Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1597
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, but the New York production soon folded, and whatever financial relief Cheever had hoped to realize came to nothing. In 1951, the Cheevers moved to suburban Scarborough, New York. Getting a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to support his writing proved easier than getting his next book, The Enormous Radio, and Other Stories (1953), accepted. Rejected by Random House in 1952, it was published by Funk & Wagnalls the following year to less than enthusiastic notices.
Although Cheever would later claim that “something went terribly wrong” in the mid-1950’s, in all outward respects his prospects seemed to be brightening: a $2400 advance from Harper & Brothers for a novel, the Benjamin Franklin Award for “The Five-Forty-Eight,” an O. Henry Award for the “The Country Husband,” election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (Cheever was elevated to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1973), sale of the film rights to “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” a year in Italy (at Cowley’s suggestion), the birth of his second child, Ben (Susan, his first, was born in 1943; Frederick, his third, in 1957). His first novel (something of a psychological as well as financial necessity), The Wapshot Chronicle (1957) was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and winner of the National Book Award.
The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, and Other Stories appeared in 1958; two years later he received a second Guggenheim and, with Philip Roth and James Baldwin, spoke at Esquire magazine’s “Writing in America” symposium. Despite misgivings and after a for-money-only stint in Hollywood writing a screenplay of D. H. Lawrence’s The Lost Girl (1920), Cheever purchased a restored late eighteenth century house in Ossining, New York, some forty miles north of New York City. The house was expensive enough to fuel his anxieties over money but also provided exactly the right setting for the myth of the refined, well-to-do country squire, which Cheever, with the unwitting help of interviewers and writers of feature articles, would perpetuate over the next twenty years.
Soon after the publication of his strangely titled fourth collection, Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel (1961), Cheever suffered two emotional setbacks: the discovery of his brother Fred’s alcoholism and his wife Mary’s decision to work, teaching part-time at nearby Briarcliff College. Cheever, mindful of his mother’s act of financial independence, was prepared to take the latter as something of a sexual attack and a further blow to an already shaky marriage. His marriage, however, would somehow manage to survive rebuffs, talk of divorce, and Cheever’s infidelities for forty years.
Although his second novel, The Wapshot Scandal (1964), earned for its author a Time magazine cover story and a Howells Medal for the best novel of 1960-1964, financial worries led Cheever to break with The New Yorker and to sell the film rights to the two Wapshot books and to “The Swimmer.” (The latter was made into a feature-length film starring Burt Lancaster in 1968. Cheever much preferred to sell the rights but have no film made; the two forms are, he maintained, entirely different.) He traveled with John Updike to Russia in 1964 as part of a cultural exchange, thus beginning his love affair with Eastern Europe. By the end of the decade he found a love more sexual than cross-cultural (though at times hardly less distant), beginning a long-term affair with the actress Hope Lange.
The writing of The Wapshot Scandal had depressed Cheever; writing Bullet Park (1969) exhilarated him, but when Benjamin DeMott’s remarkably wrongheaded review appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Cheever became severely depressed. The early 1970’s became for him a time of continued financial worries and sexual anxieties, much drinking, and little writing. The serenity which the poet Asa Bascomb achieves in the title story of The World of Apples (1973) collection eluded Cheever as he taught writing at Sing Sing Prison from 1971 until his first heart attack (brought on by his drinking) in 1972. He taught (when sober) in 1973 at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where John Irving and Raymond Carver were also on the faculty. T. Coraghessan Boyle and Allan Gurganus were in his classes. His teaching stint at Boston University the next year ended prematurely with Cheever’s complete physical collapse.
He entered a detoxification unit and afterward spent a month at Smithers Rehabilitation Clinic in New York. Free of his addictions to tranquilizers and alcohol, Cheever, now a regular at Alcoholics Anonymous, completed Falconer (1977), hailed as “Cheever’s Triumph.” Falconer’s success freed Cheever from the financial worries that had plagued him since his father’s ruin and, like the novel’s protagonist, from a number of other fears as well. As the awards and honors poured in—an honorary doctorate from Harvard University, a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and American Book Award for The Stories of John Cheever (1978), the National Medal for Literature—Cheever became less reticent and more willing to be interviewed and to discuss his personal life, except his bisexuality.
The triumph was, unfortunately, short-lived. Cheever suffered two epileptic seizures in 1980 and was found to have cancer the following year. The illnesses were devastating to a man who had enjoyed physical activity his entire life. Despite the illnesses, he wrote an original screenplay, The Shady Hill Kidnapping, broadcast on the Public Broadcasting Service in January, 1982, and a novel, Oh What a Paradise It Seems, published in May of that year. Cheever died in his home on June 18, 1982. With the appearance of his daughter Susan’s memoir, Home Before Dark (1984), his son Ben’s selected Letters of John Cheever (1988), and Scott Donaldson’s excellent John Cheever: A Biography (1988), the facts of Cheever’s life have become nearly as accessible as his fiction. Excerpts from his journals appeared in The New Yorker in 1990.
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