The John Cheever Centennial

Today would be the 100th birthday of John Cheever, who died in 1982. Two news reports you might want to check out are this one by the New York Daily News, and for an English perspective, this one from the Telegraph.

I asked Bruce Boyer if he might have any particular insight on one of the few great American authors to take upper-middle-class East Coasters as his subject matter, and sure enough Bruce came up with an insightful quote from Cheever’s daughter, which Bruce used in his book “Eminently Suitable.” Here’s the passage:

One possible answer [about why men allow women to buy their clothes for them] comes, I think from a biographical memoir of John Cheever by his daughter. In Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever is particularly acute on the value her famous father put on appearances:

Clothes were important to him, and by the end of his life he had developed an aristocratic casual style that reflected his personal horror of vanity in men. This collided with his sharp sense of the importance of appearance. He didn’t like to be caught looking in the mirror, and he felt that men shouldn’t think too much about their hair or clothes. They should, nevertheless, always look terrific. It was an eccentric double standard that reflected his rigid and confused ideas about correct masculine behavior.

If such an elegant and distinguished person as John Cheever, an artist at describing the intricacies of living, can be confused about how men should behave regarding their appearance, I suppose the rest of us can be forgiven easily enough if we relinquish the job of dressing ourselves. It is a solution to the double standard, isn’t it, if we say, “Well, yes, I suppose I am rather nicely turned out, but I really don’t care much about myself. My wife picks up a few things for me here and there.” gets us neatly off the hook.

3 Comments on "The John Cheever Centennial"

  1. Boston Trad | May 27, 2012 at 8:19 pm |

    The “aristocratic casual style” referred to is not at all difficult to achieve:
    Navy blazer/tweed jacket + chinos/grey flannels + blue, white, or blue striped white shirt, white or navy polo shirt, solid navy or black reppe or knit tie, navy/black turtleneck, etc. No GTH trousers, no cute critters on any item of clothing, no colors other than those mentioned.

  2. I remember first reading John Cheever’s whimsical, darkly magical collection of short stories in junior college. I’d read “The Swimmer” in an English Lit survey and was moved by the way it combined the surreal and the almost-familiar. I was brought up middle-class in the ’60s and ’70s, the son of a hard-working union man, and there was something about Cheever’s world–a step or two away as it was from the world I knew–that was very beguiling, perhaps because it showed upper-middle-class life as a place where easy-living and tragedy walked hand-in-hand and also because it seemed suffused with a mystical, sad nostalgia. That collection was dog-eared and missing pages by the time the front cover fell off a few years later. I also read Hunter S. Thompson around this time, who I liked both for his on-the-edge persona and because he dressed mostly in L.L. Bean, not the hippy trappings of the times. But it was Cheever who looked like how I imagined a writer should look, casual, classy and traditional, as if he’d just come back from a brisk walk with his pipe, mulling over new plots and characters with which to delight us all.

  3. I have developed a firm Trad/Prep clothing foundation for myself. My wife has her thoughts on what she wears. The solution of either one of us buying clothing for the other was simply solved with the axiom of ‘You don’t buy my clothes and I don’t buy yours’. We have observed this rule since our marriage in ’72 and there has been peace in the closet ever since.

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