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Few American writers have been so attentive to detail and so careful with their recurrent subject matter and themes as John Cheever. Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, Cheever is known for his shrewd, often critical view of middle-class America. With both dismay and compassion, he transforms the commonplace events of daily life into some of the wittiest and most profoundly moving stories in modern American literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Parental Character Types
John Cheever was born into a middle-class New England family on May 27, 1912, in Quincy, Massachusetts, a seaside community a few miles south of Boston. His mother, an English-born woman named Mary Devereaux Liley, was ten years younger than his father, Frederick Lincoln Cheever. Both of his parents appear throughout his fiction as character types: the hard-drinking, charming father figure in conflict with the hard-working, emotionally reserved mother figure. In Cheever’s stories, the mother, never the cause of the family’s disintegration, is usually the one who saves the family, paralleling Mary Cheever’s role in sustaining the Cheever family by establishing her own businesses after her husband lost both his job and then their home during the Great Depression.
Cheever attended Thayer Academy, a preparatory school in Massachusetts, but he was expelled at age seventeen for smoking. The short story he wrote about the experience, “Expelled,” published in 1930 in The New Republic, marked the beginning of Cheever’s literary career. The theme of this piece, the conflict between one’s need for order and propriety and one’s desire for adventure and pleasure, recurs throughout Cheever’s work. Recognizing the young author’s talent, Malcolm Cowley, editor of The New Republic, arranged for Cheever to spend time at Yaddo, a writers’ colony in Saratoga to which he would often return.
During the next several years, Cheever lived primarily in New York City, supporting himself with odd jobs, including a stint writing book synopses for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio, while pursuing his literary aspirations. In the 1930s, his short stories appeared in such distinguished magazines as The Atlantic, The Yale Review, and The New Yorker. Cheever’s connection with The New Yorker began in 1935 and lasted his entire life; well over one hundred of his stories were originally published in that magazine.
War and Pieces
In 1939, Cheever met Mary Winternitz, a writer and teacher who worked with his agent. Soon after Cheever and Winternitz married in March 1941, Cheever joined the Army. He was serving in the Army during World War II when his first collection, The Way Some People Live, was published in 1943. War and the Great Depression serve as the backdrop for these stories, which deal with Cheever’s lifelong subject: how people live in suburbia, the idealized community form that exists between the urban and the rural. After the war, Cheever settled in Scarborough, New York, and wrote television scripts for such programs as Life with Father.
Keeping his professional life separate from his home life, Cheever did much of his fiction writing in a rented room at the train station in Scarborough. Instead of seclusion, he relied on being close to the actual pulse of everyday life for productivity. In 1951, Cheever received a generous Guggenheim Fellowship in 1951, which freed him from the financial burdens of supporting a family. In 1953, his next collection of short stories was published under the title The Enormous Radio and Other Stories, a work that many critics would later call his greatest single collection.
Rise and Fall
In the fall of1954, Cheever accepted a position at Barnard College to teach creative writing; he also began work on a novel as a way to help support his family. According to biographer Scott Donaldson, Cheever was a superb and inspiring teacher. He encouraged students to write about their own lives—much as he himself did—and to construct a mythology out of the common world. During this time, Harper and Brothers offered to buy out Cheever’s contract with Random House and gave him a substantial advance on his novel-in-progress, as well as five years in which to finish it. Cheever decided to call his work The Wapshot Chronicle.
At the height of his success, Cheever developed alcoholism, 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, a dark novel that introduces several changes into his fiction: a sordid, violent prison setting; extensive Christian symbolism; and coarse language.
From 1977 until his death in June 1982, Cheever’s reputation soared as he garnered many awards and prizes for his writing. In 1979, he received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Stories of John Cheever (1978). Unfortunately, Cheever would write only one more work, published shortly before his death: Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1982), a novella, though he had intended it to be much longer. Cheever, who had been diagnosed with cancer, died on June 18, 1982.
Works in Literary Context
Cheever’s talent for mythologizing his family’s background became an integral part of his storytelling reputation throughout his life. Certainly, Cheever’s autobiographical approach to his fiction does more than merely record what those experiences meant to him, and it gives credibility to the worlds he creates. Influenced by American author William Faulkner, Cheever likewise demonstrates his ability to invent believable mythic worlds. Faulkner’s Yoknapa-tawpha County is instantaneously recognizable, and so, too, is Cheever’s imagined world of St. Botolphs.
