On April 27, 1982, less than two months before his death from cancer, John Cheever appeared at Carnegie Hall to accept the National Medal for Literature. While his colleagues stood and cheered (“John had nothing but friends,” said Malcolm Cowley), Cheever hobbled across the stage with the help of his wife, Mary. Months of cancer treatment had left him bald and pitifully frail, shrunken, but his voice was firm as he spoke. In his journal he’d referred to this occasion as his “Exodus” and reminded himself that literature was “the salvation of the damned”—the lesson of his own life, surely, and the gist of what he said that day at Carnegie Hall. “A page of good prose,” he declared, “remains invincible.” Seven years before—his marriage on the rocks, most of his books out of print—Cheever had tried drinking himself to death. He was teaching at Boston University, beset by ghosts from his awful childhood in nearby Quincy: “There were whole areas of the city I couldn’t go into,” he said later. “I couldn’t, for example, go to Symphony Hall because my mother was there.” (His mother—resplendent in a coral-embroidered, homemade dress—used to attend concerts at Symphony Hall but refused to bring tickets: “Young man,” she’d say, “I am Mrs. F. Lincoln Cheever and my seats are number 14 and 15.”)
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