13 September 2014

John Cheever's (Queer) "Country Husband"


Going through some of the secondary literature on John Cheever in preparation for a class in which I assigned the students to read his 1954 story "The Country Husband", I was surprised to find no discussion of the story within a queer context. My search was not comprehensive, but the connection seems so obvious to me, and so illuminating for the story, that I'm surprised it isn't mentioned by most people who write about Cheever's tale.

Paging through Blake Bailey's comprehensive biography of Cheever makes the connection even more obvious than the story itself does, for Bailey notes that Cheever's journal "in the early months of 1954 was filled with self-loathing on the subject" of homosexual desire. It's a running theme throughout the book, as Colm Tóibín points out in an insightful essay on Cheever and Bailey's biography for the London Review of Books:
The problem was partly his intense inhabiting of the domestic sphere and the suburban landscape, as though this were a way of shutting out the wider world, and partly his refusal even to recognise his own homosexuality as anything other than a dark hidden area of the self which could not be explored. ‘For Cheever it would always be one thing to have sex with a man,’ Bailey writes, ‘another to spend the night with him. The latter was a taboo he would rarely if ever violate until a ripe old age.’ In his journals he wrote: ‘If I followed my instincts I would be strangled by some hairy sailor in a public urinal. Every comely man, every bank clerk and delivery boy, was aimed at my life like a loaded pistol.’ One of his best friends in his twenties was Malcolm Cowley, through whom he had briefly met Hart Crane. Cowley’s wife had been on the ship with Crane when he committed suicide in 1932. A homosexual lifestyle, Cowley had warned Cheever, ‘could only end with drunkenness and ghastly suicide’. As one of Cheever’s colleagues in the Signal Corps in World War Two remarked: ‘He wanted to be accepted as a New England gentleman and New England gentlemen aren’t gay. Back then you had no idea of the opprobrium. Even in the Signal Corps, even in the film and theatre world, you were a second-class citizen if you were gay, and Cheever did not want to be that.’
Of course, in 1954 Cheever could not write a short story about his desires and have it published by The New Yorker, even if he had wanted to (Alan Gurganus's "Minor Heroism" is reportedly the first openly gay story the magazine published, a story sent to the magazine by Cheever, who had been Gurganus's teacher and was, rather to Gurganus's chagrin, in love with him. It appeared 20 years — almost to the day — after "The Country Husband"). But the torment of the story's protagonist, Francis Weed, is one entirely familiar to anyone who has ever repressed socially unacceptable feelings.


On a general level, "The Country Husband" is a story about the struggle to keep chaos out of an ordered society: it is a story of repression and abjection. It opens with a fall: an airplane makes an emergency landing. Francis is on the plane, and once he makes his way back to New York, he first tries to tell a (male) friend about his experience, and then his wife and family, and none of them are particularly interested or able to hear him. The crash seems to them an absurdity or impossibility, something that can't be admitted into their consciousness. Francis lives in a world that seeks to keep the world itself at bay, a psychically gated community where everyone "seemed united in their tacit claim that there had been no past, no war — that there was no danger or trouble in the world."

Various forces threaten the perfect, memoryless, painless order of Shady Hill: the dog Jupiter, the little girl Gertrude, and, most insistently, memories of the war years. War imagery fills the story on nearly every page right from the beginning, where the pilot of the crashing plane sings a song popular with Allied soldiers. The most obvious insertion of the war into the story is the moment where Francis recognizes that the Farquarson's maid is a woman he'd see in France in 1944, a woman subjected to "public chastisement" for having "lived with the German commandant during the Occupation". The description of her torture is harrowing: the mayor of the village condemns her, her hair is cut off, she's stripped naked, jeered at, spat upon. We know nothing of why she lived with the German commandant, or what that entailed exactly, or if she did it out of love or traitorous sympathies or simply the hope of gaining some extra rations — but her crime is clear and at least implicitly sexual. Francis remembers her, and the memory brings in the chaos of the war, but it also reminds him of what happens to anyone who transgresses the mores of a village.

(From a biographical standpoint, it's interesting that Cheever sets this scene in Normandy and, clearly, 1944. He was in the military that year himself, and missed going over to D-Day by pure luck. Almost all of the men he knew in his regiment died in the attack on Utah Beach and afterward.)

