Cheever, John 1912–1982
Cheever, John 1912–1982
PERSONAL: Born May 27, 1912, in Quincy, MA; died of cancer June 18, 1982, in Ossining, NY; son of Frederick (a shoe salesman and manufacturer) and Mary (a gift shop owner; maiden name Liley) Cheever; married Mary M. Winternitz (a poet and teacher), March 22, 1941; children: Susan, Benjamin Hale, Frederico. Education: Attended Thayer Academy. Religion: Episcopal Hobbies and other interests: Sailing and skiing.
CAREER: Novelist and short-story writer. Instructor at Barnard College, New York, NY, 1956–57, Ossining, NY, Correctional Facility, 1971–72, and University of Iowa Writers Workshop, 1973; visiting professor of creative writing, Boston University, 1974–75. Member of cultural exchange program to USSR, 1964. Military service: U.S. Army Signal Corps, 1943–45; became sergeant.
MEMBER: National Institute of Arts and Letters, Century Club (New York, NY).
AWARDS, HONORS: Guggenheim fellowship, 1951; Benjamin Franklin Award, 1955, for "The Five Forty-Eight"; American Academy of Arts and Letters award in literature, 1956; O. Henry Award, 1956, for "The Country Husband," and 1964, for "The Embarkment for Cythera"; National Book Award in fiction, 1958, for The Wapshot Chronicle; Howells Medal, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1965, for The Wapshot Scandal; Editorial Award, Playboy, 1969, for "The Yellow Room"; honorary doctorate, Harvard University, 1978; Edward MacDowell Medal, MacDowell Colony, 1979, for outstanding contributions to the arts; Pulitzer prize in fiction, 1979, National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction, 1979, and American Book Award in fiction, 1981, all for The Stories of John Cheever; National Medal for Literature, 1982.
The Wapshot Chronicle (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1957, reprinted, Perennial (New York, NY), 2003.
The Wapshot Scandal (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1964, reprinted, Perennial (New York, NY), 2003.
Bullet Park, Knopf (New York, NY), 1969, reprinted, Vintage (New York, NY), 1991.
Falconer, Knopf (New York, NY), 1977, reprinted, Vintage (New York, NY), 1991.
The Wapshot Chronicle [and] The Wapshot Scandal, Harper (New York, NY), 1979.
Oh, What a Paradise It Seems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1982.
The Way Some People Live: A Book of Stories, Random House (New York, NY), 1943.
The Enormous Radio and Other Stories, Funk, 1953.
(With others) Stories, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1956, published as A Book of Stories, Gollancz (London, England), 1957.
The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories, Harper (New York, NY), 1958.
Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel, Harper (New York, NY), 1961.
The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, Harper (New York, NY), 1964.
Homage to Shakespeare, Country Squire Books, 1965.
The World of Apples, Knopf (New York, NY), 1973.
The Day the Pig Fell into the Well (originally published in the New Yorker, October 23, 1954), Lord John Press, 1978.
The Stories of John Cheever, Knopf (New York, NY), 1978, reprinted, Vintage (New York, NY), 2000.
The Leaves, the Lion-Fish and the Bear, Sylvester & Orphanos, 1980.
Angel of the Bridge, Redpath Press, 1987.
Thirteen Uncollected Stories by John Cheever, Academy Chicago Publishers, 1994.
Also author of Depression Stories by John Cheever: The Apprentice Years, 1931–1945, Academy Chicago Publishers.
Atlantic Crossing: Excerpts from the Journals of John Cheever, Ex Ophidia (Cottondale, AL), 1986.
Conversations with John Cheever, edited by Scott Donaldson, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1987.
The Letters of John Cheever, edited by son, Benjamin Cheever, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1988.
The Journals of John Cheever, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
(With John D. Weaver) Glad Tidings: A Friendship in Letters, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1993.
Also author of television scripts, including Life with Father. Contributor to numerous anthologies, including O. Henry Prize Stories, 1941, 1951, 1956, 1964; contributor to New Yorker, Collier's, Story, Yale Review, New Republic, Atlantic, and other publications.
ADAPTATIONS: "The Swimmer" was adapted for film by Columbia, 1968; PBS-TV broadcast "The Sorrows of Gin," "The Five Forty-Eight," and "O Youth and Beauty!," all 1979; film rights to The Wapshot Chronicle, The Wapshot Scandal, Bullet Park, and Falconer have been purchased. A Cheever Evening: A New Play Based on the Stories of John Cheever was written by A.R. Gurney, Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1995.
SIDELIGHTS: John Cheever is considered among the finest American writers of the twentieth century, a master of the short story, and a competent novelist. Best known as a chronicler of suburbia, Cheever won critical acclaim for his humorous, yet compassionate, accounts of privileged communities populated by affluent people living spiritually impoverished lives. A rehabilitated alcoholic and a suburban dweller himself, "Cheever knew," eulogized Peter S. Prescott in Newsweek, "that in a world that most people envy there are people who are bravely enduring."
