John Cheever (1912-1982) was an American writer known for his keen, often critical, view of the American middle class. Known primarily for his short stories, his attention to detail and careful writing found the extraordinary in the ordinary.
I have been a storyteller since the beginning of my life, rearranging facts in order to make them more significant. I have improvised a background for myself—genteel, traditional—and it is generally accepted."—John Cheever, in his journal, 1961.
Only John Cheever the storyteller could have invented a character like John Cheever the author—as, indeed, he did. His life, like the lives of the people who populate the fictional world known as Cheever Country, was double-edged. Behind the pleasant facade of the country squire lurks a vision of deteriorating morality; the satisfied suburban gentleman falls away to reveal insecurity and ambiguity.
Cheever was born May 27, 1912, in Quincy, Massachusetts, to Frederick Lincoln Cheever and Mary Liley Cheever. His father owned a shoe factory until it was lost in the Great Depression of the 1930s. His mother, an English-woman who emigrated with her parents, supported her husband and their two sons with the profits from a gift shop she operated.
This is Cheever Country: a seemingly happy New England marriage that when poked reveals a relationship strained to the point of breaking. A man—a father—who prides himself on his ability to support his family is supported by his wife.
Cheever was sent to Thayer Academy, a prep school in Milton, Massachusetts. As a 17-year-old Harvard-bound senior he arranged his own expulsion for smoking and poor grades. The result was Cheever's first published work, "Expelled," a short story that appeared in The New Republic on October 1, 1930. The story is an embryonic version in style and approach of the Cheever to evolve over five decades; it revels in the details of ordinary lives with precise observation and disciplined language.
After leaving school Cheever toured Europe with his brother, Frederick, who was seven years his senior. He then settled in Boston, where he met Hazel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, both of whom helped support the budding writer. In the mid-1930s Cheever moved to New York City, where he lived and worked in a bleak, $3-a-week boarding house on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village. During this period he helped support himself by writing synopses of books for potential M.G.M. movies. Malcolm Cowley, editor of The New Republic, also arranged for Cheever to spend time at Yaddo, a writers' colony in Saratoga to which the author would often return. It was also during this time that Cheever began his long association with The New Yorker. In 1934 the first of 119 Cheever stories was published in this sophisticated magazine.
On March 22, 1941, Cheever married Mary Winternitz. He spent four years in the army during World War II and later spent two years writing television scripts for, among other programs, "Life with Father."
In 1943 Cheever's first book of short stories, The Way Some People Live, was published. War and the Depression serve as a backdrop for these stories which deal with Cheever's lifelong subject: simply, the way some people live. It was his next collection, however, that earned him the serious praise of critics. The Enormous Radio, and Other Stories, written in Cheever's Scarborough, New York, home, was published in 1953. The 14 stories plunge the reader deep into Cheever Country; the characters—nice people all—begin with a sense of well-being and order that is stripped away and never quite fully restored. The title story, for example, portrays an average young couple who aspire to move someday from their New York apartment to Westchester. Their sense of the ordinary is shattered, however, when they buy a radio that has the fantastic ability to broadcast bits of their neighbors' lives. The radio picks up the sounds of telephones, bedtime stories, quarrels, and tales of dishonesty. This peek behind closed doors serves to destroy the couple's own outward feelings of harmony, and the story ends with the young marrieds arguing as the radio fills the room with news reports.
In 1951 Cheever was made a Guggenheim Fellow. In 1955 his short story, "The Five-Forty-Eight," was awarded the Benjamin Franklin magazine award, and the following year he took his wife and three children to Italy. Upon their return the family settled in Ossining, New York, where Cheever meticulously embellished his image as a polished aristocrat. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1957 and won the National Book Award for the first of his novels, The Wapshot Chronicle.
Cheever followed The Wapshot Chronicle with The Housebreaker of Shady Hill (1958), Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel (1961), The Wapshot Scandal (1964), The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964), Bullet Park (1969), The World of Apples (1973), and Falconer (1977).
At the height of his success Cheever began a 20-year struggle with alcoholism, a problem he didn't fully admit to until his family placed him in a rehabilitation center in 1975. Earlier, in 1972, he had suffered a massive heart attack. After a long period of recovery he wrote the dark Falconer, which draws on his experience as a writing instructor in Sing Sing prison as well as on his recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. This novel, with its rough language, violence, and prison setting, is a departure from Cheever Country and is the first of his works to deal directly with homosexuality. Cheever's journals reveal that, like the protagonist of Falconer, Cheever felt ambivalence about his sexual identity.
