John Cheever (May 27, 1912-June 18, 1982) was a U.S.
novelist and masterful short story writer.
His most significant works include the Wapshot books (The Stories of John Cheever which won the Pulitzer Prize. He was a frequent contributor to The New Yorker.
Cheever was born in Quincy, Massachusetts. His father owned a shoe factory and was relatively wealthy until he lost his business in the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and deserted his family. During this time in his life, the young John Cheever was often comforted by his older brother Fred. It is said that many of his later works are dedicated to this integral influence in his life. The young Cheever was deeply upset by the breakdown of his parents' relationship. His formal education ended when he was seventeen and left home. Cheever studied at that time at Thayer Academy, but was expelled for smoking. The experience was the nucleus of his first published story, 'Expelled' (1930), which Malcolm Cowley bought for The New Republic. Cheever went to live with his brother in Boston. He wrote synopses for MGM and sold stories to various magazines. After a journey in Europe, Cheever returned to the U.S. He settled in New York City and became friends with such writers as John Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, James Agee, and James Farrell. In 1933 he attended the Yaddo writers' colony in Saratoga Springs.
Cheever died in 1982, at the age of 70, in Ossining, New York. He wrestled with alcoholism all of his adult life. In 1987, his widow, Mary, signed a contract with a small publisher, Academy Chicago, for the right to publish Cheever's uncollected short stories. The contract led to a long legal battle, and a book of 13 stories by the author, published in 1994. Two of Cheever's children, Susan Cheever and Benjamin Cheever, became novelists. Susan Cheever's memoir, Home before Dark, revealed Cheever's bisexuality, which was confirmed by his posthumously published letters and journals . Cheever claimed in his diaries to have been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) by a marriage counselor that his wife forced him to see.
His most significant works include the Wapshot books (The Wapshot Chronicle won the National Book Award in 1958), and the collection The Stories Of John Cheever (which won the Pulitzer Prize). He was a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, and was considered one of the purest examples of "the New Yorker writer." Cheever's main theme was the spiritual and emotional emptiness of life. He especially described the manners and morals of middle-class, suburban America, with an ironic humor which softened his basically dark vision. A number of Cheever's early works were published in The New Republic, Collier's Weekly, and The Atlantic. In 1935 he began a lifelong association with The New Yorker. He married Mary Winternitz in 1941, and two years later, published his first book, The Way Some People Live. Its stories had originally appeared in magazines and depicted the life of Upper East Side and suburban residents or dealt with Cheever's own experiences as a recruit. He had served during World War II as an infantry gunner and member of the Signal Corps.
After the war he worked as a teacher and wrote scripts for television. In 1951, Cheever received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to become a full-time writer. His second collection, The Enormous Radio And Other Stories, was published in 1953. In the mid-1950s Cheever began writing novels. The Wapshot Chronicle (1957) was an autobiographical story based on his mother's and father's relationship, his family's genteel decline, and his own life. The book won the National Book Award in 1958. In the 1960s Cheever worked briefly as a Hollywood scripwriter on a film version of D.H. Lawrence's The Lost Girl, published in 1920. From 1956 to 1957, Cheever taught writing at Barnard College - a job he never liked much. However, he was teacher at the University of Iowa and at Sing Sing prison in the early 1970s, and Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Boston University (1974-75). The Stories Of John Cheever (1978) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and an American Book Award.
* Cheever's bisexuality was referenced in an episode of the television sitcom Seinfeld, "The Cheever Letters", in which correspondence from Cheever is discovered, revealing Cheever had an affair with the fictional character of Susan Ross' father. However, the character George Costanza incorrectly names the title of Cheever's short prison novel Falconer (the name of the prison) as The Falconer.
* In an episode of The Simpsons, John Cheever is referenced by Chief Wiggum. Bart Simpson and Milhouse discover "Playdude" magazines and Bart's treehouse goes Playboy mansion, sans women. All the magazines were excised of explicit pictures by Marge. John Cheever is referenced by Chief Wiggum when he busts the treehouse.
He is sometimes called "the Chekhov of the suburbs.
