John Cheever Essay - Cheever, John

Cheever, John

Introduction

John Cheever 1912 -1982

American short story writer and novelist. See also, "The Swimmer" Criticism.

Cheever is regarded as one of the most important twentieth-century American writers of short fiction. He has been dubbed “the Ovid of Ossining,” “the Dante of suburbia,” and “the Chekhov of the exurbs” for his ability to chronicle with grandeur and pathos the lives of upper middle-class Americans. Many of Cheever's works revolve around the cocktail parties, swimming pools, barbecues, and commuter trains that are hallmarks of suburbia. Although critics note that many writers do not find the seemingly bland uniformity of the exurbs a fertile ground for interesting fiction, Cheever has the ability to expose the turmoil and complexity that lies below the surface of this seemingly tranquil terrain. Cheever gained popularity and notoriety as a social commentator for his early stories “The Swimmer,” “The Enormous Radio,” and “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” but only began to receive serious scholarly attention after the republication of sixty-one of his best stories in the 1978 collection, The Stories of John Cheever. Cheever is praised by critics for his ability to treat his characters with compassion and wit while maintaining the absurdity of their surroundings and the futility of their actions; his stories hold out the hope of their redemption in love.

Biographical Information

Cheever was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, on May 27, 1912. His writing is rich with his New England heritage—from the physical settings to the manners, mores, and morality that pervade his stories. Cheever attended Quincy High School and Thayer Academy, a preparatory school in South Braintree, Massachusetts, but his formal education ceased in 1929 when he was expelled at age seventeen for smoking. Cheever used his experience at Thayer as the subject matter for his first short story, “Expelled,” which launched his literary career when it was published in the New Republic in 1930. After his expulsion, Cheever moved to Boston and then to New York, where he supported himself by working in department stores and on newspapers. Throughout the 1930s Cheever published stories in various magazines including Atlantic, Colliers, Story, and the Yale Review. In 1935 Cheever published “Brooklyn Rooming House,” the first of his stories to appear in the New Yorker. Cheever's affiliation with the that publication would span the length of his literary career, and one hundred and twenty-one of his nearly two hundred short stories were originally published in issues of the New Yorker. Although Cheever's association with the magazine gave him much exposure, early critics tended to dismiss his work on the basis that it was slick, stereotypical, and formulaic work typical of the New Yorker. Cheever's first volume of stories, The Way Some People Live, was published in 1943 while he was serving in the U. S. Army. The collection was composed of thirty pieces, many of them little more than fragments, and received mostly tepid reviews. Cheever's second collection, The Enormous Radio and Other Stories, published in 1953, contained fourteen longer and more fully developed works than his first collection. Still tainted by his association with the New Yorker, the second collection was still met with mixed success.

Cheever was determined to complete a novel in the following years. In 1957 he succeeded with the publication of The Wapshot Chronicle. This was followed in 1958 by The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, a collection that included the stories “The Five-Forty-Eight,” which had won the Benjamin Franklin Magazine award, and “The Country Husband,” which had won the O. Henry Award. Cheever's fourth collection of stories, Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel, was published in 1961. Three years later Cheever published a second novel, The Wapshot Scandal, a sequel to The Wapshot Chronicle. Cheever's fifth collection of stories, The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, also appeared in 1964, and contains his most celebrated short story, “The Swimmer.” Cheever published his third novel, Bullet Park, in 1969. The novel received mixed reviews due to its dark themes. In the years that followed Cheever suffered from alcoholism, and alcohol-related health problems, marital troubles, and depression. In spite of his personal turmoil, his next collection of stories, A World of Apples, brought positive critical reception and a nomination for membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1975, at the urging of his wife and family, Cheever admitted himself to Smithers Alcohol Rehabilitation Center and successfully stopped drinking. In 1977 he published Falconer, a novel about the alienation and despair in the confinement of prison. In 1978 The Stories of John Cheever was published and met with great critical and popular success; the same year Cheever was awarded an honorary doctorate from Harvard. In 1979 Stories earned Cheever the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Edward McDowell Medal. Cheever's last work, the novella Oh What a Paradise it Seems, was intended as a much longer work, but after Cheever was diagnosed with cancer he was unable to fulfill his original plan for the book. Cheever was awarded the National Medal for Literature in April 1982, and died of cancer on June 18 of that year.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Cheever is most noted for his stories in which he portrays characters in conflict with both their external world and their internal self. His stories are often remarkably similar in their settings and often deal with a similar type of character. Cheever's heroes are typically suburban upper middle-class males and females who, despite their seemingly tranquil lives, are spiritually and emotionally troubled and who exhibit a tension between their remembered or longed-for innocence and the reality of the lives they lead. This tension results in discontent that is manifested in a variety of ways, including sexual perversion, marital strife, drinking, and financial overindulgence. Cheever's characters are portrayed as having lost their innocent youth and are plunged into the chaos of adult life with all of its false comforts. Despite their discontent and selfish, destructive ways, Cheever treats his characters with compassion and understanding; he makes us feel that although we may find his characters humorous or pathetic, we must have sympathy for their need to find order and comfort in the chaotic and changing world.

