Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

From its homey title (a parent’s admonition to a child) to its closing chapters describing John Cheever’s illness and death, Susan Cheever’s Home Before Dark demands and deserves to be read whole rather than dipped into for quick reference. Personal in tone but never sentimentally or intensely so, this biographical memoir has no index and does not approach Cheever’s life in strictly chronological fashion. Rather, its twenty-five brief chapters, while adhering to the general birth-to-death pattern of that life, seem more like memory clusters in which various biographical bits are drawn together, often leaping years between paragraphs to illuminate its subject in surprising ways. Reminiscence plays a vital part in the book, but reminiscence fleshed out and tempered by research.

John Cheever was from his youth a storyteller in a double sense. He made up stories to entertain his adult audience, and make his living, as he had fellow students at Thayer Academy (from which he was expelled when he was seventeen, thus giving him material and reason for his first published story, “Expelled,” which appeared in The New Republic the following year). Yet Cheever was also a storyteller in a more subtle and psychologically risky way because he often fictionalized the facts of his life, making them more appealing to himself and to others, though never, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, going so far as to imagine an entirely new...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Home Before Dark

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

In his fifty years as a short-story writer, John Cheever became one of the best practitioners of the form, especially with stories such as “The Enormous Radio” and “The Swimmer.” Novels such as The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), The Wapshot Scandal (1964), and Falconer (1977) made him an eminent American writer, and he won most of the major American writing awards. Cheever’s writing is, for the most part, only superficially autobiographical, and the painful details of his life were not revealed until Susan Cheever, his daughter, wrote Home Before Dark, a very candid memoir.

With Looking for Work (1979), A Handsome Man (1981), and The Cage (1982), Susan Cheever is establishing herself as a novelist, and she brings a novelist’s skills to the story of her father, eschewing a straightforward birth-to-death account to weave the contradictory strands of his life into a coherent portrait of the writer as son, brother, husband, and father. She relies not only upon her memories and those of other relatives and friends but also upon thirty volumes of journals her father wrote throughout his career. She divides his life into “two distinct parts”: a “struggle for stability” followed by a “struggle to escape the trappings and traps he had so carefully constructed for himself.” Home Before Dark portrays a man who, like so many artists, found peace only in his art.

The first Cheever came to America in 1637, and by the nineteenth century, the Cheevers were a prominent Brahmin family in Boston. Frederick Lincoln Cheever, however, John Cheever’s father, was ostracized by the “respectable” Cheevers because of his drinking and, through bad investments in the 1920’s, lost the wealth earned from a shoe factory. Mary Liley Cheever supported the family by operating gift shops, a situation that humiliated her husband. Susan Cheever presents her father’s character as being formed by “his anger at his dominating mother and his identification with his weak father.” His parents no longer cared for each other by the time Cheever was born, his conception being “a drunken accident,” and his father tried to force his mother to have an abortion. The young John Cheever found affection only in his adored older brother Fred, “certainly the most powerful and complicated attachment in his life.” John abruptly ended this closeness with his brother when they were young men, deciding that they were too close.

John Cheever married Mary Winternitz in 1941, and their up-and-down relationship continued until his death in 1982. “My parents’ marriage,” Susan Cheever writes, “had always been characterized by periods of anger and silence, alternating with times when they seemed to rediscover each other and the possibilities of romantic love.” Despite infidelities, Mary’s increasing independence, and John’s resentment of her making a life of her own, they stayed together: “It came to seem a matter of angry stubbornness rather than of any kind of virtue.” Mary Cheever appears in Home Before Dark surprisingly little; she must have had some influence on Cheever as person and writer, but her daughter seems reluctant to push too far.

Susan Cheever is also reticent about her two brothers’ relations with their father but not about her own. Cheever’s journals reveal fantasies about Susie growing up to be beautiful and marrying a Vanderbilt, Biddle, or Cabot, but a dumpy, pimply adolescent raised doubts: “My father seemed to think that if I lost weight, curled my hair, and stood up straight I would be surrounded by the handsome and adoring suitors who seemed so elusive.” When suitors finally arrived, Cheever drove them away by seeming too eager about their friendship with his daughter. Susan was also afraid of her father. In 1977, she wanted to ask him for a five-thousand-dollar loan so that she could quit her job at Newsweek and try to write a novel, but she did not have the nerve to ask: “’He would have annihilated you,’ my brother Ben says now when I ask him what I was afraid of. In our family, no one ever asked for help. Weakness was treated as a temporary aberration, and failure was a bad joke.”

