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John Cheever

Born May 27, 1912(1912-05-27)
Quincy, Massachusetts, United States
Died June 18, 1982 (aged 70)
Ossining, New York, United States
Occupation short story writer, novelist
Nationality United States

John William Cheever (May 27, 1912 – June 18, 1982) was an American novelist and short story writer, sometimes called "the Chekhov of the suburbs." His fiction is mostly set in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the Westchester suburbs, old New England villages based on various South Shore towns around Quincy, Massachusetts, where he was born, and Italy, especially Rome. He "is now recognized as one of the most important short fiction writers of the twentieth century."[2] While Cheever is perhaps best remembered for his short stories (including "The Enormous Radio," "Goodbye, My Brother," "The Five-Forty-Eight," "The Country Husband," and "The Swimmer"), he also wrote a number of novels, such as The Wapshot Chronicle (National Book Award, 1958), The Wapshot Scandal (William Dean Howells Medal, 1965), Bullet Park (1969), and Falconer (1977).

His main themes include the duality of human nature: sometimes dramatized as the disparity between a character's decorous social persona and inner corruption, and sometimes as a conflict between two characters (often brothers) who embody the salient aspects of both – light and dark, flesh and spirit. Many of his works also express a nostalgia for a vanishing way of life (as evoked by the mythical St. Botolphs in the Wapshot novels), characterized by abiding cultural traditions and a profound sense of community, as opposed to the alienating nomadism of modern suburbia.

A compilation of his short stories, The Stories of John Cheever, won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. On April 27, 1982, six weeks before his death, Cheever was awarded the National Medal for Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work has been included in the Library of America.

Contents

Early life and education

John William Cheever was the second child of Frederick Lincoln Cheever and Mary Liley Cheever. His father was a prosperous shoe salesman and Cheever spent much of his childhood in a large Victorian house in the genteel suburb of Wollaston, Massachusetts. In the mid-twenties, however, as the New England shoe and textile industries began their long decline, Frederick Cheever lost most of his money and began to drink heavily. To pay the bills, Mary Cheever opened a gift shop in downtown Quincy—an "abysmal humiliation" for the family, as her son John saw it.[3] In 1926, Cheever began attending Thayer Academy, a private day school, but he found the atmosphere stifling and performed poorly, finally transferring to Quincy High in 1928. A year later he won a short story contest sponsored by the Boston Herald and was invited back to Thayer as a "special student" on academic probation. His grades continued to be poor, however, and, in March 1930, he was either expelled for smoking or (more likely) departed of his own accord when the headmaster delivered an ultimatum to the effect that he must either apply himself or leave. The eighteen-year-old Cheever wrote a sardonic account of this experience, "Expelled," which was subsequently published in The New Republic.[4]

Around this time, Cheever's older brother Fred—recalled from Dartmouth in 1926 because of the family's financial crisis—re-entered his life "when the situation was most painful and critical," as John later wrote. After the "Kreuger crash" (in 1932) of Kreuger & Toll, in which Frederick Cheever had invested what was left of his money, the Cheever house on Winthrop Avenue was lost to foreclosure. The parents separated, while John and Fred took an apartment together on Beacon Hill, in Boston. In 1933, John wrote to Elizabeth Ames, the director of the Yaddo artist's colony in Saratoga Springs, New York: "The idea of leaving the city," he said, "has never been so distant or desirable."[5] Ames denied his first application, but offered him a place the following year, whereupon Cheever decided to sever his "ungainly attachment" to his brother. (Passages in Cheever's journal suggest—without stating conclusively—that his relationship with Fred may have been sexual.) Cheever spent the summer of 1934 at Yaddo, which would serve as a second home for much of his life.

Career

Early writings

For the next few years, Cheever divided his time between Manhattan, Saratoga, Lake George (where he was caretaker of the Yaddo-owned Triuna Island), and Quincy, where he continued to visit his parents, who had reconciled and moved to an apartment at 60 Spear Street. Cheever drove from one place to another in a dilapidated Model A roadster, but had no permanent address. In 1935, Katharine White of The New Yorker bought Cheever's story, "Buffalo," for $45--the first of many that Cheever would publish in the magazine. In 1938, he began work for the Federal Writers' Project in Washington, D. C., which he considered an embarrassing boondoggle. As an editor for the WPA Guide to New York City, Cheever was charged with (as he put it) "twisting into order the sentences written by some incredibly lazy bastards."[6] He quit after less than a year and a few months later he met his future wife, Mary Winternitz, seven years his junior[7], daughter of Milton Winternitz, dean of Yale Medical School, and granddaughter of Thomas A. Watson, an assistant to Alexander Graham Bell during the invention of the telephone. The couple was married in 1941.