Cheever's long career as a short story writer began at the age of seventeen when he sold his first story to the New Republic. He became a regular contributor to the New Yorker five years later, a relationship that would last for decades and account for the publication of a majority of his stories. Cheever's short work, at times discounted because it was categorized as New Yorker style, earned a wider audience and greater recognition when his collection The Stories of John Cheever was awarded the Pulitzer prize in fiction in 1979. The publication of this volume of sixty-one stories, including "The Enormous Radio," "The Country Husband," "The Chimera," and "The Swimmer," "revived singlehanded publishers' and readers' interest in the American short story," in the opinion of Time contributor Paul Gray. Commenting on the author's place in American literature, John Leonard wrote in the Atlantic during Cheev-er's lifetime: "I happen to believe that John Cheever is our best living writer of short stories: a[n Anton] Chekhov of the exurbs."
Cheever the novelist was not as widely praised, but even in this role the writer had his champions. Cheev-er's novels—most notably The Wapshot Chronicle, Bullet Park, and Falconer—display "a remarkable sensitivity and a grimly humorous assessment of human behavior that capture[s] the anguish of modern man," commented Robert D. Spector in World Literature Today, "as much imprisoned by his mind as by the conventions of society."
Cheever drew on the same confined milieu—geographical and social—in creating his five novels and numerous stories. "There is by now a recognizable landscape that can be called Cheever country," Walter Clemons observed in Newsweek. It comprises "the rich suburban communities of Westchester and Connecticut," explained Richard Locke in the New York Times Book Review, "the towns [the author] calls Shady Hill, St. Botolphs and Bullet Park." In this country Cheever found the source for his fiction: the lives of upwardly mobile Americans, both urban and suburban, lives lacking purpose and direction. His fictional representation of these lives capture what a Time reviewer termed the "social perceptions that seem superficial but somehow manage to reveal (and devastate or exalt) the subjects of his suburban scrutiny."
For the most part, the characters represented in Cheev-er's short stories and novels are white and Protestant; they are bored with their jobs, trapped in their lifestyles, and out of touch with their families. "Cheever's account of life in suburbia makes one's soul ache," Guy Davenport remarked in National Review. Added the reviewer: "Here is human energy that once pushed plows and stormed the walls of Jerusalem … spent daily in getting up hung over, staggering drugged with tranquilizers to wait for a train to … Manhattan. There eight hours are given to the writing of advertisements about halitosis and mouthwash. Then the train back, a cocktail party, and drunk to bed." According to Richard Boeth of Newsweek, "what is missing in these people is not the virtue of their forebears … but the passion, zest, originality and underlying stoicism that fueled the Wasps' domination of the world for two … centuries. Now they're fat and bored and scared and whiny."
A recurring theme in Cheever's work is nostalgia, "the particular melancholia induced by long absence from one's country or home," Joan Didion explained in the New York Times Book Review. In her estimation, Cheev-er's characters have "yearned always after some abstraction symbolized by the word 'home,' after 'tenderness,' after 'gentleness,' after remembered houses where the fires were laid and the silver was polished and everything could be 'decent' and 'radiant' and 'clear.'" Even so, Didion added: "Such houses were hard to find in prime condition. To approach one was to hear the quarreling inside…. There was some gap between what these Cheever people searching for home had been led to expect and what they got." What they got, the critic elaborated, was the world of the suburbs, where "jobs and children got lost." As Locke put it, Cheever's characters' nostalgia grows out of "their excruciating experience of present incivility, loneliness and moral disarray."
Throughout his tales of despair and nostalgia, Cheever offers an optimistic vision of hope and salvation. His main characters struggle to establish an identity and a set of values in an absurd world. In his Dictionary of Literary Biography essay, Robert A. Morace maintained that "while he clearly recognizes those aspects of modern life which might lead to pessimism, his comic vision remains basically optimistic…. Many of his characters go down to defeat, usually by their own hand. Those who survive,… discover the personal and social virtues of compromise. Having learned of their own and their world's limitations, they can, paradoxically, learn to celebrate the wonder and possibility of life."
Critics have also been impressed by Cheever's episodic style. In a discussion of the author's first published work, "Expelled," Morace commented: "The opening paragraph lures the reader into a story which, like many of the later works, is a series of sketches rather than a linear narrative. The narrator, who remains detached even while recognizing his own expulsion, focuses on apparently disparate events which, taken together, create a single impression of what life at prep school is like." And in a review of Bullet Park, a Time critic noted that most of the novel "is composed of Cheever's customary skillful vignettes in which apparent slickness masks real feeling."