The overt transgression of the story is that Francis falls in love with the babysitter. (I expect this was a cliché even in 1954, and the very predictable, banal nature of the transgression is, it seems, part of Cheever's point.) Francis behaves terribly, even assaults her and very briefly entertains the idea of raping her. His desire is a sprawl of chaos, a threat of destruction. It poisons his family life and his friendships. Finally, he goes to a psychiatrist (as Cheever did the year he wrote the story, though Cheever went to discuss "homosexual concerns", impotence, and alcohol abuse), where, because he was insistent that he must see the doctor that day, he is confronted by police who think he might be a man who has been sending death threats. The police are there as representatives of social authority — the enforcers of normality and punishers of deviance — and they further heighten the sense of peril for any transgressor. When the doctor asks Francis what his problem is, he says, "I'm in love." The doctor tells him to try woodworking, and Francis finds some happiness in this. Woodworking, Timothy Aubry notes, "as a part of a 'do-it-yourself' movement was a constitutive aspect of a self-help culture that attempted to affirm the average white-collar worker’s belief in his power and masculinity."

That the ridiculous, impossible, yet dangerous and destructive love for the babysitter can be read as a placeholder for homosexual desire (and gay panic) seems to me to be become legitimate not only when we consider the plot and character relationships in the story, or Cheever's own biography, but also through an examination of three passages, and in particular three words.

The first two are relatively close together in the story: "The photograph of his four children laughing on the beach at Gay Head reproached him" and "The look Francis gave the little girl was ugly and queer, and it frightened her".

Of course, today, when the meanings of gay and queer denote homosexuality first and foremost, no writer or reader could ignore those meanings, but in 1954 the words meant differently. But they didn't not mean what they do today.

George Chauncey's Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 is a useful text here, particularly the introduction in which he outlines the evolution of such words as fairy, faggot, gay, and queer. He quotes a writer from 1941:
Supposing one met a stranger on a train from Boston to New York and wanted to find out whether he was "wise" or even homosexual. One might ask: "Are there any gay spots in Boston?" And by slight accent put on the word "gay" the stranger, if wise, would understand that homosexual resorts were meant. The uninitiated stranger would never suspect, inasmuch as "gay" is also a perfectly normal and natural word to apply to places where one has a good time.... The continued use of such double entendre terms will make it obvious to the initiated that he is speaking with another person acquainted with the homosexual argot.
Chauncey writes: "The term gay began to catch on in the 1930s, and its primacy was consolidated during the war. By the late 1940s, younger gay men were chastising older men who still used queer, which the younger men now regarded as demeaning."

Thus, while the reference to Gay Head beach (on Martha's Vineyard) primarily serves to evoke a particular location, to a reader "wise" to a particular double entendre, it may have an added meaning. Similarly, Francis's "ugly and queer" glance. Both words are used in sentences about children, which evokes not only the common 1950s homophobic associations of queers with pedophiles, but also attaches a homosexual association to the products (offspring) of good, manly heterosex. The photograph reproaches Francis not only by reminding him of the happiness that is possible with his family when he doesn't transgress, but also by reminding him of the perverse, nonprocreative desires that torment him. His glance at Gertrude is ugly and frightening because it is queer.

Then we have the ending, which I can attest will cause many snickers when read aloud to adolescents today. A cat dressed up in a doll's dress and straw hat runs away from whoever put it into such an inappropriate, uncomfortable costume:
"Here pussy, pussy, pussy!" Julia calls.

"Here, pussy, here, poor pussy!" But the cat gives her a skeptical look and mumbles away in its skirts. The last to come is Jupiter. He prances through the tomato vines, holding in his generous mouth the remains of an evening slipper. Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.
While it is perfectly innocent in 1954 to call out "Here pussy!" to a cat, the more vulgar contemporary associations of that word were well established then. By the end of the 19th century, the word was used as slang for vulva or vagina, and its use as slang for someone timid, gentle, or effeminate goes back to the mid-19th century.

And so the story ends with a cat wearing a doll's dress, being chased with a word that has slang associations for both female genitalia and unmanliness, followed by a dog that clearly stands for joyful but also threatening chaos, and the whole story ends with a reference to Hannibal, who, our textbook helpfully notes, "attacked the Romans from the rear".

Francis's gay panic is also, and perhaps primarily, a panic of effeminacy. War is the most manly of activities, and it haunts him. The world of Shady Hill confines him and reduces him in a way war did not — the manly virtues of the military within what was in World War II a staunchly homosocial milieu. His illicit, inappropriate, absurd desires are the chaos that escapes his repression. The exact nature of those desires doesn't much matter; it's the excess that counts. Woodworking will let him be happy for a little while, but there is no reason to read the ending as a happy one.