John Cheever & Rachel Carson: A Belated Birthday Observance

Gloucester, Mass.: Seaside House 9/24/11

I was going to observe John Cheever’s centenary with a brief post.  Then, I saw in The Writer’s Almanac that Rachel Carson, too, was born on May 27, but in 1907.

An odd pairing, Cheever and Carson: the Sage of the Suburbs and the Mother of Environmentalism.  But in my mind they have intertwined as tightly as Hawthorne and Thoreau.  The title of Cheever’s novella, published three months before his death, captures their blended voices: Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1982).[1]

I discovered Cheever before Carson.  On a hot, sunny day, much like today, I found a copy of The Housebreaker of Shady Hill & Other Stories (1958) beside my Aunt Harriet’s chair on her screened porch.  By the end of the afternoon, my view of my parents and their generation had changed forever and with it my expectations of life.

In the title story, a man loses his job in the City and takes to thieving from his neighbors to conceal his financial straits.  The idyl of the suburbs is shattered by one of its own, a man who can rationalise his guilt and his friends’ anguish.

But, it was the second, ‘O youth and beauty!’, that hit hardest.  The protagonist, a track star in his youth, was now my father’s age and confronting a career and a life that were mediocre and bitter.

The jagged contrasts between Cheever’s characters and their settings, between their desperations and the joys of life, have haunted me ever since.

When I read Cheever’s description of skating on a pond in Paradise, I think no one could convey pleasure better than Cheever.  Nor have many authors shown such empathy with characters who in lesser hands would be butts.  ‘The Swimmer’ (1964) in his best-known short story suffers around sun-drenched suburban pools the revelation, isolation and madness of Lear on the storm-swept heath.[2]

My favorite Cheever story is ‘The Seaside Houses’ (1961) which begins with the imagining of previous tenants of summer rentals based on the bottles and books they’ve left behind.  In just such a house a year earlier I found an abandoned copy of The Edge of the Sea (1955) by Rachel Carson.

Its preface begins:

Like the sea itself, the shore fascinates us who return to it, the place of our dim ancestral beginnings.  In the recurrent rhythms of tide and surf and in the varied life of the tide lines there is the obvious attraction of movement and change and beauty.  There is also, I am convinced, a deeper fascination born of inner meaning and significance.

It is this ‘deeper fascination’ that binds Cheever and Carson, their restless search for meaning and significance expressed in disciplined English.

Like Cheever, Carson expressed the joy she felt in her surroundings which she examined from so many distances, through so many lenses imposing so many perspectives.  After The Edge of the Sea, I would never pass a tidal pool without peering and imagining.

Neither Carson nor Cheever is recalled today for the pleasures they shared with their readers.  Like George Orwell, few remember them as observers who attracted and delighted readers, as Cheever did with his misdirection in ‘The Worm in the Apple’.

Instead, they are recalled for their pictures of the doom of environmental disaster (The Silent Spring (1962)) and the soullessness of modern life.  Many critics noted the explicit and implicit homages to Cheever, as in references to Bullett Park (1969), in the first two seasons of ‘Mad Men’.  But the real honor paid Cheever lies in its crisp dialogue and its use of detail, inflection and atmosphere to drive the story.

Whether by intention or not, the editors of The Writer’s Almanac captured the essence of Carson and Cheever in the poem chosen for their birthday:   Robert Creeley’s ‘When I Think’ (2006).[3]  Here are its last lines:

                            …When I try to think of things, of

what’s happened, of what a life is

and was, my life, when I wonder what it meant,

 the sad days passing, the continuing, echoing deaths,

all the painful, belligerent news, and the dog still

waiting to be fed, the closeness of you sleeping, voices,

 presences, of children, of our own grown children,

the shining, bright sun, the smell of the air just now,

each physical moment, passing, passing, it’s what

it always is or ever was, just then, just there.



1.  In candour, this is a lousy book.  As noted below, it has a couple of nice moments.  But that’s it.  I feel similarly, but less strongly, about his other novels.  Writing long wasn’t his strong suit.

2.  Few stories about hot, sunny Sundays are as cold and desperate as this masterpiece.  Unforgettable.

3.  Robert Creeley,  On Earth: Last Poems and an Essay (University of California Press, 2006).