John Cheever was one of America’s most acclaimed writers in the middle decades of the twentieth century. He wrote more than 500 short stories and published 121 of them in the country’s premier periodical for short fiction, The New Yorker, between 1935 and 1981. He was the subject of a Time magazine cover story in 1964 on the occasion of the publication of his second novel, The Wapshot Scandal, and thirteen years later appeared on the cover of Newsweek when his fourth novel, Falconer (1977), was published. His collected stories won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1979, and several stories were made into films (such as “The Swimmer”) and teleplays (“The Housebreaker of Shady Hill”).
Cheever traveled the world as a famous American writer and was particularly revered in Soviet bloc countries. Despite his apparent successes, Cheever was tormented by private demons and filled his voluminous journals with detailed descriptions of his loneliness and self-pity. He loved the rituals of family life but showed little affection for his wife and three children. He could be a charming and witty raconteur, as well as a mean, pompous bore. A chain smoker and alcoholic for most of his adult life, he was tormented by his own bisexuality and hated homosexuals.
Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life, which was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in biography, is an exhaustive study of Cheever that explicates the gap between his public self and his private hell and does much to explain how Cheever’s inner conflicts were forged into his art. The story of Cheever’s life is not always pretty, but it is compelling, and the biographer employs both empathy and insightful analysis.
Cheever would often brag about his family’s distinguished New England lineage, but their notable accomplishments ended long before Cheever was born in 1912. His father was a failed salesman who Cheever believed detested his second son. His mother was a gift-shop owner who showed him little tenderness. Cheever felt his childhood was miserable, never finished high school, and soon fled Quincy, Massachusetts, for Boston and then for New York. He befriended editor Malcolm Cowley and other writers and artists, including photographer Walker Evans, poet E. E. Cummings, and novelist Josephine Herbst. On the basis of his early fiction, Cheever was invited to the artists’ colony at Yaddo, near Saratoga, New York, in 1934, the first of many visits over the next half century. (It is significant that Cheever, who at the end of his life was on the colony’s board of directors, called Yaddo “the only place I’ve ever felt at home.”) His first New Yorker story was published in 1935, and his career was launched.
Cheever worked on the Federal Writers’ Project in Washington, D.C., and then New York to help support himself at the end of the 1930’s. His story “Frere Jacques” (1939) was published in The Best Short Stories of 1939, and by 1940, with the help of New Yorker fiction editor and friend William Maxwell, he was averaging almost a story per month in the magazine. A year later, his first collection of stories, The Way Some People Live (1941), appeared. The same year, he married Mary Winternitz. He spent three and a half years serving in World War II, mostly in writing units. His first child, Susan, was born in 1943; his first son, Benjamin, was born five years later; and his last child, Federico, was born in 1957.
By the late 1940’s, Cheever had become one of the best fiction writers at The New Yorker (along with J. D. Salinger and Irwin Shaw) and thus in the United States. “The Enormous Radio” (1947), one of his best stories, was published during this time. Cheever’s marriage was not happy, however, in part because of his drinking and his conflicted sexuality, and he felt frustrated that he could not finish a novel. In 1951, the Cheevers moved from New York City to Scarborough, Westchester County, New York, near the street that would inspire the title of one of the best novels about postwar suburbia, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road (1961).
Cheever’s second collection of stories, The Enormous Radio, and Other Stories was published in 1953, and he began to...
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