Category Archives: John Cheever

Links: Interior Ideologues

Ruth Franklin asks why American fiction writers have been so hamfisted at getting into the heads of terrorists: “[John Updike and Pearl Abraham's] uncertainty about their subject matter shows through on the page in the lack of precision that each brings to the Islamic trappings surrounding their character,” she writes I can’t think of any books to contrary, just one that bolsters the argument: Don DeLillo‘s Falling Man, which includes a couple of interludes featuring the 9/11 hijackers, though they tend to talk and think in the clipped style of lots of other Don DeLillo characters. There may be something to be said about that being exactly the right tone—cold certainty strikes me as a legitimate character trait in a jihadist—but the sections are so brief DeLillo isn’t especially invested in them. Andre Dubus III‘s The Garden of Last Days might also be worth another look on that front: It spent plenty of time getting into the heads of the 9/11 hijackers living in Florida, but I recall the story straining to Americanize the characters—or at least make them conflicted about American-ness, and less for the sake of realism than generating drama. And I’m still annoyed that one character is an illiterate bouncer who keeps a book-on-tape of The Waste Land handy; overworked symbolism drives a pickup truck.

Edward P. Jones is still not working on another book, but in an interview with the Rumpus he opens up on his writing process, which largely involves memorizing the story as he goes along: “When you’re working on these things in your head and you get to that point in the story of the novel, to the line that you’ve been memorizing, and you let it out, there’s a sigh. Now you don’t have to memorize it anymore. But it stays with you forever.”

I haven’t watched the whole thing, but this video of a recent conversation between Tobias Wolff and Tim O’Brien on war fiction opens with an interesting discussion about whether it’s possible to effectively write anti-war fiction that will always be perceived as such—that there is always somebody who’ll find a certain bloodthirsty inspiration from it.

Mona Simpson: “In my 20s I was less interested in plot. I thought everything with a plot was a sellout. Now I see what a great way it is to tell a story.”

Ward Just: “America is not easy with mystery. It doesn’t appreciate mystery and it assumes there’s a bottom to everything and if you’re just prepared to work hard enough you can get to the bottom. Well, sometimes that’s true; more often it’s not true.”

At Zyzzyva‘s website, Oscar Villalon reviews The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature and questions the audience for the collection: “A lot of books—the vast majority—don’t find the readership they deserve. Would it be surprising if there were just as many, if not more, Mexican Americans than Anglos who’ve never heard of the writers in the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature? It wouldn’t. So, again, whom are you writing for? A fraction of a fraction? Does it matter?” (via)

[Willa] Cather knows that we are many different people over the course of our lives, and that some of those incarnations will be more sympathetic to us than others, because we comprehend them better or they are more neatly aligned to our values and desires. Acceptance is the best we can hope for, although nostalgia provides a bittersweet comfort.”

Arthur Phillips, who prides himself on being pretty good at teasing out an author’s intentions, explains why he feels defeated at that task when he reads Vladimir Nabokov‘s Pale Fire

Why Elif Batuman doesn’t read her reviews. (via)

A trip to Oxford, Mississippi, where it’s clear the reason William Faulkner said the past isn’t even past is because the past is confronting you everywhere you go.

A beautiful piece in the London Review of Books on how the death of Mark Twain‘s wife reshaped the tone of his writing and defined his autobiography. (via)

David Shields: “John Cheever’s ‘legacy’ is based almost entirely on his stories, whereas for me it rests, or should rest, on the massive achievement of the posthumously published Journals. It’s simply a great work: it dwarfs everything else he wrote; it’s what all his other work was building toward.”

Sam Sacks has a fine tribute to Pauline Kael. All I’d add is that she’s as engaging in conversation as she is as a writer, on the evidence of the posthumous Afterglow, which captures her in conversation with Francis Davis.

Blogger Kif Leswing had questions for me about D.C. writers, Freedom, and blogging. I had answers.

Links: Restoring Honor

The National Book Festival will be held tomorrow on the National Mall in Washington, DC. It’s always a good time, though unfortunately I won’t be able to make it this year. I wrote up a preview of the fest for TBD, a new-ish local news and arts site.

Leon Wieseltier: “Anger at the false and the fake—as long as the labor of persuasion is done: a curse is not an act of criticism—is an admirable anger, because it is the heat of a cause, and our causes are the spurs of our culture. No culture, no literature, ever advanced by niceness.” (via)

Related: “Writers would prefer to believe that critics are separate, and that their separation means they’re the enemy, and out to get them. The irony is that writers are generally meaner to other writers than critics are.”