On the one hand, Blake Bailey’s biography “Cheever: A Life” (Knopf; $35) is a triumph of thorough research and unblinkered appraisal—a seven-hundred-and-seventy-page labor of, if not love, faithful adherence. John Cheever, the author of five novels and of many—a hundred and twenty-one—of the most brilliant and memorable short stories this magazine has ever printed, died in 1982, at the age of seventy, and in the years since an unusually full and frank wealth of biographical material has accumulated: a memoiristic biography, “Home Before Dark” (1984), by his daughter, Susan; a collection of letters, edited and annotated by his son Benjamin (1988); a four-hundred-page biography by Scott Donaldson (1988); and, an embarrassment of riches and a richesse of embarrassment, the forty-three hundred pages, mostly typed single-space, of Cheever’s private journals, stored at Harvard’s Houghton Library and mined, by Robert Gottlieb, for six excerpts published in The New Yorker between August of 1990 and August of 1991. Bailey estimates himself to be one of possibly ten persons to have read through the journals, which he calls “a monument of tragicomic solipsism.” His investigations have been tireless: from the murky details of Cheever’s indubitably Yankee ancestry and his career at Thayer Academy right through to the confidential lab reports on his terminal cancer, Bailey distills facts from the impressionistic version of reality that Cheever spun around himself. Of a certain Dr. Schulman, whose divulgences to his patient may have been less than candid, Bailey informs us in a footnote, “I’d very much like to hear Schulman’s side of the story, but he died several years ago in a head-on collision,” and of an aspiring writer assured by Cheever that he should submit his novel to a New York publisher “and they’ll publish it right away,” we learn in parenthesis “ ‘I never got it published,’ the author reported thirty years later.”
On the other hand, all this biographer’s zeal makes a heavy, dispiriting read, to the point that even I, a reader often enraptured by Cheever’s prose and an acquaintance who generally enjoyed his lively company, wanted the narrative, pursued in methodical chapters that tick past year after year, to hurry through the menacing miasma of a life which, for all the sparkle of its creative moments, brought so little happiness to its possessor and to those around him. The biography’s valedictory pages are rather stunningly anticlimactic. Though “The Wapshot Chronicle” and “Falconer” appear on best-novels-of-the-century lists, “neither novel (nor any of Cheever’s others) is read much anymore.” “Academics tend to throw up their hands: Cheever is hardly taught at all in the classroom, where reputations are perpetuated.” In Ossining, New York, where he lived for decades as the town’s most prominent citizen, a move to name a short street after him was turned down at a town meeting, and only the main reading room of the public library honors his memory. The joy of the physical world, so often extolled in his fiction, and the triumph of his rise from an impoverished young immigrant to New York City to star literary status afforded him, it seems, far from enough comfort. Max Zimmer, the chief of the male acolytes and servitors brought into Cheever’s life by his belated homosexual acknowledgment and by his gradually increasing debility, said at the time, “If there’s someone who never loved himself, it was John.” Twenty-five years later, Max, married and with a family, and having turned his literary ambitions into a livelihood as a technical writer, summed up his former mentor:
He was extraordinarily blessed by anyone’s standards . . . but he liked to say that all he had in life was an old dog. There was his despair. And then there was his inability to comprehend the despair and self-negation he inflicted on others.
Gottlieb, who as head of Knopf published two best-sellers (“The Stories of John Cheever,” “Falconer”) that at last gave Cheever the financial ease that had always eluded him, said, of his editorial selection from the journals, “There were . . . those who thought, ‘Why are you doing this stuff? I don’t want to read one more word about this dopey alcoholic fag.’ ”
The basic psychoanalysis of John Cheever has been amply delivered: the unwanted late child, threatened by his father’s demand that the pregnancy be aborted; the smaller, sensitive brother of a larger, apparently successful brother; the helpless witness of his family’s descent from prosperity to a poverty of which his mother’s gift shop, in downtown Quincy, was a humiliating symbol; the homosexual yearnings suppressed in favor of mock-aristocratic respectability and an idealized domestic life; the fearfully copious drinking, bred of shyness and insecurity; and the eventual nick-of-time sobriety, with its attendant recognition of his homosexuality. Repression and expression: twin causes of complication and disharmony with others. Only dogs, usually old and feeble, didn’t let him down.