Cheever enlisted in the Army on May 7, 1942, and his first collection, The Way Some People Live, was published the following year to mixed reviews. Cheever himself came to despise the book as "embarrassingly immature," and for the rest of his life endeavored to destroy every copy he could lay his hands on. The book arguably saved his life, however, when it fell into the hands of Major Leonard Spigelgass, an MGM executive and officer in the Army Signal Corps, who was struck by Cheever's "childlike sense of wonder."[8] Early that summer, Cheever was transferred to the former Paramount studio in Astoria, Queens, where he commuted via subway from his apartment in Chelsea : meanwhile, most of his old infantry company was killed on Normandy Beach during the D-Day invasion. Cheever's daughter Susan was born on July 31, 1943.

After the war, Cheever moved his family to an apartment building at 400 East Fifty-ninth Street, near Sutton Place; almost every morning for the next five years, he would dress in his only suit and take the elevator to a maid's room in the basement, where he stripped to his boxer shorts and wrote until lunchtime. In 1946, he accepted a $4,800 advance from Random House to resume work on his novel, The Holly Tree, which he had discontinued during the war. "The Enormous Radio" appeared in the May 17, 1947, issue of The New Yorker-- a Kafkaesque tale about a sinister radio that broadcasts the private conversations of tenants in a New York apartment building. A startling advance on Cheever's early, more naturalistic work, the story elicited a fan letter from the magazine's irascible editor, Harold Ross: "It will turn out to be a memorable one, or I am a fish."[9] Cheever's son Benjamin was born on May 4, 1948.

Mid-career

Cheever's work became longer and more complex, apparently a protest against the "slice of life" fiction typical of The New Yorker in those years. An early draft of "The Day the Pig Fell into the Well"--a long story with elaborate Chekhovian nuances, meant to "operate something like a rondo," as Cheever wrote his friend and New Yorker editor William Maxwell--was completed in 1949, though the magazine did not make space for it until five years later. In 1951, Cheever wrote one of his finest stories, "Goodbye, My Brother," after a gloomy summer in Martha's Vineyard. Largely on the strength of these two stories (still in manuscript at the time), Cheever was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. On May 28, 1951, Cheever moved to "Beechwood," the suburban estate of Frank A. Vanderlip, a banker[7], in Scarborough-on-Hudson, Westchester, where he rented a small cottage on the edge of the estate. The house, coincidentally, had been occupied before the Cheevers by another suburban chronicler, Richard Yates.[7]

Cheever's second collection, The Enormous Radio, was published in 1953. Reviews were mostly positive, though Cheever's reputation continued to suffer because of his close association with The New Yorker (considered middlebrow by many critics), and he was particularly pained by the general preference for J. D. Salinger's Nine Stories, published around the same time. Meanwhile, Random House demanded that Cheever either produce a publishable novel or pay back his advance, whereupon Cheever wrote Mike Bessie at Harper & Brothers ("These old bones are up for sale"), who bought him out of his Random House contract. In the summer of 1956, Cheever finished The Wapshot Chronicle while vacationing in Friendship, Maine, and received a congratulatory telegram from William Maxwell: "WELL ROARED LION."[10] With the proceeds from the sale of film rights to "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill," Cheever and his family spent the following year in Italy, where his son Federico was born on March 9, 1957 ("We wanted to call him Frederick," Cheever wrote, "but there is of course no K in the alphabet here and I gave up after an hour or two").[11]

The Wapshot Scandal was published in 1964, and received perhaps the best reviews of Cheever's career up to that point (amid quibbles about the novel's episodic structure). Cheever appeared on the cover of Time magazine's March 27 issue-- this for an appreciative profile, "Ovid in Ossining." (In 1961 Cheever had moved to a stately, stone-ended Dutch Colonial farmhouse in Ossining, on the east bank of the Hudson.) "The Swimmer" appeared in the July 18 issue of The New Yorker. Cheever noted with chagrin that the story (one of his best) appeared toward the back of the issue-- behind a John Updike story-- since, as it happened, Maxwell and other editors at the magazine were a little bewildered by its non-New Yorkerish surrealism. In the summer of 1966, a screen adaptation of "The Swimmer," starring Burt Lancaster, was filmed in Westport, Connecticut, where Cheever was a frequent visitor on the set and did a cameo for the movie.

