John Cheever was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, on May 27, 1912. He was descended not, as he liked to claim, from Ezekiel Cheever, master of the Boston Latin school eulogized by Cotton Mather, but instead and more prosaically from Daniel Cheever, one of Ezekiel’s cousins and the keeper of the prison at Cambridge.
Cheever grew up during what he called the twilight years of Athenian Boston culture. The accelerating pace of the decline that another Quincy man, Henry Adams, had noted a few years earlier in his The Education of Henry Adams (1907) manifested itself not only in the Boston area but in Cheever’s personal life as well. As a result of the stock market crash of 1929, Cheever’s father, Frederick, lost first his position as a shoe salesman (not a shoe manufacturer, as his son liked to claim), then his investments, and finally his self-esteem when his independent-minded wife, Mary, opened a gift shop in order to support the family.
As their parents grew gradually apart, Cheever and his brother, Fred, seven years senior, grew closer—unnaturally so, Cheever came to believe. Dismissed from Thayer Academy for smoking and poor grades, Cheever wrote a semi-autobiographical, quasi-Cubist story, “Expelled,” which Malcolm Cowley selected from a pile of unsolicited manuscripts for publication in the October 1, 1930, issue of The New Republic. After a walking tour of Germany, the brothers settled in Boston, where Fred supported them both while Cheever devoted himself to his writing. By 1934, “Jon” (or “Joey”) as he then styled himself, decided to make a break.
He spent part of the summer at Yaddo, the writers’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, thus beginning what was to be one of the several long and immensely useful literary relationships. It was Cowley who helped him secure a foothold there, and it was again Cowley to whom Cheever turned upon his arrival in New York in July. Living in a squalid room on Hudson Street, Cheever, helped by Fred, supported himself by writing book reviews and synopses of novels for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The money was meager, but friendships with E. E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, Walker Evans, James Agee, Gaston Lachaise, and Cowley (his mentor and surrogate father) were rich.
Cheever’s story “Brooklyn Rooming House” appeared in the May 25, 1935, issue of The New Yorker, the magazine that would, over the next three decades, publish more that one hundred Cheever stories (only John O’Hara would publish more). His efforts to publish a novel at this time were hampered as much by conservative literary tastes as by Cheever’s need for the quick money that the writing and the sale of stories could provide. He still could not support himself by fiction writing alone and so spent part of 1938 in Washington, D.C., on the staff of the Federal Writers’ Project.
Back in New York the following year, he met Mary Winternitz, daughter of the dean of Yale Medical School. The couple were married on March 22, 1941. Cheever enlisted in the Army the following year and was serving in the South when his first book appeared on March 8, 1943. Although this collection of thirty short stories (including one of his best, “The Brothers”) netted its author only four hundred dollars, The Way Some People Live received a number of encouraging reviews and soon resulted in Cheever’s transfer to a Signal Corps staff that included William Saroyan and Irwin Shaw and was stationed in Astoria, Queens. (Because nearly half of Cheever’s infantry regiment died in World War II, the book and transfer may very well have saved his life.)
After the war, Cheever continued living in New York, writing stories and working on a novel. The Boston opening of The Town House, a play adapted from several Cheever stories and produced by George S. Kaufman, seemed promising,...
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