I recognize that there’s a fraught situation in Missouri regarding a local school board’s banning of a Sherman Alexie novel, but we’re in an awful mess when book reviews have to come with disclaimers from the editor.

Remembering Maxwell Perkins.

No self-respecting op-ed columnist would write that he or she wished the paper would publish more good news. But apparently it’s OK to publicly wish for more happy novels. (Moe Tkacik has much, much more.)

Gary Shteyngart: “I have a very boring kind of Media Diet, in the sense that I read what people would expect me to read, nothing special. Most of the things I read have New York in the title.”

Jonathan Lethem says goodbye to New York.

Literary road-tripping through the South—and a stop at Thomas Wolfe‘s childhood home in Asheville, North Carolina.

Whatever you do, do not read the promotional patter on the back cover of the paperback of John Cheever‘s Bullet Park.

Q&A With David A. Taylor, Soul of a People

David A. Taylor‘s Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America is an excellent study of the personalities behind the Federal Writers’ Project, which attracted a host of writers to work on guidebooks, oral histories, and folklore collections during the Depression. Some of the participants later became very well-known—among those who worked for the FWP in some capacity were Nelson Algren, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, Jim Thompson, John Cheever, and Richard Wright—but as the book makes clear, doing government work left many of the writers feeling conflicted, and the project was consistently under scrutiny by Congress for potentially harboring Communists, a hint of the McCarthy hearings that would come years later.

Taylor, who’s also a fine fiction writer, is working on a documentary related to the WPA book; the American Library Association is sponsoring a related project for libraries around the country as well. For more on the book, see Taylor’s Web site and the lengthy interview he recently conducted with George Mason University’s Art Taylor for his Art & Literature blog.

If you’re in D.C., David A. Taylor will speak about the book on Tuesday, April 28, at 3 p.m. at the Library of Congress. He answered a few questions about the book via e-mail.

The book concentrates on a handful of states where FWP projects pulled in some well-known writers—John Cheever contributed to the New York WPA guide, Zora Neale Hurston to Florida’s, Nelson Algren and Richard Wright to Illinois’. Were there any less-well-known states (or writers) that you wish you had more time and space to spotlight?

It’s true that the stories of the later-famous writers form the book’s core but most of the characters are intriguing lesser-knowns: Anzia Yezierska, a 1920s screenwriter and “Cinderella of the Tenements” who captured the weirdness of the FWP experience in New York; Rudolph Umland, the hobo editor of the Nebraska WPA guide; Lyle Saxon, the New Orleans novelist who lived and breathed the city for the WPA while he drank himself to death; and Hilda Polacheck, who documented Chicago history in personal stories, including survivors of the Great Fire of 1871. Polacheck, like some of the others, left a memoir and I interviewed her daughter Dena. With others I wasn’t so lucky and the trail went cold.

I liked finding people who never expected to be writers or great writers most of us never heard of. Juanita Brooks found her inner investigative reporter on the FWP, and through old-timers uncovered the Mountain Meadows Massacre of the 1860s. Jon Krakauer called her 1950 book about it “an extraordinary work of history” that shaped every other book about the Mormons in 1800s Utah, including his own Under the Banner of Heaven. There are tantalizing loose ends to her story and others, like Eluard Luchell McDaniel, a black hobo writer and partisan in the Spanish Civil War. And Meridel Le Sueur in Minnesota: The Girl is a noir novel centered on a woman caught up in a bank heist. She pieced it together from stories of women she interviewed. It’s The Wire in 1930s St. Paul.

The WPA guides have a reputation for being hit-and-miss when it comes to readability. Cheever, somewhat famously, described his work for the WPA as “twisting into order the sentences written by some incredibly lazy bastards.” As you were researching the book, what struck you about the quality of the writing? Were there any particular gems that you discovered?

There’s a collection of gems from the WPA guides collected in a book called Remembering America. Archie Hobson, the editor of that book, did a great service. His selection highlights local stories from all the guides—many funny as hell—that show the idiosyncrasy of what happened in a bar or when two or three people came together. The humor, often dark, struck me. Among the individual WPA guides, the Oklahoma guide still has the imprint of Jim Thompson’s noir sensibility (even though he left before the guide was done, his folklore essay and some of the tours still stand out). More than the style, for me, are the weird surprises of history—like the fact that Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian Nobel prize winner, was living in Illinois for several years while his son studied agriculture there. Then you have some ringers, like Kenneth Rexroth’s hiking notes for the Sierras in the California guide, and Aldo Leopold’s essay on conservation in the Wisconsin guide, years before he wrote Sand County Almanac.