By then Cheever's alcoholism had become severe, exacerbated by torment concerning his bisexuality. Still, he blamed most of his marital woes on his wife, and in 1966 he consulted a psychiatrist, David C. Hays, about her hostility and "needless darkness." After a session with Mary Cheever, the psychiatrist asked to see the couple jointly; Cheever, heartened, believed his wife's difficult behavior would finally be addressed. At the joint session, however, Dr. Hays claimed (as Cheever noted in his journal) that Cheever himself was the problem: "a neurotic man, narcissistic, egocentric, friendless, and so deeply involved in [his] own defensive illusions that [he has] invented a manic-depressive wife."[12] Cheever soon terminated therapy.

Later life and career

Bullet Park was published in 1969, and received a devastating review from Benjamin DeMott on the front page of The New York Times Book Review: "John Cheever's short stories are and will remain lovely birds . . . But in the gluey atmosphere of Bullet Park no birds sing."[13] Cheever's alcoholic depression deepened, and in May he resumed psychiatric treatment (which again proved fruitless). He began an affair with actress Hope Lange in the late 1960s.[14]

On May 12, 1973, Cheever awoke coughing uncontrollably, and learned at the hospital that he had almost died from pulmonary edema caused by alcoholism. After a month in the hospital, he returned home vowing never to drink again; however, he resumed drinking in August. Despite his precarious health, he spent the fall semester teaching (and drinking) at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where his students included T. C. Boyle, Allan Gurganus, and Ron Hansen. As his marriage continued to deteriorate, Cheever accepted a professorship at Boston University the following year and moved into a fourth-floor walkup apartment at 71 Bay State Road. Cheever's drinking soon became suicidal and, in March 1975, his brother Fred--now virtually indigent, but sober after his own lifelong bout with alcoholism--drove John back to Ossining. On April 9, Cheever was admitted to the Smithers Alcoholic Rehabilitation Unit in New York, where he shared a bedroom and bath with four other men. Driven home by his wife on May 7, Cheever never drank alcohol again.

In March, 1977, Cheever appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine with the caption, "A Great American Novel: John Cheever's 'Falconer.'" The novel was Number One on the New York Times Best Seller list for three weeks. The Stories of John Cheever appeared in October, 1978, and became one of the most successful collections ever, selling 125,000 copies in hardback and winning universal acclaim.

Illness and death

In the summer of 1981, a tumor was discovered in Cheever's right kidney and, in late-November, he returned to the hospital and learned that the cancer had spread to his femur, pelvis, and bladder. Cheever's last novel, Oh What a Paradise It Seems, was published in March, 1982; only a hundred pages long and relatively inferior (as Cheever himself suspected), the book received respectful reviews in part because it was widely known the author was dying of cancer. On April 27, he received the National Medal for Literature at Carnegie Hall, where colleagues were shocked by Cheever's ravaged appearance after months of cancer therapy. "A page of good prose," he declared in his remarks, "remains invincible." As John Updike remembered, "All the literary acolytes assembled there fell quite silent, astonished by such faith." He died on June 18, 1982.[15] The flags in Ossining were lowered to half mast for 10 days after Cheever's death.[16]

Posthumous

In 1987, Cheever's 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 and Benjamin, became writers. Susan Cheever's memoir, Home Before Dark (1984), revealed Cheever's bisexuality, which was confirmed by his posthumously published letters and journals.

After Blake Bailey published his biography of Richard Yates, A Tragic Honesty (2003), Cheever's son Ben suggested he write an authoritative biography of Cheever. The book was published by Knopf on March 10, 2009.[17]

Also in 2009, Cheever was featured in a 90-minute documentary about the WPA Writers' Project titled Soul of a People: Writing America's Story. His life during the 1930s is also highlighted in the companion book, Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America.

Cheever's son Federico is a professor at the Sturm College of Law, where he teaches property and environmental law.

Cheever is referenced in the Seinfeld episode "The Cheever Letters". One of the story lines within the episode revolves around the discovery that Susan Ross' father Henry had a homosexual affair with John Cheever, which was recorded in a set of love letters. The letters were the only surviving items from a fire that was accidentally started by one of Kramer's cigars which burnt down the Ross' cabin.