Bailey’s massive accounting did introduce, to me, some new paths of meditation upon Cheever’s paradoxical character. In the mid-nineteen-thirties, when he was selling a story now and then to various magazines and, as a protégé of Yaddo’s Elizabeth Ames, running a launch on Lake George, he had an affair with Lila Refregier, the wife of a friend. “[I] always hoped that something, the love of a beautiful woman, would cure my ailments. I thought that Lila would lead me away from my jumpy past,” he wrote in his journal in 1967. She, many years later, remembered him as “such a nice person, a basically decent person, with something in him that kept him from being completely decent.” What was this something? What were his “ailments”? None of us are completely decent, but for decades he brought to social intercourse the impatience of an incorrigible alcoholic, his inmost attention focussed on the next drink. He could be whimsically gracious to visiting strangers, but also shockingly rude; a friend from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop recalled how Cheever got drunk before a scheduled meeting with some local Christian Scientists—“This was a big event for these people, and he just treated them like dirt.” As a parent, he could be loving and companionable but was also sharply sarcastic and, in what he confided to his children, merciless. With the two oldest, Susan and Benjamin, he made no secret of his disappointments. Susan, who resembled him in her compulsions, wild streak, and intelligence, was overweight in spite of both parents’ relentless nagging; she told Bailey, “In many ways I was a tremendous disappointment to them, I’m proud to say, and hope I’ve continued to be, since what they wanted me to be is pretty empty.” Ben, when he came to read his father’s confessional journals, was dismayed by how little he and his siblings figured in them; he underwent, during his first marriage, a period of determined estrangement. Federico, the youngest child and the only one not a writer (he became a law professor), attempted to be his father’s caretaker in the worst days of Cheever’s alcoholic decline, and takes the most level and dispassionate view of the fabulist as essentially clueless in the real world: “He was always at sea. He didn’t understand how the world worked. He was forever being cheated by tradesmen. . . . He had no profession. He’d spent his entire career as a writer.” Federico, known in the family as Fred, insisted, “No one, absolutely no one, shared his life with him. There was no one from whom he could get honest advice.”
Certainly Cheever’s voluminous harping, in his journals, on the sexual non-responsiveness of his wife, Mary, is obtuse and less than decent in perceiving no link between Mary’s coolness and his daily drunkenness. Her attempts to get herself a separate life, through poetry and teaching and new associations, were transformed, in one of the last of his stories that could be called masterly, “The Ocean,” into the high-voiced (Mary’s distinct trait) heroine’s attempt to poison her loving husband, and, in a later story published in Esquire, “The Fourth Alarm,” into a wife’s enthusiastic enlistment in the cast of an all-nude, “Oh, Calcutta!”-like revue. Gleeful nudity was really his own thing; even while casting off his own sexual fetters, he remained prim and censorious toward others. There was, between his shadowy “proclivities” and his luminous work, an almost organic disconnect. We learn, in Bailey’s biography, that Cheever, while in the Army in 1942, scored too low on the I.Q. test that would have qualified him for Officer Candidate School. He asked Mary to send him a book “on easy ways to get a high IQ,” so he could raise himself “out of the moron class,” but when he took the test a year later he still fell short of the requisite score of 110. He never rose above the rank of technical sergeant. His lack of formal education and of mathematics in general was surely a cause, but, still, it startles us that this impressively agile writer, with a prodigious memory that allowed him to recite a finished story verbatim, scored so averagely. Nor did he improve with age and celebrity; Smithers, the New York City sanatorium where he finally dried out, in 1975, had him upon admittance take “the abbreviated Shipley IQ test (scoring, as ever, in the high-average range).” A pre-Smithers CAT scan had disclosed “severe atrophy of the brain,” which is cited as the possible cause of his intermittent spells of musical hallucination and “otherness.” “I am in a bell jar or worse since I seem to respond to nothing that I see,” he wrote. “I remember being as depressed in Rome. A cigarette butt in a cup, a formation of dust under a table seemed to represent the utter futility of staying alive.”
