Places: The Wapshot Chronicle

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1957

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1890’s-1950’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedSt. Botolphs

St. Wapshot Chronicle, TheBotolphs. Small Massachusetts town with a distinguished past that has been experiencing an economic, intellectual, and spiritual decline since the middle of the nineteenth century. The town is emblematic of the shift in emphasis from New England to other regions of the United States in postcolonial times. Cheever models St. Botolphs on the classic arrangement of many towns in areas around Boston, with a central square that is the focus of social and commercial life, and other characteristic geographic features like a hill rising above the square, a river running from the hills toward the coast, and farmlands stretching toward the mountains in the north.

Aside from the descriptive details which evoke the terrain, Cheever uses references to the way the scents of the location–particularly the aroma of various bodies and courses of water–contribute to the psychological atmosphere of the narrative, and to the moods of the characters. Captain Leander Wapshot is exhilarated by the “brine-smelling summer days” as he sails toward the bay beyond Boston harbor. The festival commemorating Independence Day is darkened by the dark, raw smell of mud. Mrs. Wapshot is touched by melancholy, epitomized by her taste for the smell of orange rinds and wood smoke.

Wapshot house

Wapshot house. St. Botolphs home of the Wapshot family, a large house beside the river on land that was part of a farm in earlier days. This house and other individual homes and shops have acquired a distinctive identity through a local oral tradition and are like landmarks in an internalized map of the mind that long-term residents instinctively understand and relate to. Across the river, which is like a national boundary, families who speak Italian are regarded as foreigners and treated as a lesser species.

Travertine

Travertine. Small market town, four miles from St. Botolphs, on the main road to Boston. Travertine is the commercial component of the social matrix, a complement to the church, meetinghouse, and elegant domains of St. Botolphs, where the Wapshots and their neighbors acquire provisions and regularly see the members of the community with whom they might not interact otherwise.

*Boston

*Boston. Capital of Massachusetts and central city of New England, a powerful presence affecting everyone in the area but not a constant part of the lives of the Wapshots. It is the beginning of the outer world which to the inhabitants of the novel is a scattered and uncertain place, lacking the comforting features of the familiar.

Nangasakit

Nangasakit. Resort town on the Atlantic coast, with small bungalows for visitors, modest houses for residents, the standard attractions of a tourist economy, and the appeal of the coastal waters and the topography of the beaches and dunes.

Langeley

Langeley. Settlement with a post office and a general store on the fringes of the wilderness north of Boston toward New Hampshire and French Canada, where the Wapshot men fish in ponds deep in the woods. Moses Wapshot thinks that the landscape is enthralling, but Cheever calls it an ugly and treacherous place. Langeley affords the men opportunities to be without women, in a place where their absence is conspicuous.

*Washington, D.C

*Washington, D.C. and *New York City. Distant metropolitan areas to which Moses and Coverly Wapshot venture to establish themselves as independent men. They are never comfortable in these urban centers, however, and meet an array of unfathomable and strange characters. Coverly is stationed for a while in Honolulu, and then posted to a rocket base called Remsen Park somewhere in the Northeast. Moses spends some time at Clear Haven, an opulent mansion in the suburbs near New York City, where he is involved with a vulpine family of wealthy predators. These settings are essentially isolated islands in vague terrain, where the central characters in the novel find themselves contending with forces and social patterns that highlight, by contrast, the mores and historic verities that have accrued to St. Botolphs through two centuries of settlement.

BibliographyBosha, Francis J., ed. The Critical Response to John Cheever. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Sampler of reviews and critical essays on all Cheever publications. Reprints five reviews of The Wapshot Chronicle and includes a new essay by Kenneth C. Mason on “Tradition and Desecration” in the two Wapshot books.Bosha, Francis J. John Cheever: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. Excellent discussion of the inconsistent critical response to the fiction. Provides a comprehensive, fully annotated listing of works about Cheever, including reviews, articles, and interviews.Collins, R. G., ed. Critical Essays on John Cheever. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. Good overview of the critical reception of Cheever’s fiction. Reprints many of the most important and influential reviews and essays (some in revised form). A new essay by Samuel Coale on Cheever’s “Romancer’s Art” is especially noteworthy.Donaldson, Scott. John Cheever: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1988. Full, objective, sympathetic account of Cheever’s life and work. Discusses the publication and reception of The Wapshot Chronicle, in which, Donaldson asserts, “Cheever distilled in one book the accumulated vitality of two decades.” Fairminded and richly detailed.Hunt, George W. John Cheever: The Hobgoblin Company of Love. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983. Longer and more detailed, but also more tendentious, than earlier book-length studies by Samuel Coale (1977) and Lynn Waldeland (1979). Useful summaries of plot and criticism and Hunt’s critical reading in terms of Cheever’s Christian perspective.
Categories: Places