Cheever to Weiner to Draper
Dominic Preziosi June 1, 2014 - 2:26pm
The final week of May brought the confluence of John Cheever's birthday and the final-season mid-season finale of Mad Men, whose creator Matthew Weiner has lately been speaking on the record about the writer's influence on his show. Easy connections have been made from the beginning--1960s suburban setting; middle-aged malaise; alcoholism; adultery--the identifying of surface-level similarities tracking well with the general tendency to reduce Cheever's work to nothing more than a critique of post-war, upper-middle-class bedroom-community mores. But anyone who spotted the street sign reading "Bullet Park" (the title of Cheever's third novel) outside the Draper residence in one early episode probably knew to start looking for deeper links. One of the best came at the close of last season, when Don Draper went way offscript in a major presentation, recalling the ad-copy-writing narrator of Cheever's "The Death of Justina" turning in the Twenty-Third Psalm as his swan-song submission. Anyway, it's been fun hearing Weiner speak more directly to some of these ideas.
Some commenters have helpfully picked up the conversation, noting how Mad Men's central conceit--the conflicted selves of Don Draper/Dick Whitman--explicitly reflects what's central in Cheever's short fiction, namely, characters (usually men) like Neddy Merrill and Johnny Hake trying somehow to reconcile their warring halves and yet hold everything together on the work- and home-fronts, all while battlefield glories fade and the familiar metrics of success and happiness are challenged on something like moral grounds. (Others have inevitably touched on the "warring selves" the conflicted bisexual Cheever himself tried unsuccessfully to manage, which, fine, I guess; it's probably hard not to take up this obvious thread, so, why not?)
With the yearlong mid-season hiatus of Mad Men's final slate of episodes here, you could take a fresh look at Cheever's collected stories in light of what you know about the show. You could also turn to the novel mentioned above. Bullet Park, from its complementary/oppositional pair of main characters, Hammer and Nailles, to the lyrically conjured suburban setting and paens to better pasts that might never have been, seems to inform Weiner's work even more than some of the stories. Its opening page reads like something directly from the brain of Don Draper:
Paint me a small railroad station, then, ten minutes before dark... . The lamps along the platform burn with a nearly palpable plaintiveness. The setting seems in some way to be at the heart of the matter. We travel by plane, oftener than not, and yet the spirit of our country seems to have remained a country of railroads. You wake in the pullman bedroom at three a.m. in a city the name of which you do not know and may never discover. A man stands on the platform with a child on his shoulders. They are waving goodbye to some traveler, but what is the child doing up so late and why is the man crying? On a siding beyond the platform there is a lighted dining car where a waiter sits alone at a table, adding up his accounts. Beyond this is a water tower and beyond this is a well-lighted and empty street. Then you think happily that this is your country--unique, mysterious, and vast. One has no such feelings in airplanes, airports and the trains of other nations.
One of the enjoyable things about Mad Men has been its knowing treatment of writing (Don's closing lines in the last episode identifying "work" as the main pleasure of creative endeavor being just one recent example), something Cheever himself--compulsive journal-keeper and prolific short-story artist--might have appreciated. Cheever also famously appeared in a print ad for Rolex watches ("For those who set the measure of the times"), a campaign Don Draper might have been proud to be associated with, even as late as when it ran in 1980. One last link to think about: Cheever writes in the introduction to his collected stories that "these seem to be at times stories of a long lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat." In the first half of this final season of Mad Men, unfolding in 1969, Don still conspicuously wears a hat. Will he still, when the show comes to its end?
About the Author
Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.