John Cheever, ‘The Summer Farmer’: one of the Hollow Men

John Cheever, ‘The Summer Farmer’, in Collected Stories (Vintage, London; first published in Great Britain – 1979; this edition with Introduction by Hanif Kureishi – 2010)

For a change I shall begin by recommending another review of John Cheever’s ‘The Summer Farmer’: it’s in a series of pieces on the stories of Cheever over at the excellent The Mookse and the Gripes site. Michael Pucci gives a detailed assessment there of this story about a city dweller, Paul Hollis, and his competitive spat with the ‘bitter’ and ‘discontented’ hired man, the Russian-born communist Kasiak, who is contemptuous of Hollis’s comparatively indolent work ethic and the lax morals and ‘disorderly’, bourgeois  nature of Hollis’s family (the adults all drink excessively, and they give their animals names, which Kasiak thinks is sentimental).

Pucci judges it not one of Cheever’s best stories, feeling it has an over-obvious twist at the end which makes too ‘convenient a point’. I intend exploring this evaluation with an examination of the language and style of this story, and a closer scrutiny of what that convenient ‘point’ might be; I think this conclusion is a little too dismissive and imprecise.

Cheever The Complete StoriesIn his Introduction to this English edition Hanif Kureishi astutely identifies several key themes in Cheever stories. First there’s what Cheever himself calls ‘the bitter mystery of marriage’, with its ‘carnal anarchy’. As the eponymous ‘farmer’ Hollis drives from the station junction in rural New Hampshire, having travelled there on his weekly commute from New York City – his family is spending the summer at the farm he inherited from his parents, and which he visits every weekend in the summer – the conversation he has with his ‘gentle wife’ Virginia (the adjective sounds ironic) hints at the central evasions of his life; their talk

was confined to the modest properties and affections they shared; more than this, it seemed to aim at a deliberate inconsequence, as if to mention the checking balance or the wars might ruin the spell of a mild morning and an open car.

Once in the house, in the room that had been his parents’, he and Virginia talk about family. Cheever’s use of abstract nouns here and in the rest of the story is particularly telling – I shall allude to this several times. The syntax is subtle and ambiguous; they taste the ‘astringency’ of their contentment in marriage – it’s clearly not unalloyed happiness – and their ‘worthiness’ (is this also ‘astringent’?), an abstract noun that seems to suggest a positive but which is in fact freighted with negative connotations: their life, it suggests, is a sham. Why else does Hollis have to anaesthetise himself with whisky in the train’s club car on his journey to the country? Yes, to wash away the polluting air of ‘the hot city’ and his job there, but also surely to indicate to the reader that there’s something awry with his life as a whole.

This is reinforced by the fact that, as they drive from the station to the farm, they pass through the ‘vitiated New Hampshire landscape, with its omnipresence of ruin’.

An ambivalent atmosphere is sustained once he reaches the farm; Hollis feels a ‘violent’ sense of ‘homecoming ’, of ‘returning to a place where he had summered all his life’,  and of overwhelming love for his children, but this is counterpointed by the description of his stern lecture to them about caring for their new pet rabbits, which ‘reduced him to a fatuity that he was conscious of himself.’

There’s a socio-political context lightly sketched in that adds to the richness of the story. His ‘coveralls’ still bear the dimly stencilled marks of his military ‘name, rank and serial number.’ This hints that he’d found some kind of real purpose and identity, perhaps, during his military war service which he tries to reassume by clothing himself in it symbolically at the farm, but that purpose has ‘faded’ into insignificance during the subsequent cold-war years –  a theme that recurs in Cheever’s  stories of this era (I hope to show this in future posts).

The story was published in 1948 in The New Yorker, when, as Betsy Pelz points out in a comment on Pucci’s article, the alliance with the Soviet Union had broken down and the House Un-American Activities Committee had been set up for three years, though McCarthy wasn’t to chair hearings until some years later. It’s a ‘charade of equality’ between Hollis and his malcontent hired man; this is one of Hollis’s ‘principle illusions’. In reality they’re engaged in a ‘puerile race’ – like the arms race to come in the near future? Near the end of the story Hollis fears that Kasiak is plotting a revolution of the ‘diligent and the reliable to seize power from the hands of those who drank Martinis’.

‘Dangerous seduction’ (Pelz) is a theme of the story in this threatening, unsettled climate: Hollis tried to appease Kasiak’s revolutionary anger and disapproval of his own bourgeois family life by showing ‘reasonableness’ (another of those revealing abstract nouns), and he was accommodating towards his lush of a sister and languid, disengaged wife. He strove for ‘contentment’ by taking a non-committal or supine position in relation to these problems in his life, and as a consequence he’s taken advantage of, discontented and has made decisions which worsened an already mediocre life.

There is a serpent in this rural Eden of his (his father had called the highest pasture ‘Elysian’ because of ‘its unearthly stillness’); is this the story’s central message? Hollis represents middle America, and has lost his bearings, is a hollow man, oscillating between a meaningless city job he hates, and a rural, hereditary idyll (he’s a ‘vacationist’, not a real farmer, one of what Kasiak dismisses as the ‘useless people’) that is tainted and failing; it’s a lie. Frequent references to brooding weather –  shadows, clouds  (some of them ‘clouds of filth’), rain, thunderstorms and so on – convey this atmosphere of impending doom in the story in a kind of recurring pathetic fallacy:

While they had been working, clouds had blackened the sky from the horizon to above his head, so he was given the illusion of a country divided evenly between the lights of catastrophe and repose.

The lyrical, elegiac final paragraphs (a Cheever trademark), quoted at length by Pucci, bring out these contradictions, with their accusatory abstract nouns: ‘the self-importance, diffidence or sadness with which we settle ourselves’ – the switch to the first person plural signifies the inclusivity of the message; we are all implicated in this futile attempt to live an idyllic or precariously balanced life. Hollis is broken; his right hand has ‘a tremor’, revealing his ‘mortality’; his ‘confused frown’ indicates his ‘obsoleteness’, and his ‘lame shoulders’ – the odd collocation highlights this dysfunctional description – are a consequence of ‘some recent loss of principle.’ Appeasement, striving for the apparently reasonable, quiet life, is destined to fail.

As Kureishi says it’s ‘status, self-respect and work, rather than sexual passion, which drives us’ in Cheever’s world. Hollis is forced to confront the fact that he has attained or succeeded in none of these. Hollis’s sister, sitting at the dinner table ‘high in her firmament of gin’, serves to illustrate the brokenness of this family’s life:

For with any proximity the constellations of some families generate among themselves an asperity that nothing can sweeten.

The style is grandiose here, but the abstract noun ‘asperity’ is a close cousin to the ‘astringency’ tasted in Hollis’s marriage, noted earlier, and the repetition of a sense-perception image subtly underlines the story’s purpose:

There was something wrong, some half-known evil in her worship of the bucolic scene – some measure of her inadequacy, and, he supposed, of his.

I’ve tried to show that Pucci’s assessment of this story is probably correct: it’s not one of Cheever’s best. Nevertheless, I believe it shows flashes of almost Chekhovian insights into ‘significant moments in ordinary lives’ (this is Kureishi again), with almost ‘every sentence weighed and balanced until it says the right thing’, uniting the personal with the political. His characters’ hopes for post-war American prosperity and peace (‘the bucolic scene’) are undermined by fears that they are false hopes and everything will be taken away from them some time in the uncertain future, and their lives shattered. Even if Hollis proves Kasiak’s derisive prediction wrong and does return in future summers, his life is depicted as shattered, or at least, disastrously cracked, and he will never feel content again on his summer farm.