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John Cheever (1912-1982)

 

American short story writer and novelist, called the "Chekhov of the suburbs". Cheever's main theme was the spiritual and emotional emptiness of life. He especially described manners and morals of middle-class, suburban America, with an ironic humour which softened his basically dark vision. Although he often used his family as material, his daughter Susan Cheever has reminded that "of course none of us expected accuracy from my father. He made his living by making up stories."

"He looked at us all bleakly. The wind and the sea had risen, and I thought that if he heard the waves, he must hear them only as a dark answer to all his dark questions; that he would think that the tide had expunged the embers of our picnic fires. The company of a lie is unbearable, and he seemed like the embodiment of a lie." (from 'Goodbye, My Brother' in The Stories of John Cheever, 1978)

John Cheever was born in Quincy, Massachussetts. One of Cheever's ancestors was Ezekiel Cheever (1615-1708), the author author of Accidence: A Short Introduction to the Latin Tongue. His father, Frederick, owned a shoe factory and was relatively wealthy until he lost his business in the 1929 stock market crash and deserted his family. The support the family, Cheever's mother, Mary Liley, ran a gift shop; she drank herself to death. The young Cheever was deeply upset by the breakdown of his parents' relationship. His formal education ended when he was seventeen.

After leaving home, Cheever studied 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 New Republic. For a time Cheever lived 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 US. He settled in New York, where he was acquainted with such writers as John Dos Passos, Edward Estlin Cummings, James Agee, and James Farrell. In 1933 he attended the Yaddo writers' colony in Saratoga Springs.

A number of Cheever's early works were published in The New Republic, Collier's Story, and The Atlantic. In 1935 he began a lifelong assocation with the New Yorker. He married in 1941 Mary Winternitz, and published two years later his first book, The Way Some People Live, which depicted the life of Upper-Eastside and suburban residents or dealt with Cheever's own experiences as a recruit. Originally the stories had appeared in magazines. During World War II Cheever had served four years as an infantry gunner and member of the Signal Corps.

After the war Cheever worked as a teacher and wrote scripts for a TV series called Life with Father, based on the Clarence Day, Jr., memoir and the Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse Broadway production. The show ran for a couple of years. In 1951 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to become a full-time writer. 'The Pot of Gold' won an O. Henry Award in 1951. When his first attempt for a novel – a hundred-page manuscript – was rejected by Random House, Cheever was deeply hurt and it took two years before he could return to the book.

Most of the stories in Cheever's second collection, The Enormous Radio and Other Stories (1953), were set in New York City. The title piece bears some similarities with Alfred Hitchcock's film Rear Window (1954), in which the theme was voyeurism; in Cheever's story a woman eavesdrops on her neighbors' private conversations through a magic radio. The collection was not a critical success, partly because the stories had appeared in The New Yorker, and many reviewers were prejudiced against writers associated with the magazine. Among them was Norman Mailer, who once revealed that he had not read Cheever's stories until after the author's death.

The Wapshot Chronicle (1957) was strongly autobiographical, based on his mother's and father's relationship, his family's genteel decline, and own life. The book won the National Book Award in 1958. "Fear tastes like a rusty knife and do not let her into your house. Courage tastes of blood. Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord." (from The Wapshot Chronicle, 1957) In the 1960s Cheever worked briefly as a Hollywood scripwriter on a film version of D.H. Lawrence's The Lost Girl from 1920.

In 1964 Cheever spent six weeks in Russia as a part of cultural exchange program. Next year American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the Howells Medal for The Wapshot Scandal (1964), in which he describes some of the characters familiar from his first novel. From 1956 to 1957 Cheever taught writing at Barnard College – a work 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).

In Boston Cheever became depressed and had drinking problems. He was a month at the Smithers Rehabilitation Center in New York City. These experiences found later place in his novel Falconer (1977), a story about college professor who makes a journey to personal rebirth during his year in Falconer Prison. In the story Ezekiel Farragut kills his brother, Eben, and becomes a heroin addict – or addicted to illusions. Farragut's discovery of religion and his escape from the prison, from the violence and despair, can be interpreted as a kind of redemption. At the end of the novel an ordinary bus stop become Farragut's passport to reality. "You are a professor and the education of the young – of all those who seek learning – is your vocation. We learn by experience, do we not, and as a professor, distinguished by the responsibilities of intellectual and moral leadership, you have chosen to commit the heinous crime of fratricide while under the influence of dangerous drugs. Aren't you ashamed?" – "I want to be sure that I get my methadone," Farragut said. (from Falconer)

Cheever's other major works include the experimental Bullet Park (1969), an allegory of the struggle between good and evil, in which Eliot Nailles, a chemist, meets Paul Hammer, who is not the ordinary citizen he seems to be. "We're the Hammers," The stranger said to the priest. Nailles did not think this funny, anticipating the fact that almost everyone else in the neighborhood would. How many hundreds or perhaps thousands cocktail parties would they have to live through, side by side: Hammer and Nailles." Hammer is the illegitimate son of a kleptomaniac, and he plans to awaken the suburban world – by burning Eliot's son Tony in a church.

