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Cheever, John (William)

CHEEVER, John (William)

Nationality: American. Born: Quincy, Massachusetts, 27 May 1912. Education: Thayer Academy, South Braintree, Massachusetts. Military Service: Served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, 1943-45: sergeant. Family: Married Mary M. Winternitz in 1941; one daughter and two sons. Career: Full-time writer in New York City, 1930-51; lived in Scarborough, New York from 1951-60 and Ossining, New York after 1961; teacher, Barnard College, New York, 1956-57; teacher, Ossining Correctional Facility (Sing Sing prison), 1971-72; writing instructor, University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Iowa City, 1973; visiting professor of creative writing, Boston University, 1974-75. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1951, and second fellowship; Benjamin Franklin award, 1955; O. Henry award, 1956, 1964; American Academy grant, 1956; Howells medal, 1965; National Book award, 1958; National Book Critics Circle award, 1979; Pulitzer prize, 1979; MacDowell medal, 1979; American Book award, for paperback, 1981; National Medal for literature, 1982. Litt.D.: Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1978. Member: American Academy, 1958. Died: 18 June 1982.

Publications

Short Stories

The Way Some People Live: A Book of Stories. 1943.

The Enormous Radio and Other Stories. 1953.

Stories, with others. 1956; as A Book of Stories, 1957.

The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories. 1958.

Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel. 1961.

The Brigadier and the Golf Widow. 1964.

The World of Apples. 1973.

The Stories. 1978.

The Day the Pig Fell into the Well (story). 1978.

The Leaves, The Lion-Fish and the Bear (story). 1980.

The Uncollected Stories. 1988.

Thirteen Uncollected Stories. 1994.

Novels

The Wapshot Chronicle. 1957.

The Wapshot Scandal. 1964.

Bullet Park. 1969.

Falconer. 1977.

Oh, What a Paradise It Seems. 1982.

Plays

Television Plays:

scripts for Life with Father series; The Shady Hill Kidnapping, 1982.

Other

Conversations with Cheever, edited by Scott Donaldson. 1987.

The Letters, edited by Benjamin Cheever. 1988.

The Journals. 1991.

Glad Tidings: A Friendship in Letters: The Correspondence of John Cheever and John D. Weaver, 1945-1982. 1993.

*

Bibliography:

Cheever: A Reference Guide by Francis J. Bosha, 1981.

Critical Studies:

Cheever by Samuel Coale, 1977; Cheever by Lynne Waldeland, 1979; Critical Essays on Cheever edited by R.G. Collins, 1982; Cheever: The Hobgoblin Company of Love by George W. Hunt, 1983; Home Before Dark: A Biographical Memoir of Cheever by Susan Cheever, 1984; Cheever: A Study of the Short Fiction by James Eugene O'Hara, 1989; Dragons and Martinis: The Skewed Realism of John Cheever by Michael D. Byrne, 1993; John Cheever Revisited by Patrick Meanor, 1995.

* * *

John Cheever was the author of 200 short stories, the majority of them first published in The New Yorker, achieving the status of modern American master, the equal of Poe, Hawthorne, Crane, and Hemingway. Cheever's importance can be measured in terms of both the number of his stories that won awards and the number of times so many of his stories have been anthologized. The retrospective collection The Stories of John Cheever, winner of a Pulitzer prize and a National Book award, revived interest in the short story on the part of publishers and readers, making it both commercially more viable and critically more respectable.

Because the simplicity of his stories is almost always deceptive, efforts to classify Cheever, particularly as a realist or a traditional-ist or even a satirist, generally fail. His biographer, Scott Donaldson, rightly claims that Cheever's fiction "tells us more about people in the American middle-class during that half century [1930-82] than any other writer has done or can do." But the writer whom one influential reviewer has called "the Chekhov of the exurbs," another has dubbed "Ovid in Ossining." Cheever's approach to the middle-class life chronicled in his fiction proves intriguingly complex, at once celebratory and satiric, realistic and fantastic, as concerned with metamorphosis as with twentieth-century mores. Although no postmodernist, Cheever was far more innovative than most New Yorker writers, and although outside the academy (except for very brief and generally disastrous stints), he was no literary lightweight cheerfully endorsing suburban values.