Some reviewers have found, however, that although this episodic structure works well in Cheever's short fiction, his novels "flounder under the weight of too many capricious, inspired, zany images," as Joyce Carol Oates remarked in the Ontario Review. John Updike offered a similar appraisal in his Picked-up Pieces: "In the coining of images and incidents, John Cheever has no peer among contemporary American fiction writers. His short stories dance, skid, twirl, and soar on the strength of his abundant invention; his novels fly apart under its impact." Moreover, Oates contended that though "there are certainly a number of powerful passages in Falconer, as in Bullet Park and the Wapshot novels,… in general the whimsical impulse undercuts and to some extent damages the more serious intentions of the works."
Clemons, among others, drew a different conclusion. He noted that "the accusation that Cheever 'is not a novelist' persists," despite the prestigious awards, such as the Howells Medal and the National Book Award, his novels have received. Clemons suggested that this lack of reviewer appreciation is due to Cheever's long affiliation with the New Yorker. "The recognition of Cheever's [work] has … been hindered by its steady appearance in a debonair magazine that is believed to publish something familiarly called 'the New Yorker story,'" the reviewer wrote, "and we think we know what that is." Clemons added: "Randall Jarrell once usefully [defined the novel] as prose fiction of some length that has something wrong with it. What is clearly 'wrong' with Cheever's … novels is that they contain separable stretches of exhilarating narrative that might easily have been published as stories. They are loosely knit. But so what?"
Over the years, critical and popular response to Cheev-er's work has remained overwhelmingly favorable. Although some have argued that his characters are unimportant and peripheral and that the problems and crises experienced by the upper middle class are trivial, others, such as Time's Gray, contended that the "fortunate few" who inhabit Cheever's fictional world "are much more significant than critics seeking raw social realism will admit." Gray explained: "Well outside the mainstream, the Cheever people nonetheless reflect it admirably. What they do with themselves is what millions upon millions would do, given enough money and time. And their creator is less interested in his characters as rounded individuals than in the awful, comic and occasionally joyous ways they bungle their opportunities." John Leonard of the New York Times found the same merits, concluding that "by writing about any of us, Mr. Cheever writes about all of us, our ethical concerns and our failures of nerve, our experience of the discrepancies and our shred of honor."
In 1991 Cheever's son Benjamin published an edited version of Cheever's journals. Written over a period of thirty-five years, and composing twenty-nine looseleaf notebooks when unedited, the journals were distilled to a hefty 399—page book. The Journals of John Cheever is marked by Cheever's woeful reminiscences about life—in particular his addiction to alcohol before he quit drinking in 1975 and his growing dissatisfaction with his marriage. The writer also delves into his awakening sexual identity. As a child, he was considered effeminate by others, and friends and family members speculated that he might be gay. Cheever, himself, hid the fact from others and himself for many years. It was not until he had been with several male lovers that he became more open about his bisexuality.
Critical reaction to The Journals of John Cheever was mixed. Scott Donaldson, writing in the Chicago Tribune Books, felt that the volume is "exquisitely written" but depressing: "the story these … journals tell is almost unrelievedly one of woe." Donaldson concludes that "troubled though the story of [Cheever's] life may be, it is told in the same luminous prose that characterized his stories and novels. He takes us on a journey to the depths, but we could not want a better guide." While Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post Book World also characterized Cheever's writing as exceptional, he pondered the need for the publication of the volume: "it is difficult to see how it contributes anything of genuine importance to our understanding of Cheever's work," Yardley opined.
After Cheever's death, his widow contracted Academy Chicago to publish thirteen of the sixty-eight stories that had remained unpublished at the author's death because their author did not believe they measured up to his later works. The tales included in Thirteen Uncol-lected Stories of John Cheever tread on familiar Cheever ground: the troubles of the East Coast middle class. In "His Young Wife," an older man, upset that his wife is slipping away from him, turns to gambling as a means to ruin his rival and win back her love. "In Passing" visits Saratoga, New York, during its famed racing season as a Marxist organizer upset over the foreclosure on his home finds himself in turmoil over his family's reaction to the tragedy. "Family Dinner" looks at the devices a husband and wife use to fool themselves and each other during their unhappy marriage. "Cheever's sympathetic feelings are liberal, generous and extensive," commented Mark Harris in the Chicago Tribune Books, "His command of his craft, on the other hand, had yet to be fully developed."
Sven Birkerts, writing in the New York Times Book Review, found that "the stories are competent, solid," but believed that "such a collection would not see the light if it did not have the Cheever name on the cover." John B. Breslin in America concluded: "immature some of these stories may be, but not embarrassingly so, and certainly much less 'naked' in their revelations of the writer than the letters and journals that have been published with the approval and participation of his family." Breslin added that collection editor Franklin Dennis "has done Cheever no disservice with this collection and has done his admirers a favor."
