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The Wapshot Chronicle

by John Cheever

Original Publisher: Harper & Brothers
Current Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Liz Rosenberg writes:

They say that imitation is the greatest form of flattery; if so, The Wapshot Chronicle, by John Cheever, was the first novel I ever flattered. It amazes me now that I, (young, Jewish, female from suburban New York) believed I could imitate a New England master—I might as well have tried to re-write The Scarlet Letter. For some insane reason I thought it would be easy, because that is what masters of fiction do—they make story-telling look as natural as breathing in and out.

Re-reading The Wapshot Chronicle, more than thirty years later, I am struck by how inimitable it is. And how melancholy. I remembered only the novel’s comedic bits—the runaway horse and carriage carrying the leading ladies of the town off-course; the redoubtable cousin Honora. (I think my own imitation was called something subtle like Valora.)

A faint dustiness clings to the pages of The Wapshot Chronicle. There is a sad, dry, wheezing quality to Cheever’s exquisite prose, as if Hemingway had met Proust along an abandoned road and shaken hands. It is hard now to know how much of this melancholia is embedded in the fiction, and how much has rubbed off from biography. John Cheever, when I met him, was a gentle, quiet, welcoming, self-deprecating man. His wife had a voice as high as a child’s. Nonetheless she was the one who frightened me.

The saddest parts of The Wapshot Chronicle are about love and physicality—between Rosalie and her doomed young beau on the shore; or the dancing girl Coverly sees at the fair who “picked a cap off the farm hand in the front row and did something very dirty” or even the act of shaving: “‘You gotta stretch your skin, sonny...You gotta stretch it, you gotta stretch your skin.’” One shivers to feel Cheever’s longing for and abhorrence of the physical world. Moses Wapshot watches a naked girl bathing and finds “his dream of simple pleasure replaced by some sadness, some heaviness that seemed to make his mouth taste of blood and his teeth ache.” The local undertaker is tainted by the physical world –“for everything that he was associated with as a salesman—jewelry, promiscuity, travel and easy money—set him apart from the rest of the population and seemed, to the farm women, at least, to be suitable attributes for the Angel of Death.”

The Puritan lineage from Hawthorne to Cheever runs surprisingly direct, and Cheever’s terse, telegraphed prose links him as well to the American Naturalists—writers like Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair—even if they are clumsy and he as elegant as a pair of pressed gray pants. He shares with them a shadowed vision of pleasure and sin, of enjoyment and greed. The Wapshot Chronicle, written as a brilliant period piece, has passed, as all writing must, into a period piece itself. It smacks of the nineteen fifties; men in white shirts and respectable hats, with the l960s veering around the corner at them and at us. The Wapshot Chronicle chronicles the end of two eras—the fictional one, and the one in which it was actually written. It stands the way Chautauqua stands—as a place apart, an invented fairyland, an Eden in which one sees the trail the serpent makes in the dust.

Liz Rosenberg’s most recent book is Home Repair, a novel. She has been a National Book Awards judge twice, in 1998 and 2005.


Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • James Agee for A Death in the Family
  • James Gould Cozzens for By Love Possessed
  • Mark Harris for Something About a Soldier
  • Andrew Lytle for The Velvet Horn
  • Bernard Malamud for The Assistant
  • Wright Morris for Love Among the Cannibals
  • Vladimir Nabokov for Pnin
  • Ayn Rand for Atlas Shrugged
  • Nancy Wilson Ross for The Return of Lady Brace
  • May Sarton for The Birth of a Grandfather

Fiction Judges that Year: Van Wyck Brooks, Albert J. Guerard, Mrs. William W. Johnson,
William Maxwell, Francis Steegmuller

The Year in Literature:

  • A Death in the Family by the late James Agee won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

The Wapshot Chronicle was John Cheever’s first novel, though he had previously written short stories. The story centers on an eccentric family living in a Massachusetts fishing village.

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Reader Comments (1)

Was just watching this amazing video of Cheever and Updike on The Dick Cavett Show. It is an incredible conversation.


July 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKC
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