Like his characters, John Cheever did not fit the image he so scrupulously cultivated.
"In the morning," his daughter, Susan, wrote, "my father would put on his one good suit and his gray felt hat and ride down in the elevator with the other men on their way to the office. From the lobby he would walk down to the basement, to the windowless storage room that came with our apartment. That was where he worked. There, he hung up the suit and hat and wrote all morning in his boxer shorts, typing away at his portable Underwood set up on the folding table. At lunchtime he would put the suit back on and ride up in the elevator."
John Cheever, who could find the extraordinary in the mundane, died on June 18, 1982, of cancer. His final work, Oh What A Paradise It Seems, was published posthumously.
Home Before Dark (1984) is a personalized biography by Cheever's daughter, Susan Cheever, that explores the many facets and ambiguities of the writer's private life. For more serious literary study, see John Cheever (1979) by Lynne Waldeland or John Cheever (1977) by Samuel Coale. Both books are strong on analysis and weak on biography. Cheever's first publisher, Malcolm Cowley, devotes some time to the author in The Flower and the Leaf: A Contemporary Record of American Writing Since 1941 (1984). Cheever's own journals and letters, edited by one of his sons, are expected to be published.
Cheever, Susan, Home before dark, New York: Bantam Books, 1991.
Donaldson, Scott, John Cheever: a biography, New York: Random House, 1988. □
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Born: May 27, 1912
Died: June 18, 1982
Ossining, New York
American writer and author
American writer John Cheever is best known for his keen, often critical, view of the American middle class. His stories are characterized by his attention to detail, his careful writing, and his ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Childhood and marriage
John Cheever was born on May 27, 1912, in Quincy, Massachusetts. His parents, Frederick Lincoln Cheever and Mary Liley Cheever, had two sons. His father owned a shoe factory until he lost it due to the Great Depression of the 1930s (a time of severe economic hardship). His mother owned a gift shop and supported the family with the shop's profits.
Cheever attended Thayer Academy, a preparatory school in Braintree, Massachusetts. He was expelled from Thayer at age seventeen for smoking and poor grades. The result was Cheever's first published work, "Expelled." The short story appeared in The New Republic on October 1, 1930. The story is about ordinary lives and was written with precise observation and straightforward language. It is a style and approach that Cheever developed over five decades.
After leaving school Cheever toured Europe with his older brother, Frederick. Upon their return, the brothers settled in Boston, Massachusetts. Frederick helped to support John as he wrote stories. In the mid-1930s Cheever moved to New York City. He lived in a bleak, $3-a-week boarding house on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village. During this period Cheever helped support himself by writing book summaries for potential MGM (Metro Goldwyn Mayer) movies. Malcolm Cowley, editor of The New Republic, also arranged for Cheever to spend time at Yaddo, a writers' colony in Saratoga, New York. It was also during this time that Cheever began his long association with The New Yorker magazine. In 1934 the magazine published the first of 119 Cheever stories.
On March 22, 1941, Cheever married Mary Winternitz. They had three children. He spent four years in the army during World War II (1939–45) and later spent two years writing television scripts for, among other programs, "Life with Father."
Writing about "Cheever Country"
In 1943 Cheever's first book of short stories, The Way Some People Live, was published. War and the Great Depression serve as a backdrop for these stories. This book reveals a lifelong theme for Cheever: the way some people live. His next collection of short stories earned him the serious praise of critics. The Enormous Radio, and Other Stories, written in Cheever's Scarborough, New York, home, was published in 1953. These fourteen stories plunge the reader deep into what critics call "Cheever Country." The characters are good people who begin life with a sense of well-being and order. Later that order and well-being are stripped away and never quite fully restored. The title story, for example, portrays an average young couple that wants to someday move from their New York apartment to Westchester. Their sense of the ordinary is shattered when they buy a radio that has the fantastic ability to broadcast bits of their neighbors' lives. The radio picks up the sounds of telephones, bedtime stories, quarrels, and tales of dishonesty. This peek behind closed doors serves to destroy the couple's own outward feelings of harmony. The story ends with the young married couple arguing as the radio fills the room with news reports.
In 1951 Cheever was made a Guggenheim Fellow, a fellowship grant established in 1925 for writers. This grant gave him the money and the freedom to write. In 1955 his short story, "The Five-Forty-Eight," was awarded the Benjamin Franklin magazine award, and the following year he took his wife and three children to Italy. Upon their return the family settled in Ossining, New York. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1957 and won the National Book Award for the first of his novels, The Wapshot Chronicle. From 1958 through 1977 Cheever continued to write seven more books.
