Blake Bailey on the morass of Cheever's journals.

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April 3 2009 6:57 AM

Oh, What a Chaos It Seems

Cheever bequeathed his biographer a journal as messy as his life.

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The chaos was sometimes weirdly artistic, resulting in juxtapositions that shed light on Cheever's prismatic nature. A page or two might reflect some consoling spiritual lull, abruptly interrupted on the next page by a burst of self-hatred belonging to some earlier or later phase. Sometimes a historical reference would come in handy, as when Cheever noted Adlai Stevenson's defeat in the 1952 election ("in our national character there is a deep seated suspicion of perspicacity and wisdom"). But mostly I dated the pages with the help of a massive chronology I constructed of Cheever's life based on thousands of letters and other sources. Thus I deciphered the various personal allusions: his sister-in-law Buff's nervous breakdown at the family estate in New Hampshire? August 1946! Dawn Powell's almost fatal nosebleed at Yaddo? April 1960! And every May 27, again and again, Cheever's birthday was duly noted along with the invariable "drank too much."

I finished re-sorting the journal in the spring of 2005, whereupon I transcribed what I needed to my laptop and took the last of many research trips to the Boston area. My final stop was a one-day visit to the Brandeis library archive, where I pored over typescripts of Cheever's New Yorker stories, particularly intrigued by the marginal glosses of his editor at the magazine William Maxwell. ("What is a shapely day?" the literal-minded Maxwell jotted next to a description of a day "as fragrant and shapely as an apple" in "The Country Husband"; Cheever blithely disregarded the query.) With about 15 minutes to go before the library closed, I glanced at a 31-page portion of his journal that Cheever had donated in the mid-1960s—though obviously there was no need for me to do this, since I had my own (pristinely chronological) copy of the journal. But I couldn't resist.

Right away, I noticed something amiss: The Brandeis pages were too neatly typed, with a brand-new ribbon, no less. I found a passage on my laptop that I'd transcribed from the original—about Cheever's meeting with Sophia Loren in the summer of 1967—and compared it with the Brandeis version. Sure enough, they were different! "She seems sincere, magnanimous, lucky and matteroffact," Cheever had (sloppily) typed in the original, followed by a bit of dialogue between the two. "She seems sincere, magnanimous, lucky and intelligent," reads the (immaculate) Brandeis version, and the subsequent dialogue has been deleted. Was it possible that Cheever had not only retyped but substantially rewritten many journal pages for the sake of a little academic posterity? To think what pains he might have taken (and therefore spared his biographer) if he'd decided to donate—and tidy up—the whole thing during his lifetime! I was about to investigate further when the nice librarian stuck her head in the room and whispered it was time to go.     

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A month after that piquant visit to Brandeis, my family and I moved to New Orleans. My wife had been assigned to Tulane for her doctoral internship in clinical psychology, and though it was only a one-year program, we decided to buy rather than rent a lovely cottage in the neighborhood of Gentilly, about a mile from Lake Pontchartrain. As it happened, we lived there for about two months. When it came time to evacuate prior to Hurricane Katrina, I left my stately, repaginated version of Cheever's journal on the bottom shelf of my research cabinet, hardly thinking that a few days later the National Guard would be trolling around our house in motorboats.

When I finally returned, a month or so later, the journal over which I'd labored with such loving care (two years!) was four linear feet of solid mold.

Blake Bailey is the author of Cheever: A Life. He is working on a biography of Philip Roth.

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