John Cheever

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 134

John Cheever’s accounts of his life and circumstances are sometimes at odds with the facts. Is prevarication a habit of the major characters in his stories?

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Cheever lamented the loss of such values as “serenity” and “tradition” in modern life. Are these losses important themes in his fiction?

Examine the structure of The Wapshot Chronicle with particular attention to its framing Fourth of July settings.

Decorum involves such qualities as propriety and good taste. Is the “decorous surface” of Cheever’s prose a deception or does it reflect values affirmed in his stories?

Cheever called Falconer “the sum of my experiences.” Is this one of his misleading statements or does it seem to ring true?

Judging from the evidence presented here, do you think that critics generally have understood Cheever’s work properly?

Other Literary Forms

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Believing that “fiction is our most intimate and acute means of communication, at a profound level, about our deepest apprehensions and intuitions on the meaning of life and death,” John Cheever devoted himself to the writing of stories and novels. Although he kept voluminous journals, he wrote only a handful of essays and even fewer reviews, and only one television screenplay, The Shady Hill Kidnapping, which aired January 12, 1982, on the Public Broadcasting Service. A number of Cheever’s works have also been adapted by other writers, including several early short stories such as “The Town House” (play, 1948), “The Swimmer” (film, 1968), “Goodbye, My Brother” as Children (play, 1976), and “O Youth and Beauty,” “The Five-Forty-Eight,” and “The Sorrows of Gin” (teleplays, 1979). Benjamin Cheever has edited selections of his father’s correspondence, The Letters of John Cheever (1988), and journals, The Journals of John Cheever (1991).

Achievements

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A major twentieth century novelist, John Cheever has achieved even greater fame as a short-story writer. He published his first story, “Expelled,” in The New Republic when he was only eighteen. Reviewers of his first collection, The Way Some People Live, judged Cheever to be a promising young writer. Numerous awards and honors followed: two John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grants (1951, 1961), a Benjamin Franklin award for “The Five-Forty-Eight” (1955), an O. Henry Award for “The Country Husband” (1956), election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1957, elevation to the American Academy in 1973, a National Book Award in 1958 for The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), the Howells Medal in 1965 for The Wapshot Scandal (1964), cover stories in Time (1964) and Newsweek (1977), the Edward MacDowell Medal in 1979, a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle award (both in 1978), an American Book Award (1979) for The Stories of John Cheever, and the National Medal for Literature (1982). Cheever’s achievements, however, cannot be measured only in terms of the awards and honors that he has received (including the honorary doctorate bestowed on this high school dropout), for his most significant accomplishment was to create, with the publication of The Stories of John Cheever, a resurgence of interest in, and a new respect for, the short story on the part of public and publishers alike.

Other literary forms

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After the publication of his first fictional piece, “Expelled,” in the October 10, 1930, issue of The New Republic, more than two hundred John Cheever stories appeared in American magazines, chiefly The New Yorker. Fewer than half that number were reprinted in the seven collections Cheever published in his lifetime: The Way Some People Live (1943), The Enormous Radio, and Other Stories (1953), The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, and Other Stories (1958), Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel (1961), The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964), The World of Apples (1973), and The Stories of John Cheever (1978); the last of these includes all but the earliest collected stories and adds four previously uncollected pieces. In 1994, a collection titled Thirteen Uncollected Stories was published.

Cheever’s one television play, The Shady Hill Kidnapping, aired on January 12, 1982, to inaugurate the Public Broadcasting Service’s American Playhouse series. Cheever, however, made a clear distinction between fiction, which he considered humankind’s most exalted and intimate means of communication, and literary works written for television, film, and theater. Consequently, he remained aloof from all attempts to adapt his literary work—including the 1968 film version of his story “The Swimmer,” directed by Frank Perry and starring Burt Lancaster (which he found disappointing), and the adaptations of three of his stories televised by the Public Broadcasting Service in 1979. In addition, he rarely turned his considerable energies to the writing of articles and reviews. One large and fascinating body of Cheever’s writing is found in his journals, which he kept as part of a long family tradition.

Achievements

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Until the publication of Falconer in 1977 and The Stories of John Cheever the following year, John Cheever’s position as a major American writer was not firmly established, even though as early as 1953 William Peden had described Cheever as one of the country’s most “undervalued” literary figures. Despite the fact that critics, especially academic ones, frequently invoked Cheever only to pillory his supposedly lightweight vision and preoccupation with upper-middle-class life, his reputation continued to grow steadily: four O. Henry Awards between 1941 and 1964; a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1951; the University of Illinois Benjamin Franklin Award in 1955; a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1956 and election to that organization the following year; the National Book Award for his first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle, in 1958; the William Dean Howells Medal for its sequel, The Wapshot Scandal, seven years later; election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1973; and cover stories in the nation’s two most widely circulated weekly newsmagazines, Time (1964) and Newsweek (1977). The overwhelmingly favorable reception of Falconer made possible the publication of The Stories of John Cheever, which in turn brought to its author additional honors: a second National Book Award; the National Book Critics Circle Award for best fiction; a Pulitzer Prize; the Edward MacDowell Medal; an honorary doctorate from Harvard University; and in April, 1982, the National Medal for Literature for his “distinguished and continuing contribution to American letters.” The popular and critical success of those books and the televising of his work before a national audience brought Cheever the recognition he had long deserved and established his well-earned place in literature.

