John Cheever, Former UI Faculty

Prize Work: The Stories of John Cheever; Pulitzer Prize: 1979 Fiction

John CheeverJohn Cheever (born 1912, died 1982) was an American author.

Author Biography -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.


Learn More About Cheever's Prize Winning Work: The Stories of John Cheever

The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever

The Stories of John CheeverBook Description
Think of John Cheever's fiction, and a whole world springs to mind--a world of leafy suburbs, summer houses, commuter trains, boarding schools, and inevitably, his own chosen territory, the cocktail hour among WASPs. But it's a mistake to approach Cheever as if he were merely some sort of anthropologist documenting the customs of an obscure and vanishing tribe. Nostalgia and class issues aside, his true subject is the darkness hidden beneath the surface of postwar American life. A case in point is his famous story "The Swimmer," in which an ebullient Neddy Merrill decides to swim home across the backyard pools of his neighbors. In the course of his journey, however, summer gives way to autumn, his neighbors turn against him, there are troubling intimations of disgrace and financial ruin, and he arrives to find his house both locked and empty.

Though these stories deal with bright, prosperous, ostensibly happy people, a cold wind blows through them. Age, illness, financial embarrassment, sex, alcohol, death--all of these threaten his suburban Eden. (Is it himself Cheever is mocking in his ironic "The Worm in the Apple"? "Everyone in the community with wandering hands had given them both a try but they had been put off. What was the source of this constancy? Were they frightened? Were they prudish? Were they monogamous? What was at the bottom of this appearance of happiness?") Inanimate objects carry the residue of their past owners' unhappiness and cruelty ("Seaside Houses," "The Lowboy"); expatriates long for but cannot quite find their way home ("The Woman Without A Country," "Boy in Rome"); children vanish or turn out badly (too many stories to count).

All of this is conveyed in prose both graceful and tender. No one is better than Cheever at describing a character's appearance: "He was a cheerful, heavy man with a round face that looked exactly like a pudding. Everyone was glad to see him, as one is glad to see, at the end of a meal, the appearance of a bland, fragrant, and nourishing dish made of fresh eggs, nutmeg, and country cream." Given his uncanny eye (and ear) for realistic description, it's easy to forget how experimental Cheever could be. His later stories pioneered authorial intrusions in the best postmodern style, and from the beginning, he wrote what would much later be called magical realism. (Think of the sinister broadcasts in "The Enormous Radio," or the phantom love interest in "The Chimera.") A literary event at its publication and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, The Stories of John Cheever remains a stunning and enormously influential book.

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Taken from, read this exclusive interview with John Cheever, conducted by Annette Grant. (PDF File.)
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Bibliography - John Cheever

The Stories of John Cheever (1978)

Falconer (1977)

The Wapshot Chronicle (1957)

The Enormous Radio and Other Stories (1953)

The Way Some People Live (1943)

External Links On John Cheever