John once said to me that a psychiatrist he was then seeing told him he was fascinated by criminality. He volunteered in 1971 to teach a course on the short story to inmates at Sing Sing. He befriended some of the inmates, especially a “pale, emaciated white man” and “serious loser” (son Fred’s term) named Donald Lang, whom Cheever continued to associate with after his release. It was Lang who, hostilely, wondered “where a little shit like you gets the balls to come in here”: even at the time of the prisoner riots at Attica, Cheever remained blithe, and later told an interviewer, “If the cons and I were lined up against a guard, I was all with the cons.” The sinister power of many of his early stories entails an identification with criminality. In “Goodbye, My Brother,” a story that ends with the idyllic vision of two women emerging from the sea, “naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace,” the protagonist clubs his brother unconscious with a saltwater-soaked root. In “The Enormous Radio,” the wife of a Sutton Place couple introduced as “the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins” turns out, in her husband’s furious accusations, to be guilty of stealing her sister’s inheritance and going off to have an abortion as coolly as if she were going to Nassau. The central character of “Torch Song” feeds her morbid soul on a series of ailing, abusive lovers; the wronged secretary in “The Five-Forty-Eight” boards a commuter train with her former employer and pulls a gun on him, forcing him, at his station, to kneel down and put his face in the dirt; the hero of “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” enters an affluent neighbor’s house and steals his fat wallet. All these depths open up in conventional social scenery, sketched with a fond and lively eye for realistic detail.
Like Kafka and Kierkegaard, Cheever felt his own existence as a kind of mistake, a sin. His homosexuality, furtively explored in his boyhood but then suppressed in an apparently perfect marriage to bright, pretty Mary Winternitz (she was even the perfect size for him), seemed criminal; in his last years, he marvelled at the insouciance with which younger men, among them Allan Gurganus, accepted their own. Cheever’s father, Frederick, a crusty Yankee shoe salesman, was—like his namesake, John’s older brother—a vigorous participant in virile sports; he feared that with John he had “sired a fruit.” As an adult, John “flung himself into icy pools and skated with a masculine swagger,” and cultivated the reputation of a womanizer. In turn, he worried at Ben with suspicions that the boy had homosexual tendencies. Yet in one of the least coherent of Cheever’s late stories, “The Leaves, the Lion-Fish, and the Bear” (published in Esquire in 1974, and in a limited edition, by Sylvester & Orphanos, in 1980), he most nakedly sought to convince himself, and the reader, that male homosexuality is innocent, of a piece with his beloved world of light and air and female beauty. Two men, Estabrook and Stark, are brought together in a motel room in a snowstorm, drink four whiskeys each, and make love: “They were both inexperienced but they reverted passionately to the sexual horseplay of adolescence.” In the morning,
The ungainliness of two grown, drunken and naked men in one another’s arms was manifest but Estabrook felt that he looked wonderfully on to some revelation of how lonely and unnatural man is and how deep and well-concealed are his confusions. Estabrook knew that he had done that, which by his lights he should not have done but he felt no remorse at all—he felt instead a kind of joy at seeing this much of himself and of another. There were no concealments at that hour. These men were what they were—bewildered, naked, carnal and content—and instead of freeing himself from Stark’s embrace he put both arms around the stranger and drew him closer. . . . Estabrook was astonished to find that he could convince himself he had merely discovered something about himself and his kind. When he returned home at the end of the week, his wife looked as lovely as ever—lovelier—and lovely were the landscapes he beheld.
“How lonely and unnatural man is and how deep and well-concealed are his confusions”—no wonder Cheever’s fiction is slighted in academia while Fitzgerald’s collegiate romanticism is assigned. Cheever’s characters are adult, full of adult darkness, corruption, and confusion. They are desirous, conflicted, alone, adrift. They do not achieve the crystalline stoicism, the defiant willed courage, of Hemingway’s. Cheever was not a stoic; he was for most of his adult life a regular, indeed compulsive, communicant at Episcopal morning Mass. His errant protagonists move, in their fragile suburban simulacra of paradise, from one island of momentary happiness to the imperilled next. Johnny Hake, the housebreaker of Shady Hill, confides before revealing his turn to crime, “We have a nice house with a garden and a place outside for cooking meat, and on summer nights, sitting there with the kids and looking into the front of Christina’s dress as she bends over to salt the steaks, or just gazing at the lights in heaven, I am as thrilled as I am thrilled by more hardy and dangerous pursuits, and I guess this is what is meant by the pain and sweetness of life.” That is about as good as it gets in Cheeverland, and such glimmers of grace and well-being are all but smothered in Blake Bailey’s painstaking chronology of a tormented man’s daily struggle with himself. ♦