I have seen something splendid

John Cheever at his home in New York, 6th October 1979
Photo by Paul Hosefros/Archive Photos/Getty Images

It was towards the end of his life in 1979 that John Cheever told his son, Benjamin, about his journals, and of his wish for them to be published after his death. These journals comprised twenty-nine looseleaf notebooks filled with entries that, in Cheever’s inimitable style, charted three decades of his life—a captivating introspective journey that chronicled not only the development of his novels but also the intricate landscape of his private emotions, his struggles with alcoholism, his sexuality. Cheever succumbed to cancer in 1982, and nearly a decade later, in 1991, his journals, complete with an introduction by Benjamin, saw the light of day. He wrote the following entry in June of 1962.

The Diary Entry

It is after dark—just. A summer night, stars and fireflies. The last night in June. My older son [Benjamin] stands on the bridge over the brook with a Roman candle. He is a man now. His voice is deep. He is barefoot and wears chinos. It takes two or three matches to light the fuse. There is a splutter of pink fire, a loud hissing, the colored fire is reflected in the water of the brook and lights the voluminous clouds of smoke that roll off the candle. The light changes from pink to green, from green to red. It makes on the trees and in the heavy air an amphitheatre or sphere of unearthly light. In this I see his beloved face, his figure. I cannot say truthfully that I have never felt anything but love for him. We have quarrelled, he has wet his bed, he has waked strangling from nightmares in which I appeared as a hairy werewolf dripping with gore. But all of this is gone. Now there is nothing between us but love and good-natured admiration. The candle ends with a loud coughing noise and voids a spate of golden stars and a smell of brimstone. He drops the embers into the brook. Then the dark takes over, but I think that I have seen something splendid: this young man, the weird and harmless play of colored light, the dark water of the brook.

Further Reading

The Journals of John Cheever is a remarkable book. Deeply personal and beautifully written, his journals paint a poignant and compelling account of a fascinating man and I can’t recommend them strongly enough. Entries are undated but arranged by year. Luckily enough, in the above entry Cheever writes of it being the last day of June, enabling me to use it today.

Excerpted from The Journals of John Cheever by John Cheever. Copyright © Mary Cheever, Susan Cheever, Benjamin Cheever and Federico Cheever, 1990, 1991, used by permission of The Wylie Agency (UK) Limited.

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