John Cheever (1912-1982) was an American writer known for his keen, often critical, view of the American middle class. Known primarily for his short stories, his attention to detail and careful writing found the extraordinary in the ordinary.
I have been a storyteller since the beginning of my life, rearranging facts in order to make them more significant. I have improvised a background for myself—genteel, traditional—and it is generally accepted."—John Cheever, in his journal, 1961.
Only John Cheever the storyteller could have invented a character like John Cheever the author—as, indeed, he did. His life, like the lives of the people who populate the fictional world known as Cheever Country, was double-edged. Behind the pleasant facade of the country squire lurks a vision of deteriorating morality; the satisfied suburban gentleman falls away to reveal insecurity and ambiguity.
Cheever was born May 27, 1912, in Quincy, Massachusetts, to Frederick Lincoln Cheever and Mary Liley Cheever. His father owned a shoe factory until it was lost in the Great Depression of the 1930s. His mother, an English-woman who emigrated with her parents, supported her husband and their two sons with the profits from a gift shop she operated.
This is Cheever Country: a seemingly happy New England marriage that when poked reveals a relationship strained to the point of breaking. A man—a father—who prides himself on his ability to support his family is supported by his wife.
Cheever was sent to Thayer Academy, a prep school in Milton, Massachusetts. As a 17-year-old Harvard-bound senior he arranged his own expulsion for smoking and poor grades. The result was Cheever's first published work, "Expelled," a short story that appeared in The New Republic on October 1, 1930. The story is an embryonic version in style and approach of the Cheever to evolve over five decades; it revels in the details of ordinary lives with precise observation and disciplined language.
After leaving school Cheever toured Europe with his brother, Frederick, who was seven years his senior. He then settled in Boston, where he met Hazel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, both of whom helped support the budding writer. In the mid-1930s Cheever moved to New York City, where he lived and worked in a bleak, $3-a-week boarding house on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village. During this period he helped support himself by writing synopses of books for potential M.G.M. movies. Malcolm Cowley, editor of The New Republic, also arranged for Cheever to spend time at Yaddo, a writers' colony in Saratoga to which the author would often return. It was also during this time that Cheever began his long association with The New Yorker. In 1934 the first of 119 Cheever stories was published in this sophisticated magazine.
On March 22, 1941, Cheever married Mary Winternitz. He spent four years in the army during World War II and later spent two years writing television scripts for, among other programs, "Life with Father."
In 1943 Cheever's first book of short stories, The Way Some People Live, was published. War and the Depression serve as a backdrop for these stories which deal with Cheever's lifelong subject: simply, the way some people live. It was his next collection, however, that earned him the serious praise of critics. The Enormous Radio, and Other Stories, written in Cheever's Scarborough, New York, home, was published in 1953. The 14 stories plunge the reader deep into Cheever Country; the characters—nice people all—begin with a sense of well-being and order that is stripped away and never quite fully restored. The title story, for example, portrays an average young couple who aspire to move someday from their New York apartment to Westchester. Their sense of the ordinary is shattered, however, when they buy a radio that has the fantastic ability to broadcast bits of their neighbors' lives. The radio picks up the sounds of telephones, bedtime stories, quarrels, and tales of dishonesty. This peek behind closed doors serves to destroy the couple's own outward feelings of harmony, and the story ends with the young marrieds arguing as the radio fills the room with news reports.
In 1951 Cheever was made a Guggenheim Fellow. In 1955 his short story, "The Five-Forty-Eight," was awarded the Benjamin Franklin magazine award, and the following year he took his wife and three children to Italy. Upon their return the family settled in Ossining, New York, where Cheever meticulously embellished his image as a polished aristocrat. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1957 and won the National Book Award for the first of his novels, The Wapshot Chronicle.
Cheever followed The Wapshot Chronicle with The Housebreaker of Shady Hill (1958), Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel (1961), The Wapshot Scandal (1964), The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964), Bullet Park (1969), The World of Apples (1973), and Falconer (1977).
At the height of his success Cheever began a 20-year struggle with alcoholism, a problem he didn't fully admit to until his family placed him in a rehabilitation center in 1975. Earlier, in 1972, he had suffered a massive heart attack. After a long period of recovery he wrote the dark Falconer, which draws on his experience as a writing instructor in Sing Sing prison as well as on his recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. This novel, with its rough language, violence, and prison setting, is a departure from Cheever Country and is the first of his works to deal directly with homosexuality. Cheever's journals reveal that, like the protagonist of Falconer, Cheever felt ambivalence about his sexual identity.
Like his characters, John Cheever did not fit the image he so scrupulously cultivated.
"In the morning," his daughter, Susan, wrote, "my father would put on his one good suit and his gray felt hat and ride down in the elevator with the other men on their way to the office. From the lobby he would walk down to the basement, to the windowless storage room that came with our apartment. That was where he worked. There, he hung up the suit and hat and wrote all morning in his boxer shorts, typing away at his portable Underwood set up on the folding table. At lunchtime he would put the suit back on and ride up in the elevator."
John Cheever, who could find the extraordinary in the mundane, died on June 18, 1982, of cancer. His final work, Oh What A Paradise It Seems, was published posthumously.
Further Reading on John Cheever
Home Before Dark (1984) is a personalized biography by Cheever's daughter, Susan Cheever, that explores the many facets and ambiguities of the writer's private life. For more serious literary study, see John Cheever (1979) by Lynne Waldeland or John Cheever (1977) by Samuel Coale. Both books are strong on analysis and weak on biography. Cheever's first publisher, Malcolm Cowley, devotes some time to the author in The Flower and the Leaf: A Contemporary Record of American Writing Since 1941 (1984). Cheever's own journals and letters, edited by one of his sons, are expected to be published.
Additional Biography Sources
Cheever, Susan, Home before dark, New York: Bantam Books, 1991.
Donaldson, Scott, John Cheever: a biography, New York: Random House, 1988.