John Cheever: “The Summer Farmer”

The-Stories-of-John-Cheever“The Summer Farmer” was first published in the August 7, 1948 issue of The New Yorker and is collected in John Cheever’s The Stories of John Cheever. Click here for reviews of other John Cheever stories.

One thing you quickly notice about John Cheever’s stories is his steadfast refusal to condemn or satirize his protagonists. Perhaps because Cheever was such a flawed man himself, he never holds them up for judgment, even as they commit loathsome, selfish acts. A Cheever character never loses his essential wonder at the world.

Take Paul Hollis from “The Summer Farmer.” In different hands, this story would be an opportunity to lob some easy shots at the city man acting the part of an authentic farmer, getting his hands dirty and “wax[ing] angry about the price of scratch feed,” embarrassing himself in front of the real farmer before retreating back to his natural habitat, New York City.

But that’s not the story we get here. Paul is certainly an amateurish farmer, but by the end has earned my sympathy.

When we open, Paul is embarking on his customary train ride on the Nor’easter from Grand Central Station to the farm he visits every weekend during the summer.

The farm has been in the Hollis family for at least two generations — his father christened the pasture “Elysian” — and as he drives with his wife Virginia onto the farmland, purchasing along the way two rabbits to occupy his children’s interest, Paul feels a sense of homecoming “so violent that the difference between the pace of his imagination and the speed of his car annoyed him.”

The next morning, Paul works side-by-side with Kasiak, the Russian-born “hired man” who has owned the farm below for 20 years. He is also an avowed Communist, and seems to hold in contempt everything about the Hollis family: the work ethic (“You want to get up that early?” he scoffs when Paul suggests they begin work at 6 a.m.), the slothful behavior of Paul’s drunk sister, the “bourgeois sentimentality” of naming their animals.

At first, Paul seems more bemused by Kasiak’s convictions than anything else:

“When are you going to have your revolution, Kasiak?”

“When the capitalists make another war.”

“What’s going to happen to me, Kasiak? What’s going to happen to people like me?”

“It depends. If you work in a farm or a factory, I guess it will be all right. They’ll only get rid of useless people.”

“All right, Kasiak,” Paul said heartily, “I’ll work for you,” and he slapped the farmer on the back.

Paul eventually gives in, however, to some imagined competition between the two, a “puerile race of virtue and industry.” Later Kasiak shows him a newspaper clipping with the headline LUXURY LIVING WEAKENS U.S.; Paul feels an “uprush of chauvinism” and chastises Kasiak, “master to hired man.”

The story comes to a head when Paul, enjoying a drink with Virginia before catching the evening train back to New York, hears his children scream. The rabbits died, having ingested poison used to kill rats. Paul immediately blames Kasiak, striking the first blow in his revolution “to seize power from the hands of those who drink Martinis.”

Paul lashes out at Kasiak, threatening him if he touches the children. Of course — and it’s no great surprise to discover — Virginia is the real culprit, having put the poison out the previous year and then forgetting about it.

Cheever ends the story on a typically poetic note. Though we’re not told exactly what happens to Paul or if his farming days are over, he is most definitely affected by his rush to judgment and the prejudices it revealed:

It is true of even the best of us that if an observer can catch us boarding a train at a way station; if he will mark our faces, stripped by anxiety of their self-possession; if he will appraise our luggage, our clothing, and look out of the window to see who has driven us to the station; if he will listen to the harsh or tender things we say if we are with our families [. . .] if he can judge sensibly the self-importance, diffidence, or sadness with which we settle ourselves, he will be given a broader view of our lives than most of us would intend.

[. . . .]

[Paul] swung his suitcase onto the rack — a man of forty with signs of mortality in a tremor of his right hand, signs of obsoleteness in his confused frown, a summer farmer with blistered hands, a sunburn, and lame shoulders, so visibly shaken by some recent loss of principle that it would have been noticed by a stranger across the aisle.

“The Summer Farmer” is not generally regarded as one of Cheever’s better stories. Little has been written about it, and it doesn’t linger in memory as well as the previous stories I’ve covered here, “O City of Broken Dreams” (here) and “The Enormous Radio” (here). The twist at the end with the rabbits feels too obvious and convenient a point.

But I include it here because I think it marks the first turning point in Cheever’s writing from the more fable-like (or, as Betsy remarked in an earlier write-up, “dream-like”) aspects of “Radio” and “O City” where the characters were intended to learn hard lessons.

In these first three stories, I still see Cheever finding his way and his true subject. We have the milieu, we have the archetypal Cheever protagonists; all that’s left is the Cheever voice, that authoritative, ever-curious chronicler of the middle class. The final paragraphs of “The Summer Farmer” give us a taste of that voice. It will be on full display from here on out.

5 thoughts on “John Cheever: “The Summer Farmer””

  1. Betsy Pelz says:

    The background of this story (published in 1948) is that the Alliance with the Soviet Union had broken down, China’s Communist state was almost completed, and the House Un-American Activities Committee had opened up shop in 1945 (although the Joseph McCarthy hearings were several years in the future). Cheever’s stance here is not particularly sympathetic to communism, but neither is it particularly sympathetic to red-hunting. His sympathies seem to lie primarily with the man caught in the middle, who doesn’t want to embrace either.

    There is an element of political seduction in the story, and dangerous seduction itself seems to be a theme, even though Kasiak, the seducer, is terrible at his job.

    How Kasiak happened to be here is another element: he must have been here a very long time, as it was difficult to leave Russia after the early days of the Revolution. So his character seems formed by Tsarist Russia and his bitter childhood.

    What fascinates me is how Paul got caught in a moment – and did something he will regret.

    This was a man who stove for contentment. He preserved the old family place in New Hampshire, he tried to accommodate his difficult sister, and he aimed for, with his wife, conversations protected by “deliberate inconsequence”. With the openly communist hired man, he tried to cultivate an open mind.

    It seems as if, however, appeasement doesn’t necessary always end well, when you’re caught in the middle of accommodations made to several different people – every one of whom has taken advantage of you. He has appeased his sister, but her drinking is getting out of hand; he has appeased the hired man by reading his tracts, but the hired man is getting kind of familiar; and he has appeased his wife, who has a hare-brained scheme to take on rabbits as pets for the children and then let the hired man eat them.

    After all this, Paul makes an accusation that is basically wrong.

    The publication date of this story is August 7, 1948. On August 3, 1948, communist party cell leader turned Time writer Whittaker Chambers appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and named Alger Hiss as having been a member of the Communist Party in a cell in Washington, D.C.. Even if the connection between the story “The Summer Farmer” and Whitttaker Chamber’s testimony is entirely accidental, something was definitely in the air, and Cheever’s story picks up on it. .

  2. Tredynas Days says:

    Interesting piece, and helpful comment from Betsy Peltz. You might care to compare it with my new piece that uses this excellent article as a starting point on my blog here http://bit.ly/1sZB4ql, where I try to expand upon what the ‘point’ of this story could be, and appraise its success in conveying its message. Something WAS definitely in the air, I feel, and this story is full of its stormy galvanic essence.

  3. Thanks for coming to tell us about your piece, Tredynas Days :-) . I still haven’t read the story personally, but I hope that Betsy and Michael check it out!

  4. Tredynas Days says:

    Sorry, just noticed I spelt the name Pelz wrongly. Apologies again.

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