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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 The 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. On the suggestion of Malcolm Cowley, he submitted stories to the New Yorker.
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, an instructor of literature; they had three children. His first book, The Way Some People Live (1943), 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 1965 American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded Cheever the Howells Medal for The Wapshot Scandal (1964), in which he describes some of the characters familiar from his first novel.
As a part of cultural exchange program, Cheever spent six weeks in the Soviet Union in 1964. John Updike, who shared with him the role of literary ambassador, enjoyed traveling with his older colleague, but Cheever had a quite different experience. "Updike and I spent most of our time back-biting one another," he recalled. "I find him very arrogant but my daughter tells me that I'm arrogant." (Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism by John Updike, 2012, p. 124) During the visit he drank the famous Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko under the table. ('John Cheever (1912-1982),' in Writing under the Influence: Alcohol and the Works of 13 American Authors by Aubrey Malone, 2018, p. 119)
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, where he was drunk most of the time, and Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Boston University (1974-75). He also taught creative writing to the inmates in Sing Sing prison, which was located close to his home.
While in Boston, Cheever became depressed and had drinking problems. He was a month at the Smithers Rehabilitation Center in New York City. For a period he took tranquillizers but they merely dulled his senses and drained him of his energy. 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. Noteworthy, Cheever emphasized in an interview that Falconer was not Sing Sing. "I used the imaginary prison of Falconer principally as a metaphor for confinement." ('Talk With John Cheever' by John Hersey, The New York Times, March 6, 1977) 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)
Despite his alcoholism, Cheever managed to be a devoted father
and maintain a suburban life, play touch football on his lawn, to do
gardening, relax with backgammon, and go on extensive walks. But he
never joined a country club. "On Sunday mornings we would have Bloody
Marys," recalled Cheever's daughter Susan. "In the summer we would stay
cool with gins and tonics. In the winter we would drink Manhattans." (Note Found in a Bottle by Susan Cheever, 2015, p. 17) In
1971, Cheever was arrested for drunk driving. Moreover, his slow
driving did not make him less guilty. Due to heart problems in 1973
Cheever had himself admitted in the Intensive Care Unit of his
local hospital. When he was put in a straitjacket he got out of it,
like Houdini. Eventually drinking and homosexual tendencies ruined
Cheever's marriage. He had an love affair with the actress Hope Lang,
who was married to the director Alan J. Pakula at that time. Cheever
referred to her as "the most beautiful woman in the world." All this
did not prevent Mary from cooking for her husband. "This seems to me
one of the great labors of history. She has often served me with
bitterness; she had often refused to speak to me when she summoned me
to the table; but night after night for a decade less than half a
century she has brought food to the table." (The Journals by John Cheever, 2010, p. 356)
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. Bullet Park was received with mediocre reviews, which was a shock for Cheever.
The Stories of John Cheever (1978) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the National Books Critics Circle Award, and an American Book Award. After spending some time in the Smithers Alcoholism Center on East 93rd Street in New York and entering there the AA program, Cheever was able to conquer his drinking problem. "I miss drinking. That's the simpliest way of putting it. When it grows dark I would like a drink," he wrote in his journal in 1980. (The Journals by John Cheever, 2010, p. 365) 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.
his most popular and most anthologized stories is 'The Swimmer' (1964),
which portrays a middle-aged man, who refuses to acknowledge his
failures. Originally the story was published in the New Yorker magazine
in July, 1964. The protagonist, Neddy Merrill, decides to swim his way
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. Unable to turn back, Neddy is forced to face the inevitable
truth. 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. Before meeting the star of the film, Cheever drank a pint of whiskey to get his mind off his nervousness.