Cheever's short stories are often divided by critics into four main categories according to their locale. The Urban or New York stories, which include “Torch Song,” “Clancy in the Tower of Babel,” and “The Enormous Radio,” are characterized by their themes of displacement, imprisonment, and divorce. While the stories are set in New York, their main characters are often not native to the city. In the Exurban or Vacation stories, for example “The Seaside House,” “Goodbye, My Brother,” and “The Common Day,” Cheever depicts his characters trying to escape their imprisonment or begin anew, but they find they are unable to escape their own moral and spiritual problems. The Expatriate stories, including “The Bella Lingua,” “The Duchess,” and “The World of Apples,” are set mostly in Italy and center on the outsider's perspective. The Suburban stories are the largest category of Cheever's stories and include “The Swimmer,” “The Country Husband,” and “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill.” These stories are said to explore the “separateness” of the characters' existences. As their lives are divided between their city work and suburban homes, so are they split between their normal outer appearances and their chaotic inner experiences. Critics often note that Cheever's talent lies in being able to blend the commonplace with the mythic. Cheever's most famous story, “The Swimmer,” has been compared with such works as Dante's Inferno, Rip Van Winkle, and the Holy Grail legends. It is Cheever's ability to make the ordinary lives of his suburbanites seem fantastical, spiritual, and universal that warrants these comparisons.

Critical Reception

Although Cheever published his short fiction in magazines and in collections steadily from the 1940s, it was not until the late 1970s that he began to receive serious scholarly attention. His early works met with popular approval, but critics were wary of honoring any literature that was published in the New Yorker, as the magazine was perceived by the literary elite as only producing safe and predictable works. Most early reviewers praised Cheever's lyrical prose and his realistic characters, but were critical of the pessimism and irresolution that they considered were prevalent in his fiction. Some early critics, including Joan Didion, deemed Cheever's stories “a celebration of life,” and were able to see that Cheever's works were really optimistic in nature. However, despite some early recognition of his talent, Cheever's association with the New Yorker hindered his critical success for many years. After the publication of his novel, Falconer, in 1977, and the republication of his best short fiction in The Stories of John Cheever in 1978, serious academic criticism began to appear. Critics reexamined Cheever's work and found it to be optimistic and idealistic even though he often portrays characters suffering from pathos and despair; many reviewers pointed out the strong themes of hope and morality often symbolized by his use of light and water imagery. Rather than viewing Cheever's use of upper-class America as relating experiences that are too narrow in scope, most commentators now recognize the all-embracing human themes explored in the confined world he describes. Cheever's explains his use of suburbia as the setting for his stories in the following manner: “I am not out to be a social critic … nor a defender of suburbia. It goes without saying that the people in my stories and the things that happen to them could take place anywhere.” As the novelist Saul Bellow noted, it is Cheever's ability to “take the elements given and work them into something new and far deeper than they were at the outset” that gives Cheever's stories their universal resonance.