Bibliography

  • The Way Some People Live (stories, 1943)
  • The Enormous Radio and Other Stories (stories, 1953)
  • Stories (with Jean Stafford, Daniel Fuchs, and William Maxwell) (stories, 1956)
  • The Wapshot Chronicle (novel, 1957)
  • The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories (stories, 1958)
  • Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear In My Next Novel (stories, 1961)
  • The Wapshot Scandal (novel, 1964)
  • The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (stories, 1964)
  • Bullet Park (novel, 1969)
  • The World of Apples (stories, 1973)
  • Falconer (novel, 1977)
  • The Stories of John Cheever (stories, 1978)
  • Oh What a Paradise It Seems (novella, 1982)
  • The Letters of John Cheever, edited by Benjamin Cheever (1988)
  • The Journals of John Cheever (1991)
  • Collected Stories & Other Writings (Library of America) (stories, 2009)
  • Complete Novels (Library of America) (novels, 2009)

Notes

  1. ^ Andrew Johnston, "Mad Men" (review), Time Out New York, Issue 616: Jul 18–25, 2007
  2. ^ Contemporary Literary Criticism, "John Cheever Criticism"
  3. ^ From Cheever's unpublished journal, on deposit at Houghton Library, Harvard University.
  4. ^ Jon [sic] Cheever, "Expelled," The New Republic, October 1, 1930, 171-174.
  5. ^ The Letters of John Cheever, ed. Benjamin Cheever (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 33.
  6. ^ The Letters of John Cheever, ed. Benjamin Cheever (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 47.
  7. ^ a b c "How Cheever Really Felt About Living in Suburbia" by Joseph Berger, The New York Times, Apr. 30, 2009 (p. CT1, 5/3/09, CT ed.). Retrieved 5/2/09.
  8. ^ Glad Tidings: A Friendship in Letters, ed. John D. Weaver (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 58.
  9. ^ Letters from the Editor: The New Yorker's Harold Ross, ed. Thomas Kunkel (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 308.
  10. ^ The Letters of John Cheever, 179.
  11. ^ The Letters of John Cheever, 196.
  12. ^ The Journals of John Cheever, ed. Robert Gottlieb (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 214.
  13. ^ Benjamin DeMott, New York Times Book Review, April 27, 1969, 1, 40-1.
  14. ^ John Cheever. iUniverse. 2001. http://books.google.com/books?id=1DecfKQ6vU0C&pg=PA237&lpg=PA237&dq=hope+lange+frank+sinatra&source=web&ots=aW-AE56Sx1&sig=LVSlQW92qxNyDhHbxzfR4VgXItU&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=8&ct=result. Retrieved 2008-10-31.  
  15. ^ "John Cheever Is Dead At 70. Novelist Won Pulitzer Prize.". New York Times. June 19, 1982.. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F00913FF3F5F0C7A8DDDAF0894DA484D81.  
  16. ^ Minzesheimer, Bob, The John Cheever Reading Room, Ossining Public Library, http://www.ossininglibrary.org/pages/aboutTheLibrary/cheever.html  
  17. ^ "Suburban Suffering," Geoffrey Wolff, New York Times Book Review, March 15, 2009, 1, 8-9.

External links


Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

John Cheever (May 27, 1912June 18, 1982) was an American novelist and short story writer.

Contents

Sourced

  • The novel remains for me one of the few forms where we can record man’s complexity and the strength and decency of his longings. Where we can describe, step by step, minute by minute, our not altogether unpleasant struggle to put ourselves into a viable and devout relationship to our beloved and mistaken world.
    • Accepting National Book Award, The Writer (September 1958)
  • He was a tall man with an astonishing and somehow elegant curvature of the spine, formed by an enlarged lower abdomen, which he carried in a stately and contented way, as if it contained money and securities.
  • Homesickness is nothing … Fifty percent of the people in the world are homesick all the time.
    • “The Bella Lingua” in The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964)
  • Art is the triumph over chaos.
    • The Stories of John Cheever Knopf (1978)
  • I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.
    • Christian Science Monitor (October 24, 1979)
  • The need to write comes from the need to make sense of one’s life and discover one’s usefulness.
  • A collection of short stories is generally thought to be a horrendous clinker; an enforced courtesy for the elderly writer who wants to display the trophies of his youth, along with his trout flies.
    • Quoted in James Charlton's The Writer’s Quotation Book (1980)
  • For me, a page of good prose is where one hears the rain [and] the noise of battle. [It] has the power to give grief or universality that lends it a youthful beauty.
    • Accepting National Medal for Literature (April 27, 1982)
  • I sometimes go back to walk through the ghostly remains of Sutton Place where the rude, new buildings stand squarely in one another’s river views.
    • “Moving Out” Esquire (June 1983)
  • When I remember my family, I always remember their backs. They were always indignantly leaving places. That’s the way I remember them, heading for an exit.
    • Quoted by Susan Cheever, Home before Dark Houghton Mifflin (1984)
  • What I am going to write is the last of what I have to say. I will say that literature is the only consciousness we possess and that its role as consciousness must inform us of our ability to comprehend the hideous danger of nuclear power.
    • Entry in his journal before his last public appearance, the ceremony at which he received the National Medal for Literature, quoted by Susan Cheever, Home before Dark Houghton Mifflin (1984)
  • Literature has been the salvation of the damned, literature has inspired and guided lovers, routed despair and can perhaps in this case save the world.
    • Entry in his journal before his last public appearance, the ceremony at which he received the National Medal for Literature, quoted by Susan Cheever, Home before Dark Houghton Mifflin (1984)
  • All literary men are Red Sox fans—to be a Yankee fan in a literate society is to endanger your life.
    • Newsweek (October 20, 1986)
  • My veins are filled, once a week with a Neapolitan carpet cleaner distilled from the Adriatic and I am as bald as an egg. However I still get around and am mean to cats.
    • Letter to Philip Roth (May 10, 1982); The Letters of John Cheever (1989)

