- We Wear the White Mask:John Cheever Writes Race
The world of John Updike … does not impinge on my world. On the other hand, the world of John Cheever did engage me.—James Baldwin, The Paris Review, 1984
In a 1984 New York Times interview, a nearly sixty-year-old James Baldwin was asked whether there were any white writers of his generation that he would describe as "witnesses," a term Baldwin often used to describe his desire to represent the American experience as structured by oppression and exploitation but also endurance (Lester 228). Baldwin responded by insisting that since "most white American writers seem to have cut off their heritage at Ellis Island," their "testimony" typically failed to "include enough." After naming Norman Mailer as a white writer he believed fell short of the title, Baldwin addressed the work of John Cheever and John Updike. Although he refers to the suburban subject matter of these writers as being "roughly the same," Baldwin proclaims Cheever an exception to the failure of most white writers: "Somehow those lost suburbanites in Cheever's work are very moving. He engages your compassion. His people are not remote. The work of so many white writers is remote for me. I'm not trying to put them down. It's simply that they are not relevant to my experience." Baldwin repeated a version of this claim [End Page 52] in the 1984 Paris Review interview quoted in the epigraph, using similar language of engagement and impingement to describe Cheever.
Baldwin met Cheever, who died in 1982, on several occasions. Most notably, the two shared a stage with Philip Roth twenty-five years earlier during a series of talks sponsored by Esquire called "Writing in America Today" and held at the campuses of Berkeley, Stanford, and San Francisco State University over three nights in October 1960.1 One might imagine that Cheever, whose darkest stories of suburban life entertained the notion of finding redemption in the suburbs' enrapturing summer light, was the odd man out next to the seemingly more provocative pair of Baldwin and Roth.2 The New York Times Book Review circulated a version of this claim in the run-up to the Esquire talks, reporting on "the general hope" preceding them "that Cheever, Roth and Baldwin would disagree violently about practically everything" (Gutwillig 68). But Cheever's symposium remarks and the responses they elicited show him not only holding his own as a critic of American pieties but suggest that he was the most controversially received of the three. During the course of his talk at Berkeley, Cheever lamented the "abrasive and faulty surface of the United States in the last twenty-five years," insisted that the "nightmare symbols of our existence" meant that "life in the United States in 1960 is Hell," and concluded that "the only possible position for a writer now is negation" (Gutwillig 68). While Cheever's observations earned him a standing ovation from the Berkeley students, audience members who were "over 40 and some of them over 60," as reported by the New York Times Book Review, were provoked to "climb and totter to their feet" and to accuse Cheever of "deliberate obscurity" and "anti-Americanism." Baldwin is described as having "rushed to Cheever's defense" before this hostile group of Berkeley elders to confirm Cheever's sense of the "unprecedented" state of their "insane and obscure civilization." But Baldwin's remarks failed to appease those who continued to harangue Cheever while the students who had applauded him earlier "clammed up." The atmosphere became so bitter that the moderator of the event concluded the evening by asking Cheever why, given his pessimism, he "even bothered to write at all."
Perhaps it is this critical and confrontational Cheever, along with his compassion-eliciting characters, who Baldwin fondly remembered in 1984 for his talent to "engage." Given that Cheever's fiction has been largely relegated to the margins of American literary studies despite periodic lamentations of this fact, the rougher edges of his soft-eyed approach toward the new class of midcentury suburbanites [End Page 53] that so disturbed his Berkley audience in 1960 and warmed Baldwin...