“Memorial Day. A new notebook. A man wearing a powdered wig and a tricorne carries a bass drum past the liquor store. I do not take my younger son to the parade, as I would have two years ago. I have grown this old, not to say jumpy. Taking Ben to see `The Bridge on the River Kwai’ I think of X, who, suffering from melancholy, walked through the city looking for moving pictures that dealt with cruel and sudden death, torture, earthquakes, floods, and assassinations—with any human misery that would, briefly, make his own burdens seem lighter.”
You needn’t be a writing workshop instructor to recognize the voice, the comic pleasure in peculiar juxtapositions, the all-consuming egotism coupled with a writer’s imaginative empathy, the booze. The passage might almost be lifted from one of John Cheever’s stories, one of the busy ones crammed with incident, such as “The Country Husband,” but you’ll find it in The Journals of John Cheever (1991), the first entry in the section titled “The Sixties.” In a handful of stories, Cheever is one of our best, but at such a cost. He was a machine for generating unhappiness in himself and others, and there were reasons other than alcohol. Even in his final seven sober years, he was a mess. See Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life (2009) for details. The meaning of Memorial Day, and much else, is lost in the journal entry. Cheever had joined the Army in 1942 and serviced in the Signal Corps in Astoria, Queens.
In 1943, Yvor Winters attempted to enlist in the Army. He was rejected for medical reasons (Winters had suffered from tuberculosis as a young man and was never robustly healthy) and volunteered as the Citizens’ Defense Corps Zone Warden for Los Altos, Calif. In the November 1944 issue of Poetry, Winters published “Moonlight Alert,” subtitled “Los Altos, California, June 1943.” The poem concludes:
I held this vision, thinking of young men
Whom I had known and should not see again,
Fixed in reality, as I in thought.
And I stood waiting, and encountered naught.”