The Stories of John Cheever Essay - Critical Essays

John Cheever

Critical Evaluation

John Cheever is an important short-story writer for a number of reasons, not the least of which is sheer staying power, longevity. His first stories appeared in print in the early 1940’s, and they appeared regularly throughout his career. This is a remarkable record of continuous creativity and undiminished quality. Though he has won prizes and widespread popular recognition for his two novels, THE WAPSHOT CHRONICLE (1957) and THE WAPSHOT SCANDAL (1964), and high critical acclaim for his next two novels, BULLET PARK (1969) and FALCONER (1977), Cheever has always been primarily a story writer. There are any number of his contemporaries equally well-known and distinguished for their work in the short-story form, but none who has written stories regularly over such a span of time, a time which includes portions of at least three separate literary generations. Part of his success must be considered in terms of his long-standing position as one of the stable of contract writers for THE NEW YORKER, a magazine that has always encouraged the short story, or a certain kind of short story, with high payment and the advantages of a large audience with definite expectations and conventions. This fact alone, however, cannot explain how Cheever managed to keep his gift for the short story alive and breathing while other, perhaps equally gifted writers for that magazine, though remembered and honored in short-story anthologies, became less vigorously productive. It is entirely possible that, weighing everything, Cheever was the finest story writer to have emerged from THE NEW YORKER.

To place his work and to understand its development, it is first of all necessary to understand as clearly as possible what a NEW YORKER story is, for the vintage product has become to a great degree the accepted model for the modern American short story. Briefly, it is the maximum exploitation of a single, dramatically presented incident while more or less strictly observing the conventional unities of time and place, designed in its condensed form to gain by a richness of implication and by depth of characterization. Plot, in the old-fashioned sense, is absent and so are the moral dilemmas, middle-class, of slick fiction. In setting, the stories are usually regional—the East of suburbia and the City, the far and uncorrupted West, an updated version of the magnolia South and, often, foreign, aristocratic, and exotic. The stories have reflected the general moral views of the magazine and its audience. Its moral keystone is a gracious secular humanism coupled with a gentle intellectual skepticism. The virtues celebrated are all civilized virtues, sedentary, sophisticated, and rational, gently draped or camouflaged in veils of irony. The mortal sins are vulgarity without redeeming eccentricity, self-pity, stupidity, hypocrisy, bad manners, complacency, awkward excess of passion, and the absence of good health or physical beauty. In short, THE NEW YORKER fiction has been a fiction of manners. The political orientation has been generally liberal, of the noblesse oblige variety, and as a magazine of manners, the aim has always been progressive. No matter how dark the present, how fraught with peril the future, or how quaint the past, the fiction and verse of THE NEW YORKER have always gone hand in hand with the plentiful advertisements, the fine cartoons, and “The Talk of the Town,” advancing toward a vaguely discernible horizon, the glow of which indicates a Jerusalem of “The Good Life” somewhere up there among idyllic Delectable Mountains, just beyond the reach of the clean, trimmed fingernails of the Ideal Reader.

To expect a great deal more than the competently second-rate from such a milieu would be folly, and to imagine that working in it a writer with the creativity of Cheever could emerge would demonstrate the gift of blind and pure prophecy. Readers have had enough fiction over a sufficient period of time to see that his stories, within the context of THE NEW YORKER milieu, are original and independent. From the beginning with THE WAY SOME PEOPLE LIVE, the stories of Cheever in THE NEW YORKER exhibited some independence of form. This may have been inevitable, for even then, the “single event” story was widely anthologized, beginning to be taught in schools, and becoming somewhat less than chic. Cheever’s originality manifested itself in subject and treatment. Though part and parcel of the credible and suburban world, stories from THE WAY SOME PEOPLE LIVE and THE ENORMOUS RADIO occasionally broke that orderly universe with the introduction of what used to be called “fantasy” but, more accurately, might be described as the introduction of some supernatural event or condition into an...

(The entire section is 1969 words.)