The Stories of John Cheever (1978) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the National Books Critics Circle Award, and an American Book Award. Cheever died of cancer in 1982, at the age of 70, in Ossinning, New York. His widow, Mary, signed in 1987 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, came out in 1994. Two of Cheever's children, Susan and Benjamin, became novelists. Cheever's posthumously published letters and journals revealed his guilt-ridden bisexuality.

Cheever contrasted often the ordinary suburban milieu with the chaotic or hidden emotional states of his characters. Several stories, such as "The Five-Fourty Eight," about the revenge of a humiliated woman, were set in the fictional suburban commuter town of Shady Hill, a fallen Paradise. Eventually Cheever's middle- or upper-middle-class characters come to face their own shortcomings. In three novels Cheever used two brothers to represent different values of modern life. One of his most popular and most anthologized stories is "The Swimmer" (1964), which portrays a middle-aged man, who refuses to acknowledge his failures. The protagonist, Neddy Merrill, decides to swim his way home from his friend's house to his own, from one pool to another. At the beginning of his journey, Neddy seemingly has everything (except clothes), but gradually the midsummer Sunday turns into a cold and dark evening. Cheever's story inspired Frank Perry's and Sydney Pollack's film from 1968, starring the athletic Burt Lancaster, who radiated both strength and vulnerability in his near-nakedness. The swimmer's stories about his success turn out to be a fantasy – his home is both locked and deserted.

For further reading: Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey (2009); Treetops: A Family Memoir by Susan Cheever (1999); Encyclopedia of World Literature, Vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Uncollecting Cheever by Anita Miller (1998); John Cheever: A Study of the Short Fiction by J.E. O'Hara (1989); John Cheever: A Biography by Scott Donaldson (1988); Home Before Dark: A Biographical Memoir of John Cheever by His Daughter by S. Cheever (1984); John Cheever by S. Coale (1977) - See also The New Yorker literary circle and John Updike

Selected works:

  • The Way Some People Live: A Book of Short Stories, 1943
  • The Enormous Radio and Other Stories, 1953
    - Mahdoton radio ja muita kertomuksia (suom. Margit Salonoja, 1986)
  • The Day the Pig Fell into the Well, 1954
  • Stories, 1956
  • The Wapshot Chronicle, 1957 (National Book Award)
  • The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories, 1958
  • Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear In My Next Novel, 1961
  • The Wapshot Scandal, 1964 (Howell's Medal for Fiction)
    - Wapshotien tarina (suom. Eila Leinonen, 1968)
  • The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, 1964 (includes the much anthologized story 'The Swimmer,' film 1968, dir. by Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack, written by Eleanor Perry, starring Burt Lancaster, Janice Rule, Kim Hunter, Diana Muldaur)
  • Homage to Shakespeare, 1965
  • Bullet Park, 1969
    - Pikkukaupunki Bullet Park (suom. Kaarina Jaatinen, 1970)
  • The World of Apples, 1973
  • Falconer, 1977
    - Falconer (suom. Heimo Pihlajamaa, 1978)
  • The Stories of John Cheever, 1978 (Pulitzer Prize; the National Book Critics Circle Award; an American Book Award)
    - Hyvästi, veljeni: kertomuksia (suom. Margit Salonoja, 1984)
  • The Leaves, The Lionfish, and The Bear, 1980
  • Oh, What a Paradise It Seems, 1982
  • Conversations with John Cheever, 1987 (edited by Scott Donaldson)
  • The Letters of John Cheever, 1988 (edited by Benjamin Cheever)
  • The Uncollected Stories of John Cheever, 1990
  • The Journals of John Cheever, 1991
  • Glad Tidings: A Friendship in Letters: The Correspondence of John Cheever and John D. Weaver, 1945-1982, 1993 (edited by John D. Weaver)
  • Thirteen Uncollected Stories of John Cheever, 1994 (edited by Franklin H. Dennis; introduction by George W. Hunt)
  • The Journals of John Cheever, 2008 (edited by Robert Gottlieb)
  • Fall River and Other Uncollected Stories, 2009 (edited by Franklin H. Dennis; introduction by George W. Hunt)
  • Collected Stories and Other Writings, 2009


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