Personal problems and illness
Cheever, at the height of his success, began a twenty-year struggle with alcoholism. This was a problem he did not fully admit to until his family placed him in a rehabilitation center in 1975. Earlier, in 1972, he had suffered a massive heart attack. After a long period of recovery, he wrote Falconer. This "dark" novel draws on his experience as a writing instructor in Sing Sing prison, as well as on his recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. Falconer contains rough language, violence, and a prison setting. This novel is a departure from Cheever Country. Moreover, it is the first of his works to deal directly with homosexuality. Cheever's journals reveal that, like the main character of Falconer, Cheever questioned his sexual preference and identity.
In the end Cheever could not fit the image he carefully developed for himself— much like the fictional characters he created. John Cheever died of cancer on June 18, 1982. His final work, Oh What A Paradise It Seems, was published after his death.
For More Information
Cheever, John. The Journals of John Cheever. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.
Cheever, Susan. Home Before Dark. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
Coale, Samuel. John Cheever. New York: F. Ungar, 1977.
Donaldson, Scott. John Cheever: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1988.
Waldeland, Lynne. John Cheever. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.
"Cheever, John." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cheever-john
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John Cheever, 1912–82, American author, b. Quincy, Mass. His expulsion from Thayer Academy was the subject of his first short story, published by the New Republic when he was 17. Many of his subsequent works are also semiautobiographical. With meticulously rendered detail, Cheever often wrote about life in the affluent American suburbs. Although his works are usually comic, his view is that of a moralist. His fiction includes the novels The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), The Wapshot Scandal (1964), and Falconer (1977); and several short-story collections. Comprehansive collections of Cheever's masterful short stories, which acutely chronicle his generation's urban and suburban life, were published in 1978 (Pulitzer Prize) and 2009; his novels were collected in 2009. His daughter, Susan Cheever, 1943–, and his son, Benjamin Cheever, 1948–, are also writers.
See his journals (1991, rev. ed. 1994, repr. 2008), ed. by S. Cheever (and R. Gottlieb); his letters, ed. by B. Cheever (1988); S. Cheever, Home before Dark (1984); S. Donaldson, ed., Conversations with John Cheever (1987); biographies by S. Donaldson (1988) and B. Bailey (2009); studies by L. Waldeland (1979), R. G. Collins, ed. (1982), G. W. Hunt (1983), J. E. O'Hara (1989), F. J. Bosha, ed. (1994), P. Meanor (1995), and H. Bloom, ed. (2003).
"Cheever, John." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cheever-john
"Cheever, John." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved January 15, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cheever-john
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"Cheever, John." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cheever-john
"Cheever, John." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved January 15, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cheever-john
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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.
Novelist and short story writer. Instructor at Barnard College, 1956-57, Ossining, NY, Correctional Facility, 1971-72, and at University of Iowa Writers Workshop, 1973; visiting professor of creative writing, Boston University, 1974-75. Member of cultural exchange program to U.S.S.R., 1964. Military service: U.S. Army Signal Corps, 1943-45; became sergeant.
National Institute of Arts and Letters, Century Club (New York, NY).
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 National 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.
The Wapshot Scandal (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1964.
Bullet Park, Knopf (New York, NY), 1969.
Falconer, Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.
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 (New York, NY), 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 (Stevenson, CT), 1965.
The World of Apples, Knopf (New York, NY), 1973.
The Day the Pig Fell into the Well (originally published in the New Yorker), Lord John Press (Northridge, CA), 1978.
The Stories of John Cheever, Knopf (New York, NY), 1978.
The Leaves, the Lion-Fish and the Bear, Sylvester and Orphanos (Los Angeles, CA), 1980.
Angel of the Bridge, Redpath Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1987.
Thirteen Uncollected Stories, Academy Chicago Publishers (Chicago, IL), 1994.
The Stories of John Cheever, Vintage International (New York, NY), 2000.
The Letters of John Cheever, edited by 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.
Vintage Cheever, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 2005.
Also author of television scripts, including Life with Father. Contributor to numerous anthologies, including O. Henry Prize Stories, 1941, 1951, 1956, 1964. Contributor to periodicals, including New Yorker, Collier's, Story, Yale Review, New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, and other publications.
