Archive for February 1st, 2021

Dana Gioia remembers a week with John Cheever at Stanford: “I was stunned by his voice.”

Monday, February 1st, 2021
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Cheever at Stanford, 1975 (Photo: Stanford News Service)

Poet Dana Gioia met John Cheever when the author was at a lowpoint of his literary reputation. His 1969 novel Bullet Park was received poorly, and a subsequent novel in 1973, The World of Apples, did not stop the decline. His work no longer appeared in The New Yorker. The occasion of the encounter was Stanford. Dana was a graduate student in Stanford’s Business School (he eventually became one of the few poets to have an MBA), and camped out in “FloMo,” more formally known as Florence Moore Hall. The occasion of Cheever’s arrival at campus was his son, who was thinking of enrolling at Stanford – and eventually did.

In his new book of recollections: Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoir’s from a Young Writer’s Life, the former National Endowments for the Arts chairman recalls his all-too-brief week with Cheever. “I was dazzled by his talk which could make a mortgage or a report card shimmer like a sacred script.”

The book, published by Paul Dry Books, has the distinction of being one of the few books ever to go into a third printing before it was officially out, thanks to pre-orders. 

A couple excerpts:

“Although Cheever looked exactly like his dust jacket photographs, three things surprised me. First, he was so small. For some reason, probably connected with my mental images of his fictional protagonists, I had expected a magisterially tall Yankee gentleman. Instead I met a slight, boyish man who stood only a few inches over five feet. Second, Cheever was the most perfectly poised man I had ever met. Every gesture was so graceful that he scarcely seemed part of the clumsy everyday world. Even the way he sat still seemed as carefully composed as a portrait. Not that his presence was dramatic; just the opposite was true. His manner was relaxed and understated. Nevertheless he had a style that captivated one’s attention the way a great actor can steal a scene without speaking a word. Finally, I was stunned by his voice.

“Cheever spoke a brand of patrician Massachusetts English that I know suspect he invented, for I have never heard anyone else speak quite like it. Nevertheless, he used this suave, fictive dialect so convincingly that in his voice it carried the force of ancient authority. I had talked to men funnier or wiser than Cheever, more inventive or intelligent, more perceptive or likeable, but I had never met anyone who possessed all these qualities so generously in such deft balance. His wasn’t the pedestrian balance of an earnest earthbound mind but the equilibrium of an acrobat.”

***

“He had never bothered to grow old. He still seemed more bright young man than sagacious patriarch. No one who met him that week would have guessed his full age.

“As his staff host, I expected to see little of Cheever after taking him to lunch the first day. To my astonishment, I spent most of the next week with him. He had arrived at Stanford with the best of intentions but the vaguest of plans. Since [his son] Fred was busy following his friends, his father had nothing to do except wait several days for a hastily arranged class visit and public reading. Cheever knew no one at Stanford, and the people who might have sought him out were mostly unaware he was on campus. He accepted his idleness and neglect without comment.

“For the next few days, Cheever just hung around Flo Mo, treating this large, spider-shaped complex like a resort hotel. He lingered over meals until the last student left and then sat in one of the run-down and usually deserted lounges. Whenever I returned from classes, I would find hi sitting by himself smoking in one of the huge Naugahyde chairs. He agreed to almost any suggestion I made – a walk, a drive, a visit. Eventually I gave him a key to my room so he could borrow books or listen to records when I was in class. …

So much about Cheever surprised me. First, I remember his modesty as a writer. He did not lack self-esteem, but it was tempered by his recognition of the immensity of the writer’s task. Having already met a few self-absorbed literary mediocrities, I found John’s humility before his vocation pure and unaffected. It was a kind of innocence. He was proud of what he had written but without pretension. He appeared unconcerned with posterity, which he claimed would take no note of him. What he valued was his relationship with his audience.

The book also includes a 21-page interview with Cheever, never before published in full. The Q&A was recorded by Michael Stillman, who died last month, with Stillman, Dana Gioia, and writer Millicent Dillon (formerly of the Stanford News Service) in conversation with Cheever. 

Postscript on 2/5: Dana’s brother, the jazz scholar Ted Gioia, comments on Facebook:   I was a freshman in college back in 1975, and got to have dinner with Saul Bellow and breakfast with John Cheever on the same weekend(!) This all happened because my older brother Dana, a grad student back at the time, was their informal host during their campus visits. I was 17 years old, and a freshman at Branner, while Dana was 23 and a first-year-student at the Stanford Business School. But Dana seemed to know everybody and be everywhere on the literary scene, even at that young age. He and I only had one class together, when we both took the same intermediate Italian language course. One day, Dana brought as his guest to the class Ezra Pound‘s daughter, the Princess Mary de Rachewiltz—how did he make these connections, and pull these things off? He’s just a student and he brings a princess to our class? It’s a grand mystery to me. I still don’t know he got me at the dinner table with Saul Bellow, when there were a thousand other people at Stanford who would have liked to have my seat. He just always seemed to be at the epicenter of everything and anything.

I can’t stress this too much: There is no substitute for seeing people up close who are operating at the highest levels of their vocation. And that’s true whether you are a poet, musician, novelist, painter, manager, cook, lawyer, or in any other profession. These experiences reveal possibilities in life you could not grasp in any other way.