Bibliography

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Bailey, Blake. Cheever: A Life. New York: Knopf, 2009. In order to write this biography, Bailey accessed Cheever’s unpublished journals and gleaned information from his family and friends. The details of Cheever’s personal life are revealed here, including his struggle with alcoholism and his bisexuality. At over 800 pages, this book revels everything that fans of John Cheever could ever want to know about him.

Bosha, Francis J. John Cheever: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. Especially useful for its annotated listing of works about Cheever and for its brief overview of the critical response to Cheever’s fiction. For a more complete listing of primary works, see Dennis Coale’s checklist in Bulletin of Bibliography (volume 36, 1979) and the supplement in Robert G. Collins’s book (below). Robert A. Morace’s exhaustive assessment of all available biographical, bibliographical, and critical materials appears in Contemporary Authors: Bibliographical Series: American Authors (1986) and can be updated by reference to American Literary Annual (1985-).

Bosha, Francis J., ed. The Critical Response to John Cheever. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Collection presents representative criticism of all of Cheever’s fiction, beginning with the earliest reviews in 1943, with individual chapters devoted to each of his works. Also includes several essays written for this collection and an interview with Cheever conducted a year before he died. Supplemented with bibliography and index.

Byrne, Michael D., Dale Salwak, and Paul David Seldis, eds. Dragons and Martinis: The Skewed Realism of John Cheever. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1993. Collection of essays focuses on Cheever’s style in his fiction. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Cheever, Susan. Home Before Dark. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984. Memoir by Cheever’s daughter fleshes out what was known previously about his troubled early years and provides an insider’s look at his marital and other personal difficulties (alcoholism, illnesses, sexual desires). Suffers from lack of documentation and indexing. More valuable as a synthesis of previously published material than as a daughter’s intimate revelations.

Coale, Samuel. John Cheever. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977. Good introductory work includes a brief biography, two chapters on selected short stories, and individual chapters on Cheever’s first four novels. Focuses on the development of Cheever’s style, from realism to fantasy, and concern for moral issues.

Collins, Robert G., ed. Critical Essays on John Cheever. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. Reprints an excellent sampling of reviews, interviews, and early criticism. Also presents some previously unpublished pieces, among which the most useful are Collins’s biocritical introduction, Dennis Coale’s bibliographical supplement, and Samuel Coale’s “Cheever and Hawthorne: The American Romancer’s Art,” arguably one of the most important critical essays on Cheever.

Donaldson, Scott. John Cheever: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1988. Scrupulously researched, interestingly written, and judiciously argued biography presents Cheever as both author and private man. Fills in most of the areas in Cheever’s biography that were previously unknown and dispels many of the biographical myths that Cheever himself encouraged. A sympathetic yet objective account.

Donaldson, Scott, ed. Conversations with John Cheever. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. Until his final years a rather reticent man, Cheever granted relatively few interviews. The most important ones are reprinted here, along with the editor’s thorough chronology and brief but useful introduction.

Dessner, Lawrence Jay. “Gender and Structure in John Cheever’s ‘The Country Husband.’” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Winter, 1994): 57-68. Argues that the story is structured as a comedy with a farcical narrow escape and a tension between the domestic and the wild; contends the plot pattern dissolves pain into laughter.

Donaldson, Scott, ed. Conversations with John Cheever. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. Until his final years a rather reticent man, Cheever granted relatively few interviews. The most important ones are reprinted here, along with the editor’s thorough chronology and brief but useful introduction.

Hipkiss, Robert. “‘The Country Husband’: A Model Cheever Achievement.” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (Fall, 1990): 577-585. Analyzes the story as a prose poem filled with imagery of war, myth, music, and nature. Argues that the elaborate image pattern makes us realize how rooted in our American value system the protagonist’s final fate really is.

Meanor, Patrick. John Cheever Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1995. First book-length study of Cheever to make use of his journals and letters published in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Focuses on how Cheever created a mythopoeic world in his novels and stories. Includes three chapters analyzing the Wapshot novels, Bullet Park, Oh, What a Paradise It Seems, and Falconer.

O’Hara, James E. John Cheever: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989. In addition to reprinting five important reviews and critical essays and providing a detailed chronology and annotated selected bibliography, this volume offers a 120-page analysis of Cheever as a writer of short stories that goes well beyond the introductory level. O’Hara’s discussion of the early unanthologized stories is especially noteworthy.

Salwak, Dale, and Paul David Seldis, eds. Dragons and Martinis: The Skewed Realism of John Cheever, by Michael D. Byrne. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1993. Focuses on Cheever’s style in his fiction. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Waldeland, Lynne. John Cheever. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Introductory volume lacks the thematic coherence of Samuel Coale’s work (cited above), but it has greater breadth and evidences a greater awareness of previous critical commentary.

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