Cheever’s voice is one of suburban angst; his fictional world commonly portrays individuals in conflict with their communities and often with themselves. The typical Cheever protagonist is an affluent, socially prominent, and emotionally troubled upper-middle-class WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) who commutes to his professional job in the city from his home in suburbia. Into each picture of his idyllic community, Cheever injects an element of emotional tension arising from the gap between the supposed serenity of suburban life and a person’s individual passion and discontent. Cheever’s characters are often ambivalent in their desires, so the stories themselves are ambiguous, presenting no clear resolution.
While such ambivalence may take many forms, the most common manifestation in a Cheever story revolves around marital conflict. Adultery, real or fantasized, is a recurring motif in Cheever’s works, as his characters struggle with their desires for emotional fulfillment in contrast with both domestic and societal expectations of order.
A typical example of Cheever’s critical view of sub urban life can be found in his short story ”The Swimmer.” In the tale, a man at a suburban cocktail party strikes upon the idea that he can traverse the entire neighborhood—all the way back to his house—by swimming the length of each of his neighbors’s pools. What begins as a light-hearted, invigorating stunt in the mind of the man soon proves to be a desperate attempt to recapture all the things he has lost, but has somehow forgotten he has lost: his youth, his wealth, his home, and even his family.
Works in Critical Context
At the time Cheever was writing, many book reviewers belonged to the New York intellectual elite, a group that tended to look upon Cheever’s stories in The New Yorker as elitist indulgence that unemotionally chronicled the shallow manners and morals of the upper middle class. Other critics considered his work too depressing because some of the stories dealt with shabby lives mired in urban hopelessness. More recent criticism, however, recognizes Cheever’s skill as a storyteller and sharp social commentator. The publication of The Stories of John Cheever in 1978—which received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award—prompted serious scholars to reappraise his works. Along with noting Cheever’s thematic interest in human morality and spirituality, modern critics praise his compassion and abiding belief in the redemptive power of love.
The Wapshot Books
Critics were divided over the merits of Cheever’s first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957). Some found fault with its episodic structure; the novel is not built on the kind of linear framework that conservative critics prefer. Still others were put off by its dark vision. In an article appearing in Critical Essays on John Cheever, writer and scholar Joan Didion praises it highly, evaluating it in the context of novelistic tradition: ”It was a novel more like Tom Jones than Madame Bovary, more like Tristram Shandy than Pride and Prejudice.”
Even though the tone of the The Wapshot Scandal differs greatly from The Wapshot Chronicle, the critical response to this follow-up novel was generally favorable. In Critical Essays on John Cheever, George Garrett best describes the major differences between the two novels: ”The sins of Chronicle are original sin. Scandal moves inexorably toward the end of the world.” Friend and editor Malcolm Cowley was alarmed by the anger evidenced in Cheever s world in The Wapshot Scandal, calling it, says Donaldson, one of ”emotional squalor and incongruity. Hilary Corke, discussing both books in The New Republic, notes that although Cheever is ”one of the best living short-story writers in the language, his Wapshot novels are ”fatally flawed because his view of the society he depicts ”gets over-simple, over-stressed, over-ripe—and, finally and disastrously, self-indulgent.”
- Bosha, Francis, ed. The Critical Response to John Cheever. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
- Cheever, Susan. Home before Dark. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.
- Coale, Samuel. John Cheever. New York: Unger, 1977.
- Collins, R. G., ed. Critical Essays on John Cheever. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.
- Donaldson, Scott. John Cheever: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1988.
- Donaldson, Scott, ed. Conversations with John Cheever. Jackson, Miss: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.
- Hunt, George. John Cheever: The Hobgoblin Company of Love. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983.
- ”John Cheever (1912).” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Carolyn Riley. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale Research, 1975, pp. 105-109
- Meanor, Patrick. John Cheever Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1995.
- O’Hara, James. John Cheever: A Story of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
- Wadeland, L. John Cheever. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.
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