Cheever is now recognized as one of the most important short fiction writers of the twentieth century. Critics maintain that in The Stories of John Cheever readers can see the Cheever's mastery of the short story genre and his ability to show compassion and understanding for human emotion when confronted with moral dilemma in the chaos of modern life. Cheever wrote, “Literature is the only continuous and coherent account of our struggle to be illustrious, a monument of aspiration, a vast pilgrimage.” Through his short stories Cheever has provided such an account, and in doing so has secured his distinguished place in American letters.

Principal Works

The Way Some People Live 1943

The Enormous Radio, and Other Stories 1953

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 of John Cheever 1978

Oh What a Paradise It Seems 1982

Thirteen Uncollected Stories of John Cheever 1994

The Wapshot Chronicle (novel) 1957

The Wapshot Scandal (novel) 1964

...

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Criticism

Rose Feld (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: “New Fiction from Atlantic to Pacific,” in The Critical Response to John Cheever, edited by Francis J. Bosha, Greenwood Press, 1994, pp. 5-6.

[In the following essay, originally published in the New York Herald in 1943, Feld asserts that, although most of the stories in The Way Some People Liveare mere moments or fragments of stories, Cheever succeeds in portraying his characters with sympathy and irony.]

To the extent that in the writing world any material—sketch, article, newspaper report, fiction—is called a story, John Cheever's book, “The Way Some People Live,” may be called a collection of stories. But in the conventional sense,...

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David Segal (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: “Change is Always for the Worse,” in The Critical Response to John Cheever, edited by Francis J. Bosha, Greenwood Press, 1994, pp. 83-4.

[In the following essay, originally published in Commonweal in 1964, Segal traces the themes of the progression of magic and the transitory nature of material possessions in Cheever's collection of stories, The Brigadier and the Golf Widow.]

When I was a boy I read a story that terrified me. It was about a child who declared that he needed the help of no living creature. That night the sheep came and took from him everything woolen, the tree came and took everything wooden, and so on until he was naked and cold...

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John Wain (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Literate, Witty, Civilized,” in Critical Essays on John Cheever, edited by R. G. Collins, G. K. Hall & Company, 1982, pp. 28-32.

[In the following essay, originally published in the New Republic in 1982, Wain applauds Cheever's The World of Apples for being witty and intelligent while depicting characters that behave decently as people “generally do in real life.”]

I don't know what goes on in the minds of very young people, but to most of us grown-ups there comes a sense, very often, of having started our lives amid the outlines of a civilization and having watched them melt away, leaving a featureless desert; quite a suitable...

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Stephen C. Moore (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “The Hero on the 5:42: John Cheever's Short Fiction,” in Western Humanities Review, Vol. XXX, No. 2, Spring, 1976, pp. 147-52.

[In the following essay, Moore argues that although Cheever's characters sometimes act in ways that seem futile and absurd, the fact that they create their own “legends” in a world that seems pointless makes them heroes.]

Just about ten years ago John Aldridge wrote in Time to Murder and Create that Cheever was “one of the most grievously underdiscussed important writers we have at the present time.” He had been cursed with a “kind of good housekeeping seal of middlebrow literary approval”; he was said to be “a...

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George W. Hunt (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Cheever's Stories: Style and Substance,” in Commonweal, Vol. CVI, No. 1, January 19, 1979, pp. 20-22.

[In the following essay, Hunt argues that Cheever's stories provide more than social commentary; they are lyrical and funny without being merely satiric.]

John Cheever has won many awards for his fiction, but the praise and prizes have been reserved for his four excellent novels, The Wapshot Chronicle, The Wapshot Scandal, Bullet Park, and Falconer. Short stories, by contrast, rarely win important prizes, and collections of stories do not sell well. Cheever persists nonetheless in this neglected genre, which he terms...

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Burton Kendle (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “The Passion of Nostalgia in the Short Stories of John Cheever,” in Critical Essays on John Cheever, edited by R. G. Collins, G. K. Hall & Company, 1982, pp. 219-30.

[In the following essay, Kendle maintains that Cheever's stories are unified by a “passionate attempt to retain and foster an image” of an Eden-like past manifested in places, patterns of behavior, or inner innocence.]

