1. A special project for the 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, T. C. Boyle writes about John Cheever reading his short story “The Death of Justina.” It was recorded at 92Y on March 22, 1964. Boyle studied with John Cheever at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1973. He once told NPR about the experience:

    John was then 61 years old, which seemed to me preposterously old at the time (as you can imagine, I’ve since modified my view), and he seemed rather frail and diminished into the bargain. I had read his stories — most of them — in a desultory way, but in that era of scintillating narrative experimentation they struck me as being somewhat antiquated, solid stories of a bygone era. The term “experimental” was my mantra, but John was having none of it. His own stories were experimental, he insisted, as was all good fiction, but I didn’t believe him. In the blind and arrogant way of the young, I felt I knew better.

    But oh, how wrong I was! That came home to me in force five years later, when he published his collected stories (The Stories of John Cheever, 1978, winner of that year’s Pulitzer Prize in fiction), a volume of 61 short stories I have re-read for its comfort and enduring beauty every few years since.

    There is a great, questing soul alive everywhere in these stories, a soul trying to come to grips with the parameters of human experience amid the ravishing beauty of nature. Few prose writers can touch Cheever for the painterly precision of his descriptions, and the reward of them too — his characters, locked in the struggles of suburban and familial angst, regularly experience moments of transcendence and rebirth in nature.

    We have also posted video of T. C. Boyle’s recent reading at 92Y last month.

  2. unbornwhiskey:

    She asked Bumps Trigger to get her a drink, and he brought her back a glass of dark bourbon. She felt a profound nostalgia, a longing for some emotional island or peninsula that she had not even discerned in her dreams. She seemed to know something about its character—it was not a paradise—but its elevating possibilities of emotional richness and freedom stirred her. It was the stupendous feeling that one could do much better than this; that the reality was not Mrs. Wishing’s dance; that the world was not divided into rigid parliaments of good an evil but was ruled by the absolute authority and range of her desire

    John Cheever, The Wapshot Scandal

    You can listen to Cheever read from The Wapshot Scandal at 92Y in 1964.

  3. From the Poetry Center Archive: Celebrating John Cheever

    Allan Gurganus, who appeared at our Unterberg Poetry Center’s centennial celebration of John Cheever last May, has now had his tribute essay—originally a tribute address from our stage—published in The New York Review of Books. We thought everyone should take a look:

    His best tales have the force of allegory and the benefit of psychology. They can make the ancient rites of dispossession and fratricide lyrical. His short fiction pivots between Freudian case studies, Sherwood Anderson pathologies, and fables by Aesop. This high school dropout’s sources? Solely the best. Madame Bovary, Bulfinch’s Mythology, the Book of Common Prayer, parables from our King James Bible.

    As he turns one hundred this year, we must note the continuing livingness, the classical trim and snap, of Cheever’s eternal prose. He hailed from seagoing New Englanders with a fatal love of water. And no one ever wrote about it better. Our race is largely H2O, so we are most richly spiritually at home in a bath, or while doing laps, or as a swimmer seeking some way out. I still wonder if Joni Mitchell didn’t write this great line about John Cheever. “Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”

    Speaking of H2O and seeking some way out, here is Cheever himself reading one of his most famous stories, "The Swimmer" at 92Y in 1977.

    In an ongoing effort to share with our readers some of the great literary moments which the Poetry Center has presented across the decades, we have begun to feature regular postings of archival recordings. For access to other recordings on our Virtual Poetry Center, please click here.

    Unterberg Poetry Center webcasts and access to our archive are made possible in part by the generous support of the Sidney E. Frank Foundation.

  4. From the Poetry Center Archive: John Cheever reads “The Swimmer”

    On Thursday night, 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center will present “John Cheever at 100,” a centennial celebration of the great fiction writer with readings and remembrances by Susan Cheever (his daughter), Blake Bailey (his biographer), Allan Gurganus (a former student) and Michael Chabon (one of his biggest fans).

    The evening will also feature some audio excerpts from Cheever’s two appearances here at 92Y (in 1964 and 1977), but today, in anticipation, we’d like to share a recording of Cheever reading one of his most famous stories, “The Swimmer” at 92Y on December 19, 1977.

    “The story was made into a film some of you may have seen,” Cheever remarked before he began to read. “It still runs on late-night television. I know because people always call me and say, ‘Hey, you’re in the movies!’ It’s usually about half past 11… . Here again the story has had an international success, and the various interpretations have always interested me. It’s very popular in Russia, for example, where there are almost no swimming pools and where almost nobody swims.”

    Burt Lancaster starred in the adaptation, which was shot in May of 1966. “Though an acrobat, a boxer, and a horseman,” Bailey reports in his biography, “Lancaster could scarcely swim a stroke and had been working since April with the UCLA swimming coach.” Cheever himself makes a brief cameo at a poolside cocktail party. Unhappy with the original cut, the producer delayed the film’s release until 1968. After attending the premiere, Cheever wrote to a friend: “It is not a great picture, but it is faithful to the story, and at the end, when he returns to the empty house, grown men weep.” And he thought Lancaster was terrific—“both young and old, masterful and tearful … lithe and haggard.”

    Bailey says that Cheever had been nervous about meeting Lancaster that first day on set, but “after shooting was finished that morning, the actor put on a bathrobe and had a poolside lunch with Cheever…after which Cheever (evidently over the worst of his shyness) ‘jumped beararse’ into the water.”

    In an ongoing effort to share with our readers some of the great literary moments which the Poetry Center has presented across the decades, this blog has begun to feature regular postings of archival recordings. To purchase tickets to “John Cheever at 100,” please click here. And for access to other recordings from the Poetry Center archive, please click here.