Susan Cheever devotes most of Home Before Dark to...

(The entire section is 1765 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In an attempt to cope with her feelings about her father’s impending death, Susan Cheever began a journal in the autumn of 1981. Soon, she found that her writing triggered many memories of her family life, and she continued to write after her father died on June 18, 1982. Although she had never intended to become her father’s biographer, Cheever found that her memories, her father’s journals, and conversations with family members and friends led her to the discovery of the important story of an American writer’s life and his impact on his daughter.

Cheever begins this biographical memoir with her father’s childhood in Quincy, Massachusetts. Although Frederick Lincoln Cheever had been a successful businessman, by the mid-1920’s John Cheever’s father began a descent into financial ruin, forcing his wife to support the family. Both John Cheever, born on May 27, 1912, and Frederick, Jr., his elder brother by seven years, felt the disruption of their social standing and the ensuing marital problems of their parents. This feeling of displacement was compounded by John Cheever’s sense that his branch of the Cheever family was poorer than the more aristocratic Cheevers.

John Cheever’s feeling of being an exile from the more respectable members in his family was mixed with his pride in their independence and irreverence. Showing his own initiative and faith in his talent as a storyteller, he went to New York in 1930 looking for work...

(The entire section is 545 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Biography is generally regarded as a seventeenth century invention, and a number of women in that century used the writing of their husbands’ biographies as a means of artistic self-expression. For example, Lucy Hutchinson, Lady Ann Fanshawe, and Margaret Cavendish fashioned their memoirs to describe their husbands’ lives. Susan Cheever, as a twentieth century woman writer, did not need the excuse of chronicling her father’s life to write. In fact, she had published three novels before John Cheever’s death. Cheever’s biography is interesting, however, for its examination of the effect of a celebrated author upon his literary daughter. While artistic creativity has been described as a symbolic unleashing of Oedipal energy, this interpretation is not applicable to women writers. Contemporary women critics, such as those included in the collection of essays entitled Daughters and Fathers (1989) edited by Lynda E. Boose and Betty S. Flowers, investigate the role of the father in culture and literature by women.

Cheever outlines both her parents’ genealogies in order to explain their interests and talents, presenting the reader with a detailed memoir of her father’s difficulties with his family history. Moreover, she traces her mother’s psychological development through her family’s dynamics. Susan Cheever, while avoiding psychoanalytic jargon, reaches into the past to explain her parents’ behavior. By describing their insecurities...

(The entire section is 413 words.)


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Book World. XIV, October 7, 1984, p. 1.

Bosha, Francis J., comp. John Cheever: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. An invaluable reference for those in need of a relatively complete bibliography to Cheever’s works.

Cheever, John. Conversations with John Cheever. Edited by Scott Donaldson. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. A part of the Literary Conversations series, this work is useful for its insight into the conversation style of Cheever in a number of interviews.

Cheever, John. The Journals of John Cheever. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. Taken from the twenty-nine notebooks left by John Cheever, this work represents approximately one twentieth of the estimated four million words in these journals. Although not intended for publication, these notebooks offer very personal reflections of Cheever. Permission was granted by the Cheever family for its publication.

Cheever, John. The Letters of John Cheever. Edited by Benjamin Cheever. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. Selected correspondence of John Cheever to friends, editors, and other authors. Edited by his son, with an interesting introduction entitled “The Man I Thought I Knew.”

Coale, Samuel. John Cheever. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977. A part of the Modern Literature Monographs series, this volume offers a brief criticism and interpretation of Cheever’s work. Especially useful for beginning the study of Cheever.

Collins, R. G., comp. Critical Essays on John Cheever. Reprint. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. Respected criticism of Cheever by such noted authors as Cynthia Ozick, John Gardner, Granville Hicks, and Joan Didion. Organized into reviews, interviews, and criticism, this book includes a bibliography from 1978 to 1981 that includes primary and secondary work.

Donaldson, Scott. John Cheever. New York: Random House, 1988. A detailed biography of John Cheever based on 170 interviews with his family and friends, thousands of letters, and published writings.

Glamour. LXXXII, December, 1984, p. 190.

Library Journal. LIX, November 15, 1984, p. 2145.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 28, 1984, p. 1.

The New York Review of Books. XXXI, December 20, 1984, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, October 21, 1984, p. 7.

Newsweek. CIV, October 22, 1984, p. 92.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, September 7, 1984, p. 66.

Time. CXXIV, October 29, 1984, p. 90.

The Wall Street Journal. CCIV, December 7, 1984, p. 26.