heresy. Like writers who assume that God is dead, Cheever knows that ours is an age of chaos wherein the metaphysical rug has been pulled from beneath our received values and beliefs. Yet he steadfastly refuses to make literary profit out of our spiritual bankruptcy. The humanist witness of his fiction is to testify, negatively, that neither art nor life can be made from nothingness. Positively, his aim is to uphold the imperiled human verities against the nihilist conviction that life is gibberish. As in a story called “A Vision of the World,” the ancient ideals may have to be shouted like incantations against the void, but they remain our only human alternative to despair: “Valor! Love! Virtue! Compassion! Splendor! Kindness! Wisdom! Beauty!”

Cheever’s stories are theologically commendable precisely in their refusal to accord saving power to these human excellences. Not for a moment does he suggest that a literary glimpse into the tragedy of others will enable us to avoid our own. As soon, in fact, as his characters come to see the awful truth about themselves and their world, they often retreat again into their accustomed obliviousness. In “The Sorrows of Gin,” for example, the Lawtons are so completely absorbed in their endless round of party-going and party-giving that they hardly know their own daughter, Amy. In protest against such callous parental neglect, the girl goes straight for the symbolic source of her abandonment, secretly draining the family liquor bottles. Finally, in a pathetic attempt to find a better life than rich suburbia affords, she tries to flee home to live with her sitter.

Upon seeing his forlorn little Amy bravely awaiting her train to the city, the father is arrested by the enormity of his betrayal. For once he is made to shiver with a nameless longing, to listen at last for something other than cocktail chatter, and to recall his rare moments of beauty and joy. But then Cheever reveals the bleak truth (which the television rendering of the story sentimentally avoids): Lawton is awakened from his spiritual stupor only to lapse immediately back into it. “How could he teach her,” he asks with inadvertent irony, “that home sweet home was the best place of all?”

Yet while Cheever identifies our many self-enhancements as the spiritual ruses which they are, he does not scorn us for the failure to dwell solely in the light of merciless truth. For this reason the Russians, in making Cheever their favorite contemporary American writer, are wrong to regard him as the scourge of bourgeois capitalism. Far from seeking to lacerate his swishy suburbanites, Cheever looks with charity upon their maniacal busyness, as in “The Trouble of Marcie Flint”:

Now, there were two aspects to the night life of Shady Hill; there were the parties, of course, and then there was another side -- a regular Santa Claus’s workshop of madrigal singers, political discussion groups, recorder groups, dancing schools, confirmation classes, committee meetings, and lectures on literature, philosophy, city planning, and pest control. The bright banner of stars in heaven has probably never before been stretched above such a picture of nocturnal industry [p. 344].

This is not the voice of a cold Olympian disdain for our spiritual mediocrity; these are the accents of an ironic but compassionate acceptance of the human calamity. If Cheever can be said to have written out of a Christian sensibility, the proof lies in his astonishing narrative charity. However little they may inspire us, his stories do not share the disconsolate temper of much modem fiction. The simple reason is that Cheever speaks within them as an unabashed moral and spiritual guide. Not for him the fashionable modernist ploy of absconding behind the masks of his narrators. Cheever elects, instead, to speak “with my own voice -- quite as unique as my fingerprints -- and [to] take the maximum risk of seeming profound or foolish.”

Rarely, therefore, does Cheever hector or admonish his readers, and never does he taunt or trick us. He repeatedly declared literature to be “the highest form of communication between intelligent adults.” He regards his audience as his companions, and he in turn becomes our fellow pilgrim. His desire is to illuminate life’s darkened way and to help us erect small shelters of hope against the coming storm. Asked what it meant to be a writer of fiction, Cheever replied that he worked out of “an impulse to bring glad tidings to someone. My sense of literature is a sense of giving, not a diminishment.”

It lies beyond the province of art, I believe, to announce God’s own glad reconciliation of the world unto himself. But Cheever’s restrained and compassionate kind of humanism can provide at least a distant echo of the gospel. At its best Cheever’s fiction serves magnificently to enlarge our lives by giving renewed witness to the primordial human truths, yet without pretending that they are sufficient to deliver us from evil. And in his extraordinary presence as a companionable and forgiving narrator, Cheever offers a literary parable of God’s own unstinted grace. Ours is an era of harsh righteousness among many religionists, and of shrill alarmism among many secularists. Against such alternatives, John Cheever’s modest and charitable humanism is admirable indeed.


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