Cheever's short stories have been adapted for motion pictures and television; The Swimmer was produced by Columbia in 1968, and PBS-TV broadcast The Sorrows of Gin, The Five Forty-eight, and O Youth and Beauty!, all 1979; the film rights to Cheever's novels The Wapshot Chronicle, The Wapshot Scandal, Bullet Park, and Falconer have been sold; A. R. Gurney wrote A Cheever Evening: A New Play Based on the Stories of John Cheever, Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1995; twelve of Cheever's short stories are read by Meryl Streep, Blythe Danner, George Plimpton, and other actors on The John Cheever Audio Collection, Harper, 2003.
John Cheever is among the finest American writers of the twentieth century. His stories chronicle the spiritual shortcomings of upper-class suburbia while maintaining an optimistic outlook and a sense of humor. Robert A. Morace, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, explained that "his characters all face a similar problem: how to live in a world which, in spite of its middle-class comforts and assurances, suddenly appears inhospitable, even dangerous." A reformed alcoholic who lived in the suburbs himself, Cheever, eulogized Peter S. Prescott in Newsweek, "that in a world that most people envy there are people who are bravely enduring." Among Cheever's awards were the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Cheever was born May 27, 1912, in Quincy, Massachusetts, the second son of Frederick Lincoln and Mary Liley Cheever. His father owned a shoe factory in nearby Lynn, but he lost the business during the Great Depression. His mother was able to support the family by creating her own businesses: a tea room and a gift shop. Frederick Cheever, his pride shattered, greatly resented his wife's independence, eventually turning to alcohol and attempting suicide. The strain took its toll on all of the family members; both John and his older brother, Fred, became alcoholics, as well.
Cheever displayed a gift for storytelling at a young age, earning a reputation at his elementary school for creating entertaining, improvised tales. "Many of the characters in those storytelling exercises—eccentric old women, ship captains, orphan boys—later became standard figures in his stories and novels," according to Patrick Meanor, writing in the Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. Cheever's grandmother, Sarah Liley, encouraged his talents, reading to him from the works of Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Charles Dickens.
Despite his love of reading and writing, Cheever was not a particularly distinguished student. He enrolled at Thayer Academy, a prep school in South Braintree, Massachusetts, dropping out in his junior year to attend Quincy High School. For senior year in 1929 he returned to Thayer Academy, but he was expelled. Cheever "variously claimed that he was caught smoking, that it was his poor grades, and that he had seduced the son of one of the teachers," remarked Meanor. "However, it was not unusual for Cheever to come up with divergent explanations for events in his early life. Certainly his casual treatment of facts about his life demonstrates the greater importance he placed on creativity and highlight his ability to entertain the fictive possibilities of a situation or character."
Cheever's long career as a short story writer began in 1930 when he sold his first story, "Expelled," to the New Republic. "Although Cheever … referred to the story slightingly as 'the reminiscences of a sorehead,' his story is neither plaintive nor amateurish and in many ways anticipates the style that has since become Cheever's hallmark," noted Robert A. Morace in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Morace added, "Thematically, 'Expelled' also anticipates Cheever's later work. There is the conflict between the decorum required by the school and the fervent longing for life felt by the individual."
Begins Writing Career
After leaving Thayer, Cheever toured Europe with his brother. He settled in Boston for a time, working in department stores and freelancing for a number of Boston newspapers. In the mid-1930s Cheever moved to New York City, living in a squalid boarding house in Greenwich Village and supporting himself by writing synopses of books for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He met some influential members of the literary set, including John dos Passos, e. e. cummings, James Agee, Paul Goodman, and James
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Farrell. Malcolm Cowley, the editor of the New Republic, helped arrange visits to the Yaddo writers' colony at Saratoga Springs, New York. During this time, Cheever also began his long association with the New Yorker.
Cheever became a regular contributor to the New Yorker in 1934, a relationship that would last for decades and account for the publication of a majority of his stories. His 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 not only awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1979, but also the National Book Award for fiction in 1981. The publication of this volume of sixty-one stories, including such titles as "The Enormous Radio," "The Country Husband," "The Chimera," and "The Swimmer," "revived singlehanded publishers 'and readers' interest in the American short story," according to Time's Paul Gray. Commenting on the author's place in American literature, John Leonard wrote in the Atlantic Monthly at the time: "I happen to believe that John Cheever is our best living writer of short stories: a[n Anton] Chekhov of the exurbs."
