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.
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.
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.