John Cheever Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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,...

(The entire section is 1597 words.)

John Cheever Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Cheever is one of the very few writers who have attained major status in both the novel and the short story, a form to which the retrospective collection The Stories of John Cheever (1978) brought renewed interest and a much greater measure of respect. Equally important, however, are the ways in which Cheever managed to combine so subtly and so successfully traditional storytelling with narrative innovation and conventional realism with lyrical fabulism, and to invest his middle-class characters and suburban settings with mythic resonance.

John Cheever Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The loss of his father’s job in 1930, followed by the loss of the family home and the strained marital situation caused, John Cheever believed, by his mother’s growing financial and emotional dependence, all had a lifelong effect on Cheever. When he was expelled from Thayer Academy at the age of seventeen, Cheever was already committed to a writing career. His career, however, would do little to assuage his sense of emotional and economic insecurity. Although he liked to claim that “fiction is not crypto-autobiography,” from the beginning, his stories were drawn from his personal experiences. They have even followed him geographically: from New England, to New York City, through his military service, to the suburbs (first Scarborough, then Ossining), with side trips to Italy (1956-1957), the Soviet Union (on three government-sponsored trips), and Sing Sing prison, where he taught writing (1971-1972). The stories have, more importantly, followed Cheever over hazardous emotional terrain, transforming personal obsessions into published fictions: alcoholism, bisexuality, self-doubts, strained marital relations, and the sense of “otherness.” The stories also evidence the longing for stability and home that manifested itself in three of the most enduring relationships of his fifty-year career: with the Yaddo writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York (beginning in 1934); with The New Yorker (which began publishing his work in 1935); and with his wife Mary Winternitz Cheever (whom he met in 1939 and married two years later, and with whom he bickered over the next forty years).

Cheever did not become free of his various fears and dependencies—including his nearly suicidal addiction to alcohol—until the mid-1970’s. After undergoing treatment for alcoholism at Smithers Rehabilitation Center, he transformed what might well have become his darkest novel into his most affirmative. Falconer (1977) was both a critical and a commercial success. Like its main character, Cheever seemed for the first time in his life free, willing at least to begin talking about the private life that he had so successfully guarded, even mythified before, when he had played the part of country squire. The triumph was, however, short-lived: two neurological seizures in 1980, a kidney operation and the discovery of cancer in 1981, and, shortly after the publication of his fifth novel, the aptly and perhaps whimsically titled Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1982), his death on June 18, 1982.

John Cheever Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

John Cheever was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, on May 27, 1912, and grew up during what he has called the “Athenian twilight” of New England culture. His father Frederick, who was forty-nine when Cheever was born, lost his position in the shoe business in the 1929 Depression and much of his self-respect a short time later when his wife opened a gift shop in order to support the family. The parents’ emotionally strained relationship eventually led to their separation and caused Cheever to become very close to his brother Fred, seven years his senior. At age seventeen, Cheever was dismissed from Thayer Academy in South Braintree, Massachusetts, for smoking and poor grades; he promptly turned his experience into a story, “Expelled,” which Malcolm Cowley published in The New Republic on October 10, 1930, and with Fred embarked on a walking tour of Europe. Upon their return, the brothers lived together briefly in Boston, where “Jon” (as he then identified himself) wrote while Fred worked in the textile business. The closeness of their relationship troubled Cheever, who then moved to a squalid rooming house on New York’s Hudson Street. There, with the help of his Boston mentor, Hazel Hawthorne, he wrote synopses for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, subsisted on buttermilk and stale bread, associated with Cowley, E. E. Cummings, Sherwood Anderson, Edmund Wilson, Hart Crane, John Dos Passos, and Gaston Lachaise, and somehow managed to keep his art free of the political issues that dominated much of the literature of the period. It was also during that time that Cheever began three of his most enduring relationships: with Yaddo, the writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York; with The New Yorker, which published his “Brooklyn Rooming House” in the May 25, 1935, issue; and with Mary Winternitz, the daughter of the Dean of Yale Medical School, whom he married on March 22, 1941. They had three...

(The entire section is 782 words.)

John Cheever Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

John Cheever’s father, a successful shoe salesman, and his mother, born in Sheffield, England, provided for his education at Thayer Academy. Cheever was eventually expelled. This dismissal led to his story “Expelled,” which was published in The New Republic in October, 1930. In New York in 1932, Cheever worked with Malcolm Cowley and for The New Yorker, a magazine which published 120 of Cheever’s stories.

In 1951, Cheever moved to Scarborough, a community about twenty-five miles north of New York City. In this environment, Cheever’s interpretation of suburbanites developed, and Cheever gained a reputation for stylish satire of manners and customs in communities named variously as St....

(The entire section is 315 words.)

John Cheever Biography

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Early Life

Expelled from Thayer Academy because of poor conduct and application, John Cheever used the experience in his first story, “Expelled,” published by the New Republic in 1929. In the 1930’s, he lived mostly in New York City, publishing stories in New Republic, Collier’s, Story, Atlantic, and the New Yorker (for which he became a regular contributor). He worked at odd jobs and taught advanced composition at Barnard College. In 1941, he married Mary Winternitz and fathered three children. After two years of wartime service, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship (1951) and wrote television scripts. His first book, The Enormous Radio and Other...

(The entire section is 1298 words.)

John Cheever Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Disparaged or neglected during much of his career, John Cheever eventually achieved a degree of literary recognition and respect, both as a novelist and as a writer of short stories, that was rivaled only by that of his friend Saul Bellow. The breakdown of Cheever’s parents’ marriage, as well as his father’s loss of self-esteem and his mother’s growing independence, had a profound effect on the author’s development. His expulsion from Thayer Academy in 1929 put an end to his formal education but started him on his way toward a literary career when The New Republic published his story “Expelled” the following year. Although Cheever served his literary apprenticeship during the Depression years, his writing,...

(The entire section is 919 words.)

John Cheever Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

John Cheever was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, on May 27, 1912. He attended the private Thayer Academy but was expelled before graduating,...

(The entire section is 266 words.)

John Cheever Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

John Cheever was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, on May 27, 1912, the second son of Frederick and Mary Liley Cheever. Cheever’s home life...

(The entire section is 375 words.)