His uncertain critical reputation, which lasted until the publication of Falconer in 1977, did little to alleviate the sense of economic, social, and psychological insecurity that Cheever began to experience at least as early as adolescence (the breakup of his parents' marriage, the Depression, his fear of acknowledging his bisexuality). Despite his frequent claims that fiction is not crypto-autobiography, Cheever made his insecurity and fragile sense of self-esteem the subjects of his stories. If the shortcoming of much early criticism, at least through the publication of Falconer, was the failure to address the autobiographical element in the fiction, criticism since Cheever's death in 1982 runs the risk of making precisely the opposite mistake, of following the lead of the author's daughter in Home Before Dark and Treetops, seeing in the fiction nothing but autobiographical revelation.

Settings, general situations, and character types remain stable (almost obsessively so) throughout Cheever's career, as does the lyrical style he developed following a brief period of imitating Hemingway's style. Cheever's approach to his material proves more varied. "The Enormous Radio," for example, begins as a work of quiet, seemingly predictable realism. "Jim and Irene Westcott were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins." Once their radio breaks down and Jim buys a new one, realism begins to give way to Hawthornesque romance. The veneer of middle-class respectability cracks, exposing a chilling apprehensiveness lurking just below the surface of what had been the Westcotts' thoroughly average lives.

In "Goodbye, My Brother," one of several Cheever stories based on Cheever's relationship with his older brother Fred, the split between the brothers underscores the Poe-like spirit in the narrator-protagonist's own character. Understanding this division helps us to understand Cheever's habit of appending lyrical endings that seem both to affirm the existence of a spiritual (or, in the case of "Goodbye My Brother," mythic) realm, and by virtue of the strained relation between the ending and all that precedes it, to undermine this affirmation, suggesting that it may be at best wishful thinking and at worst delusion. The almost schizophrenic character of Cheever's vision also manifests itself between stories that tell essentially the same tale from two very different perspectives. "A Vision of the World," for example, reads like the comic companion piece to "The Seaside Houses," published one year later. These examples form parts of a larger pattern of opposition that includes divisions between sexuality and spirituality, absurdity and ecstasy, confinement and expansiveness, and the characters' all-too-middle-class lives and their desire "to celebrate a world spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream." Like the aging poet Asa Bascomb in "A World of Apples," who "walked like all the rest of us in some memory of prowess," Cheever's characters want to build a bridge between their present and their past, their lives and their dreams—dreams that, like his lyrical endings, Cheever often undermines by making them appear either absurd or childish. In "Artemis the Honest Well Digger" the main character goes "looking for a girl as fresh as the girl on the oleomargarine package."

Just as often the balance tips the other way as Cheever explores the disease and dread of an American dream that "hangs morally and financially from a thread." In "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill" Johnny Hake may be saved from a life of crime (burgling his affluent neighbors after being fired), but a gentle rain restores his moral sense (as well as his job); other characters, like Neddy Merrill in "The Swimmer" and Cash Bentley in "O Youth and Beauty," are not so fortunate. Neither is Charlie Pastern in "The Brigadier and the Golf Widow," a story in which the threat of nuclear destruction cannot begin to compare with the less apocalyptic but more personal and pervasive fear or loneliness and dispossession that afflicts so many Cheever characters, most obviously (and often humorously) the expatriate Americans in Cheever's Italian stories. The worst alienation occurs, however, not abroad but at home, where the thread by which his characters' moral and economic lives hang seems only as strong as it is tenuous.

—Robert A. Morace

See the essays on "The Country Husband" and "The Swimmer."

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