The Wapshot Chronicle (1957)

  • He had that spooky bass voice meant to announce that he had entered the kingdom of manhood, but Rosalie knew that he was still outside the gates.
  • ...your underwear is clean in case you should be hit by a taxicab and have to be undressed by strangers.
  • ..for the dead fish was striped like a cat and the sky was striped like the fish and the conch was whorled like an ear and the beach was ribbed like a dog's mouth and the movables in the surf splintered and crashed like the walls of Jericho.
  • Admite the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the lord.
  • I'm wicked, as you say, and I'm rude and I'm boorish and I discovered, after marrying Mr Scaddon, that I could be all these things and worse and that there would still be plenty of people to lick my boots.

The Journals of John Cheever (1991)

Edited by Robert Gottlieb

  • When the beginnings of self-destruction enter the heart it seems no bigger than a grain of sand.
    • The Late Forties and the Fifties, 1952 entry
  • Strange and predatory and truly dangerous, car thieves and muggers—they seem to jeopardize all our cherished concepts, even our self-esteem, our property rights, our powers of love, our laws and pleasures. The only relationship we seem to have with them is scorn or bewilderment, but they belong somewhere on the dark prairies of a country that is in the throes of self-discovery.
    • The Late Forties and the Fifties, 1955 entry
  • I do not understand the capricious lewdness of the sleeping mind.
    • The Late Forties and the Fifties, 1955 entry
  • Wisdom we know is the knowledge of good and evil not the strength to choose between the two.
    • The Late Forties and the Fifties, 1956 entry
  • We praise Him, we bless Him, we adore Him, we glorify Him, and we wonder who is that baritone across the aisle and that pretty woman on our right who smells of apple blossoms. Our bowels stir and our cod itches and we amend our prayers for the spiritual life with the hope that it will not be too spiritual.
    • The Late Forties and the Fifties, 1956 entry
  • One would never have guessed that the world had such a capacity for genuine grief. The most we can do is exploit our memories of his excellence.
  • The task of an American writer is not to describe the misgivings of a woman taken in adultery as she looks out of a window at the rain but to describe four hundred people under the lights reaching for a foul ball. This is ceremony.
    • The Sixties, 1963 entry
  • The organizations of men, like men themselves, seem subject to deafness, nearsightedness, lameness, and involuntary cruelty. We seem tragically unable to help one another, to understand one another.
    • The Sixties, 1963 entry
  • People named John and Mary never divorce. For better or for worse, in madness and in saneness, they seem bound together for eternity by their rudimentary nomenclature. They may loathe and despise one another, quarrel, weep, and commit mayhem, but they are not free to divorce. Tom, Dick, and Harry can go to Reno on a whim, but nothing short of death can separate John and Mary.
    • The Sixties, 1966 entry
  • At my back I hear the word—”homosexual”—and it seems to split my world in two.... It is ignorance, our ignorance of one another, that creates this terrifying erotic chaos. Information, a crumb of information, seems to light the world.
    • The Sixties, 1966 entry
  • A lonely man is a lonesome thing, a stone, a bone, a stick, a receptacle for Gilbey’s gin, a stooped figure sitting at the edge of a hotel bed, heaving copious sighs like the autumn wind.
    • The Sixties, 1966 entry

About John Cheever

  • His religious requirements—that the service come from Cranmer’s rites in the old prayer book, that it take 33 minutes or less, that the church be within 10 minutes’ driving distance and that the altar be sufficiently simple so that it wouldn’t remind him of a gift shop—limited his choice of parishes.
    • Susan Cheever, Home before Dark Houghton Mifflin (1984)

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