A Cynical View of Suburbia
Cheever the novelist was not as widely praised, but even in this role he had his champions. In 1977, fellow author John Gardner maintained that "Cheever is one of the few living American novelists who might qualify as true artists. His work ranges from competent to awesome on all the grounds I would count: formal and technical mastery; educated intelligence; what I would call 'artistic sincerity' …; and last, validity." His 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." Fashioned from the author's observations and presented in this manner, Cheever's stories have become, in the opinion of Jesse Kornbluth, "a precise dissection of the ascending middle class and the declining American aristocracy."
Creates "Cheever People"
For the most part, the characters represented in Cheever'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, Cheever'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 'clean.'" 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 character's 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 relation to an essentially meaningless—even absurd—world," Stephen C. Moore commented in the Western Humanities Review. Kornbluth found that "Cheever's stories and early novels are not really about people scrapping for social position and money, but about people rising toward grace." In his Dictionary of Literary Biography essay, Robert A. Morace came to a similar conclusion. 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."
New Yorker Style Not Suitable for Novels
Critics have also been impressed by Cheever's episodic style. In a review of Bullet Park, a Time critic notes that most of the novel "is composed of Cheever's customary skillful vignettes in which apparent slickness masks real feeling." Some reviewers did find, 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 once offered a similar appraisal: "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." Of the "Wapshot" novels, The Wapshot Chronicle received the National Book Award in 1958.
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 was 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,'" he 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?"
On the whole, the critical and popular response to Cheever's work has remained 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 reviewer Gray, contended that the "fortunate few [who inhabit Cheever's fiction] 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."
Journals Expose Private Side
In 1991 Cheever's son Benjamin published an edited version of Cheever's journals. Written over a period of thirty-five years, and comprising twenty-nine looseleaf notebooks when unedited, the journals were distilled to a hefty 399-page book by Robert Gottlieb titled The Journals of John Cheever. The book is marked by Cheever's woeful reminiscences about life, in particular his addiction to alcohol and his growing dissatisfaction with his marriage.
Cheever's alcoholism grew slowly. He began as a social drinker during the 1950s, and over the years progressed to a full-blown alcoholic. In 1975 he checked himself into a rehabilitation clinic and managed to end his addiction. Unlike many other authors, he was able to continue writing successfully after giving up drinking. During this same period, Cheever found much to complain about in his marriage. He found his wife angry, mean, and unsupportive, even after he gave up alcohol.
Cheever 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.
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Critical reaction to the published journals 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." He concludes that "troubled though the story of [his] 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, writing in the Washington Post Book World, also characterized the writing in the book 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 noted, reflecting the view of several critics.
After Cheever's death, his widow signed a contract with small publisher Academy Chicago to publish some of his previously uncollected short stories. However, when the family realized the publisher was going to print all sixty-eight of Cheever's uncollected stories, they balked and took legal action against the publisher. After a long and expensive battle, Academy Chicago lost the right to publish all the works but was allowed to publish thirteen of the stories. Oddly, Cheever had chosen not to publish these early stories in a collection form during his lifetime because he did not believe they measured up to his later works.
The stories tread on familiar Cheever ground: the troubles of the East Coast middle class. In "His Young Wife" an older man is upset by the fact that his wife is slipping away from him. He turns to gambling as a means to ruin his rival and win back the love of his wife. "In Passing" visits Saratoga, New York, during its famed racing season. Against that capitalistic backdrop, a Marxist organizer is up-set over the bank's repossession of his family house and 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 in an 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," yet he believed that "such a collection would not see the light if it did not have the Cheever name on the cover." John B. Breslin concluded in America: "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. [Editor] Franklin Dennis has done Cheever no disservice with this collection and has done his admirers a favor."
If you enjoy the works of John Cheever
If you enjoy the works of John Cheever, you may also want to check out the following books:
Saul Bellow, Seize the Day, 1956.
John Updike, Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, 1962.
Russell Banks, The Angel on the Roof, 2000.
Cheever's name is often raised by critics 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 News-week 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, "he observed and gave voice to the inarticulate agonies that lie just beneath the surface of ordinary lives." In the words of Gray, recorded in a Time tribute, Cheever "won fame as a chronicler of mid-century manners, but his deeper subject was always the matter of life and death."
Biographical and Critical Sources
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Bloom, Harold, editor, John Cheever, Chelsea House (Philadelphia, PA), 2003.
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Byrne, Michael, Dragons and Martinis: The Skewed Realism of John Cheever, Borgo Press (San Bernardino, CA), 1993.
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"Cheever, John." Authors and Artists for Young Adults. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/cheever-john
"Cheever, John." Authors and Artists for Young Adults. . Retrieved January 15, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/cheever-john