You mention a few cases where WPA leadership edited provocative statements out of guides. (For instance, Idaho guide editor Vardis Fisher’s comments about a former Idaho governor were removed from a draft of the book.) Was there any consistency to what kind of material was cut? How much of it reflected concern about Congressional opposition to the FWP?

Nationally there was a huge reservoir of public fear, and Congress responded by watching for any hint of dissidence. When the first House Un-American Activities Committee (Joe McCarthy’s predecessor and role model) was bearing down on the FWP in 1938 and ‘39, the FWP chief felt the pressure and had a few internal censors weed out political red flags—especially communist and socialist leanings. Labor history was a powder keg, and discontent, so they could draw the censors’ pen. But there was so much coming in, the censors weren’t consistent.

Headquarters also struck out some things in an effort to give a consistent and ‘objective’ tone to the whole guidebook series. So Rexroth’s rant against California timber barons—which interestingly bleeds into a sort of Eastern-flavored portrayal of earth and water—didn’t make it into the California guide. I was happy to find his typescript manuscripts, and publish selections in the book.

One of the most compelling personalities in the book is Hurston, who did a tremendous amount of research on Florida folklore, occasionally putting herself in harm’s way to do it. You note that she had written a book for the FWP called “The Florida Negro,” but it wasn’t published. What happened?

Besides the overt censorship, there was, as Stetson Kennedy notes, the implicit censorship of local mores—including Jim Crow segregation in the South, hanging over the guide editors. The Florida WPA guide did challenge that with accounts of lynching and unfair employment practices—cheek to jowl in a book about Florida tourist spots!—but still there were projects planned that never saw the light of day. In the case of The Florida Negro, it was a combination of that and the kind of mundane editorial merry-go-round that a script might experience in Hollywood—no greenlighting, a U-turn to rewrite, etc. Sterling Brown, the remarkable poet and professor at Howard University who oversaw black studies in the FWP, planned a whole series—and some like The Virginia Negro did get published as amazing glimpses of black history. Hurston took over The Florida Negro when a version had been drafted, and she reworked it. When she left for a teaching job in North Carolina, it sort of died. A decade ago, The Florida Negro was finally published by the University Press of Mississippi, and essays Hurston wrote for it appeared in Pam Bordelon’s Go Gator! And Muddy the Water. There’s still a lot of Zora’s genius coming to light. A few years ago a musical version of Polk County, her play about life in the turpentine camps she uncovered for the FWP, was staged here in D.C. and won a Helen Hayes award for best new musical. Hurston would have loved that.

There’s been a resurgence of interest in the WPA guides of late, perhaps as a function of the material becoming available online through the Library of Congress—last year there are books like America Eats! and State by State, which both pay tribute to the FWP’s efforts, and now your project. What do you think people are searching for by revisiting the guides?

I think part of it is actually a continuation of the flowering of local stories that started with the FWP and unfolded in the decades afterward, like Studs Terkel’s oral histories, which just kept bubbling out. Then others took up the idea with permutations like StoryCorps. A lot of writers came across the WPA guides in used bookstores and found in them authentic voices and experiences. Even where the writing is musty, the guides can be exotic because of the time that’s passed. Some have a Ghost World quality that fits with an aesthetic popular now too. For me it was a shock of recognizing a tone and voice that I didn’t expect to find. Many FWP writers wanted to get beyond industrial and commercial treatments of life. They wanted to scratch beneath the surface and see what made people tick and where the pressure points were. I think we’re seeing that again.

Short Shrift

“If it happens three times, it’s a trend,” goes the thinking at a lot of publications, so it’s easy to see how A.O. Scott‘s essay in the New York Times on the revival of the short story came to be. There are new biographies out about Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, and Donald Barthelme; all three made their reputations on their short stories; hence, there must be some newfound interest in reading short stories. “[I]f the golden age of American magazines is long gone, the short story itself has shown remarkable durability, and may even be poised for a resurgence,” Scott writes. (Note that “may,” always a useful hedge in a trend piece.)

Imagine the harm to Scott’s thesis had Brad Gooch figured he’d needed another year to work on his O’Connor biography. That’s the problem; the alleged trend is really just an accident of timing. Calling out Wells Tower‘s new collection as a special example of the power of the short story doesn’t help the argument; after all, no matter how poor the financial prospects of the short story are, every year brings a much-praised story collection. Indeed, wouldn’t the timing for this piece have been better a year ago, when Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth topped the New York Times bestseller list?

