Authors: John Cheever

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer and novelist


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, then and later, remained almost entirely free of the political themes that characterized the writing of many of his contemporaries.{$I[AN]9810001259}{$I[A]Cheever, John}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Cheever, John}{$I[tim]1912;Cheever, John}

John Cheever

(Nancy Crampton)

Fiction, Cheever liked to say, is the most exalted form of human communication. He was equally insistent that it is not “crypto-autobiography.” Yet although his stories and novels do not record his life per se, they do reflect his obsessive doubts and desires, which he struggled to keep from public view and which in the fiction he tended to treat in comic fashion, thus defusing its potential explosiveness. The surface of that fiction, like the gentlemanly pose Cheever liked to adopt when dealing with interviewers, formed a genial mask behind which lay the terrors of Cheever’s private world. The simple, highly readable, and seemingly realistic surface of his prose lulls the reader into complacent acceptance, then suddenly reveals the presence of a depth of fantasy and fear. Cheever’s realistic depiction of his largely affluent, generally suburban characters is deceptive insofar as it masks the spiritual longings they find so difficult to fulfill or even acknowledge. Cheever treats his modern pilgrims with a mixture of comic affirmation and ironic skepticism as they and their author make their way toward the spiritual light. The characters share with Cheever the desire to “leech self-pity” out of their emotional spectrums, to overcome their dependency on alcohol and drugs, and to celebrate the world that lies before them “like a stupendous dream.”

Yet the affirmations do not come easily. Against the desire for transcendence and spiritual wholeness, Cheever posits the discontinuity of his characters’ world–or, rather, the discontinuity of their relationship to that world and the similar discontinuity of the narratives in which he places them. Their affluence and social status prove precarious, and their lives are beset by a host of financial, psychological, and spiritual uncertainties. Driving around their well-kept communities or commuting to work, they suffer attacks of “otherness.” Even in their jobs, communities, and homes, they feel like “spiritual nomads” wandering the Westchester hills in search of some lost wholeness of being. Not surprisingly, many of them suffer the pangs of nostalgia, the most dread of all the ills in Cheever’s fiction, for nostalgia turns people away from the world and the transcendent vision it embodies to a morbid fascination with their past. The connection between self and world is neither linear nor logical; consequently, Cheever’s fictions, both long and short, follow no clearly causal line of plot development but instead make abundant use of narrative parallelism, intuitive leaps, and strange correspondences. It is a fiction less of logic than of magic–oddly so, given that Cheever has so often been read as a writer of conventional realist fiction.

The stories in Cheever’s first book, The Way Some People Live, were realistic and written in imitation of Ernest Hemingway. The Enormous Radio, and Other Stories evidences a groping toward a more personal style and vision, one in which the metamorphosis of the real into the fantastic, the factual into the psychological, has begun to play a decisive role, along with an inchoate interest in narrative form. In 1957, he published his first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle, which his more conventional reviewers denigrated as a mere collection of stories badly spliced together. His third collection, The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, and Other Stories, had all the unity of a novel. More novels and more collections appeared before the appearance of “Cheever’s triumph,” the novel Falconer which, despite the shift in setting from suburb to prison, still deals with the typically Cheeveresque theme of emotional and spiritual confinement.

The success of Falconer led to the publication of the retrospective collection, The Stories of John Cheever and the long-overdue recognition of Cheever as a major American writer. Just as important, The Stories of John Cheever caused American reviewers and critics to view the short-story form as no longer inferior to the novel but its equal. Cheever’s career had suffered particularly as a result of the supposed disparity. That he was a writer of stories, and worse, of stories published in The New Yorker, was, critics felt, a crippling limitation. Furthermore, that he should appear to be an apologist from the American middle class in an age of social activism and a realist in an age of innovation sealed his doom. Only toward the end of his career did the critics begin to reexamine Cheever’s fiction and their own assumptions about it. Having overcome the narrowness of critical fashion and having exorcised his own personal demons, Cheever enjoyed a brief period of triumph before his death. He died of cancer on June 18, 1982, shortly after completing a truncated version of the “bulky novel” he had planned, Oh What a Paradise It Seems, a typically Cheeveresque combination of irony and affirmation.

BibliographyBailey, 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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