Paul Harding spoke to me from his home in Boston, where he teaches fiction at Harvard University.
Paul Harding: I first encountered John Cheever my senior year of high school. Reading The Wapshot Chronicle, I remember thinking what a strange, poetic, mythological kind of writer Cheever was. And then I immediately ran into his unfortunate reputation: the whole thing of Cheever being the chronicler of the upper middle-class suburbs, the man with the nice house in Connecticut who always wandered around in his wide wale corduroys and florsheim penny loafers. For me, that impression has never stuck. I think of him as a fabulist. I put him in the same category, broadly speaking, as writers like Italo Calvino. Not only does he write frankly surreal stories like “The Swimmer”—stories like “The Day the Pig Fell in the Well” or “The Jewels of the Cabots” have the mystery and weight of folktales or old legends. Cheever trades the principles of verisimilitude for his own inner, wonderfully imaginative logic.
I started really digging in to him in graduate school, when I was getting my MFA. For me, “The Jewels of the Cabots” the crown jewel of his collected stories. It’s basically a novel in 20 pages. I’ve read it a million times, I’ve taught it a million times, and I know it line by line.
The dramatic premise of the story is this: A guy talks about the town where he grew up. He’s obsessed with this family called the Cabots, who are the wealthiest people in the town. The title refers to the fact that the eccentric Mrs. Cabot has a large collection of diamonds—which she washes and hangs out to dry on her clothesline. They’re the quintessential cranky Yankees, these people, wealthy but parsimonious. And they’re an occasion for the narrator to agonize over, obsess about, and wrestle with questions of class, privilege, family ties.
Brilliantly, Cheever gives the narrator two equally strong but precisely opposite impulses. His first impulse is to confess: The story’s meant to be a confession, in the sense of St. Augustine. He wants to confess his sins, put all his cards on the table. But then he also feels an opposite, contradictory impulse, which is just as strong: to conceal. To evade. And much of the dramatic tension of the story rests in the fact that what he wants to confess is his impulse to conceal, or evade, the uglier sides of the reality he knows. I always hesitate to use the word “dialectics”—but there is a thesis/antithesis at play here, and as these two forces contradict one another, the story shapes itself.
The story’s structured in an amazing series of weird, inadvertent, backhanded revelations about the narrator, his family, and his community. It’s an advance and retreat structure—he’ll reveal something and then veer away. For instance, the story begins this way: “Funeral services for the murdered man were held in the Unitarian church in the little village of St. Botolphs.” The narrator of the story is a journalist, and he starts in the quintessential fashion of a newspaper article: who, what, where, why, when. But instead explaining about the murdered man in a straightforward account, he takes a detour. Before we’re even halfway down the page, the paragraph turns into this gigantic, long parenthetical statement that does everything but talk about this murder. There are these refrains throughout the story—“here are the facts,” or “back to the facts”—when the narrator tries to rein himself back in. But every time the facts get heavy, or require some kind of emotional candidness, he dodges them again.