Maybe, but back then no editor would’ve wanted to hear it. A year ago critics were engrossed in Richard Price‘s Lush Life, and the kind of people who write trend pieces were talking about the revival of the big, ambitious novel about life in the big city. Scott is a very smart critic, and he’s not so foolish as to suggest that the novel is going to be completely supplanted by the short story—even if he does suggest, glibly, that “the death of the novel is yesterday’s news.” But his notion that the Kindle might revive the short story sounds off, an effortful statement shoved into the piece in order to give it some heft. (And anyway, isn’t the point of the Kindle that it can contain dozens of epics?) Even if a publisher did come up with some kind of dollar-a-story payment scheme for short fiction, the sort of quick-hit storytelling that Scott imagines we crave—a “handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention”—only really exists in flash fiction, and though many have tried, enthusiasm for that form is limited. Ultimately, readers care more about the quality of the narrative than the length of it. After all, no serious person ever recommended Raymond Carver‘s “A Small, Good Thing” to somebody simply because it’s short.

The Yaddo Files

It’s a wonder that nobody has yet filmed a thinky, sepia-toned, Oscar-bait-y film about Yaddo, given all the sexual, artistic, and political conflicts that seem to have occurred at the artists’ colony. A recent AP story on Yaddo, tied to a current exhibit at the New York Public Library, reveals some of the tensions:

In 1949, an Army report alleged that [executive director Elizabeth Ames] was a Soviet spy; FBI agents soon arrived. After interrogating Yaddo officials and artists, they concluded that no subversion had taken place, but not before convincing [poet Robert] Lowell and others that Yaddo was “permeated with communists.” Lowell, whose history of drinking and nervous breakdowns had well begun, demanded an emergency board meeting and the ouster of Ames.

A literary battle royale began. Critic Malcolm Cowley insisted that Yaddo was under siege from “the Communists, the fanatical anti-Communists, the homosexuals, the alcoholics and the Catholic converts.” Katherine Anne Porter thought Lowell’s crusade “vile beyond words” and critic Alfred Kazin wondered, “WHAT has happened at Yaddo?” Meanwhile, John Cheever consoled Ames: “It must have been a great shock to find yourself calumniated (slandered) by people you counted among your friends….”

Sex, drinking and general carrying on was an unofficial tradition. Yaddo resident Carson McCullers was madly in love with Porter and reportedly flung herself upon her fellow author’s doorstep, to no effect. Porter, in turn, despised Truman Capote, bragging that her students at Stanford University were wise enough to “vomit up such as little T.C.”

Lowell appeared to always be of two minds about the joint, if his letters to Elizabeth Bishop were any indication. In a recent review of their correspondence, Michael Dirda points out a choice line describing the Yaddo grounds: “rundown rose gardens, rotting cantaloupes, fountains, a bust of Dante with a hole in the head, sets called Gems of Ancient Literature, Masterpieces of the World, cracking dried up sets of Shakespeare, Ruskin, Balzac, Reminiscences of a Happy Life (the title of two different books), pseudo Poussins, pseudo Titians, pseudo Reynolds, pseudo and real English wood, portraits of the patroness, her husband, her lover, her children lit with tubular lights, like a church, like a museum . . . I’m delighted. Why don’t you come?”

The exhibit has been open for a while (it closes in February), but just last week the NYPL posted a brief video showing some of the highlights, including the very tall wall of books ostensibly produced by Yaddo residents:

Links: Don’t Quote Me

Per Wästberg, chair of the Nobel Committee for Literature, spoke at Harvard last week, playing it both ways regarding his colleague Horace Engdahl: American literature is provincial, yes, but: “[Engdahl] said many things out of frustration at the end of an interview…that were not wise,” Wästberg said. “I regret that.”

Lionel Shriver to fiction writers who don’t use quotation marks because doing so would compromise the elegance of your dialogue or some other such horsehockey: “Knock it off!”

Richard Russo talks about working with Paul Newman, abandoning academia, and, mostly, his writing habits, which he gets at by way of the habits of John Cheever, who wrote in a basement storage room:

“He brought a sandwich and sat there in his underwear,” Russo remarked. “Mid-day he’d have his sandwich, edit what he had written, retype it and put it into a box. At 5 he’d get dressed and ride up in the elevator with the same people. He did this five days a week. I don’t necessarily recommend that routine, but the point of the story is that writing’s a job and you have to treat it like any other job. There will be times if you’re talented and lucky where you will be visited by inspiration, but you’ll discover it doesn’t change your habits all that much.”