“it is a passion of nostalgia”

Henry James, letter to William Dean Howells, 1904

The passionate attempt to retain and foster an image of an innocent past unifies the rich and varied fictional world in the stories of John...

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Robert M. Slabey (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “John Cheever: The ‘Swimming’ of America,” in Critical Essays on John Cheever, edited by R. G. Collins, G. K. Hall & Company, 1982, pp. 180-91.

[In the following essay, Slabey compares “The Swimmer” with “Rip Van Winkle,” exploring the contrast between the dreams we live by and the reality we live.]

… the story of Rip Van Winkle has never been finished, and still awaits a final imaginative recreation.

—Constance Rourke

Indeed, the central fact about America in 1970 is the discrepancy between the realities of our society and our beliefs about them....

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Bruce Fogelman (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “A Key Pattern of Images in John Cheever's Short Fiction,” in Studies in Short Fiction,Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 463-72.

[In the following excerpt, Fogelman examines the motifs of immersion in water, the breaking of a storm, and the journey through darkness into light in “Summer Theatre,” “The Swimmer,” and “The World of Apples.”]

“My work or a great deal of my work … is quite apparently of subterranean water, with wells, with streams, with a search for water, and with a sound of rain,” Cheever remarked to an interviewer in 1978, following the publication of The Stories of John Cheever. “I like to think it's in such...

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Robert A. Hipkiss (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “‘The Country Husband’—A Model Cheever Achievement,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 577-85.

[In the following essay, Hipkiss examines the number of ways in which “The Country Husband” exposes upper middle-class angst and argues that the story is Cheever's most intense and best work of art.]

“The Country Husband,” John Cheever's 1950s story of the well-to-do suburb of Shady Hill, is a minor masterpiece of contemporary fiction.1 Consider how much of the upper-middle-class suburban angst it includes: the tension between the individual's emotional needs for personal, individualized recognition and...

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Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Cheever's Dark Knight of the Soul: The Failed Quest of Neddy Merrill,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 347-52.

[In the following essay, Blythe and Sweet explore Cheever's use of Grail mythology in the characters, events, and settings of “The Swimmer,” and contrast Neddy Merrill, the selfish hero, with the traditional selfless Grail hero.]

Although critics, including ourselves, have noted many minor patterns throughout “The Swimmer” such as the color imagery (Graves 4-5), the Shakespearian parallels (Bell 433-36), the names (Byrne 326-27), an historical allusion (Blythe and Sweet 557-59), and the autumnal images...

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Stanley Kozikowski (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Damned in a Fair Life: Cheever's ‘The Swimmer,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 3, 1993, pp. 367-75.

[In the following essay, Kozikowski argues that “The Swimmer” is a spiritual allegory owing much to Dante's Inferno in its subject and structure.]

Cheever's ever-popular, many-faceted short story, “The Swimmer,” accommodates various readings, particular and universal. Within its range of appeal, for instance, it has been read as suggestive autobiography,1 contemporary American Odyssey (Hunt 280-83), dazzling literary structure (Kruse 221), as a “midsummer's nightmare” (Bell 433), sacramental parody (Blythe and...

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Lawrence Jay Dressner (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Gender and Structure in John Cheever's ‘The Country Husband,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 1, 1994, pp. 57-68.

[In the following essay, Dressner presents a deconstructive reading of “The Country Husband” concentrating on the comic structure, the contrast between the domestic and the wild, and the female versus the male role.]

“He struck her full in the face. She staggered …” (Cheever, “The Country Husband” 340)

“A deconstructive reading is an attempt to show how the conspicuously foregrounded statements in a text are systematically related to...

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Scott Donaldson (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Cheever's Shady Hill: A Suburban Sequence,’” in Modern American Short Story Sequences: Composite Fictions and Fictive Communities, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 133-50.

[In the following essay, Donaldson examines how Cheever exploits the contrast between the turmoil of his characters' inner lives and the seeming tranquility of their outer lives in The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories.]

Over the course of the previous half century, Vladimir Nabokov observed in November 1971, “the greatest Short Stories have been produced not in England, not in Russia, and certainly not in France, but in [the United...

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