Cheever's name often ranks alongside the names of such highly regarded contemporaries as John O'Hara, Saul Bellow, Thomas Pynchon, and Philip Roth. Yet, as Peter S. Prescott noted in a Newsweek tribute on the occasion of Cheever's death, "His prose, unmatched in complexity and precision by that of any of his contemporaries … is simply beautiful to read, to hear in the inner ear—and it got better all the time." "More precisely than his fellow writers," added Prescott, Cheever "observed and gave voice to the inarticulate agonies that lie just beneath the surface of ordinary lives." In the words of Gray in a Time tribute, Cheever "won fame as a chronicler of mid-[twentieth-]century manners, but his deeper subject was always the matter of life and death."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Aldridge, John W., Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis, McKay (New York, NY), 1966.
Bosha, Francis J., John Cheever: A Reference Guide, G.K. Hall (New York, NY), 1981.
Bosha, Francis J., editor, The Critical Response to John Cheever, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1994.
Byrne, Michael, Dragons and Martinis: The Skewed Realism of John Cheever, Borgo Press (San Bernardino, CA), 1993.
Cheever, Susan, Home before Dark, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1984.
Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941–1968, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 3, 1975, Volume 7, 1977, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 11, 1979, Volume 15, 1980, Volume 25, 1983, Volume 64, 1991.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2: American Novelists since World War II, 1978, Volume 102: American Short-Story Writers, 1910–1945, Second Series, 1991.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980, 1982.
Donaldson, Scott, editor, Conversations with John Cheever, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1987.
Donaldson, Scott, John Cheever: A Biography, Random House (New York, NY), 1988.
Hassan, Ihab, Radical Innocence, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1961.
Kazin, Alfred, Bright Book of Life, Atlantic-Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1973.
Meanor, Patrick, John Cheever Revisited, Twayne (New York, NY), 1995.
Short Story Criticism, Volume 1, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.
Updike, John, Picked-up Pieces, Knopf (New York, NY), 1976.
Waldeland, L., John Cheever, G.K. Hall (New York, NY), 1979.
America, October 1, 1994, pp. 28, 30-31.
Atlantic, May, 1969; June, 1973; November, 1993, p. 159.
Book Week, January 5, 1964.
Chicago Tribune, February 27, 1989.
Chicago Tribune Magazine, April 22, 1979.
Christian Century, May 21, 1969.
Christian Science Monitor, October 22, 1964.
Commonweal, May 9, 1969.
Critique, spring, 1963.
Detroit News, November 28, 1978.
Guardian, (Manchester, England), January 30, 1959.
Life, April 18, 1969.
Ms., April, 1977.
Nation, December 5, 1988, p. 606.
National Review, June 3, 1969.
New Leader, May 26, 1969.
New Republic, May 25, 1953; June 3, 1957; May 15, 1961; January 25, 1964; April 26, 1969; March 6, 1989, p. 35; December 2, 1991, p. 46.
Newsweek, March 14, 1977; October 30, 1978; June 28, 1982.
New York, April 28, 1969; October 7, 1991, p. 109.
New Yorker, August 19, 1991, p. 26; May 30, 1994, pp. 107-110.
New York Herald Tribune Lively Arts, April 30, 1961.
New York Times, March 24, 1965; August 2, 1965; December 18, 1966; April 29, 1969; March 3, 1977; November 7, 1978.
New York Times Book Review, May 10, 1953; September 7, 1958; January 5, 1964; April 27, 1969; May 20, 1973; March 6, 1977; December 3, 1978; January 28, 1979; December 18, 1988; October 6, 1991, pp. 1, 21-22; March 13, 1994, p. 17.
New York Times Magazine, October 21, 1979.
Ontario Review, fall/winter, 1977–78.
Playboy, December, 1993, p. 36.
Publishers Weekly, November 6, 1987; August 26, 1988.
Ramparts, September, 1969.
San Francisco Chronicle, May 24, 1953; March 25, 1957; April 28, 1961.
Saturday Review, May 27, 1961; April 26, 1969; April 2, 1977.
Time, March 27, 1964; April 25, 1969; February 28, 1977; October 16, 1978; June 28, 1982; November 28, 1988, p. 98; October 17, 1994, p. 78.
Times Literary Supplement, October 9, 1953; October 18, 1957; August 4, 1961; December 6, 1991, p. 6.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 22, 1991, p. 5; March 20, 1994, p. 3.
Twentieth-Century Literature, January, 1969.
Variety, October 10, 1994, p. 93.
Washington Post, April 29, 1969; October 8, 1979.
Washington Post Book World, March 30, 1980; September 22, 1991, p. 3.
World Literature Today, autumn, 1977.