John Cheever

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

John Cheever
BornJohn William Cheever
(1912-05-27)May 27, 1912
Quincy, Massachusetts, U.S.
DiedJune 18, 1982(1982-06-18) (aged 70)
Ossining, New York, U.S.
  • Writer
  • novelist
Period20th century
GenreShort story, fiction
Literary movementSymbolism
Years active1935–1982
Notable works
Notable awardsPulitzer Prize (1979)
National Book Critics Circle Award (1981)
Mary Winternitz
(m. 1941)

John William Cheever (May 27, 1912 – June 18, 1982) was an American short story writer and novelist. He is sometimes called "the Chekhov of the suburbs".[1][2] 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. His short stories included "The Enormous Radio", "Goodbye, My Brother", "The Five-Forty-Eight", "The Country Husband", and "The Swimmer", and he also wrote five novels: The Wapshot Chronicle (National Book Award, 1958),[3] The Wapshot Scandal (William Dean Howells Medal, 1965), Bullet Park (1969), Falconer (1977) and a novella Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1982).

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 a National Book Critics Circle Award, and its first paperback edition won a 1981 National Book Award.[4][a]

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.

Early life and education[edit]

John William Cheever was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, 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, at 123 Winthrop Avenue,[5] in the then-genteel suburb of Wollaston, Massachusetts. In the mid-1920s, 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 John saw it.[6] In 1926, Cheever began attending Thayer Academy, a private day school, but he found the atmosphere stifling and performed poorly, and finally transferred 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 18-year-old Cheever wrote a sardonic account of this experience, titled "Expelled", which was subsequently published in The New Republic. (1930).[7]

Around this time, Cheever's older brother, Fred, forced to withdraw from Dartmouth in 1926 because of the family's financial crisis, re-entered Cheever's life "when the situation was most painful and critical", as Cheever later wrote. After the 1932 crash 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."[8] Ames denied his first application but offered him a place the following year, whereupon Cheever decided to sever his "ungainly attachment" to his brother. Cheever spent the summer of 1934 at Yaddo, which would serve as a second home for much of his life.[citation needed]


Early writings[edit]

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. Maxim Lieber became his literary agent, 1935–1941. 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."[9] He quit after less than a year and a few months later he met his future wife, Mary Winternitz, seven years his junior.[10] She was a 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. They married in 1941.

Cheever enlisted in the Army on May 7, 1942. His first collection of short stories, The Way Some People Live, was published in 1943 to mixed reviews. Cheever himself came to despise the book as "embarrassingly immature", and for the rest of his life destroyed every copy he could lay his hands on. However, the book may have saved his life after falling 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."[11] Early that summer, Cheever was transferred to the former Paramount studio in Astoria, Queens, New York City, where he commuted via subway from his apartment in Chelsea, Manhattan, New York City. Meanwhile, most of his old infantry company was killed on a Normandy beach during the D-Day invasion. Cheever's daughter Susan was born on July 31, 1943.

After the war, Cheever and his family moved to an apartment building at 400 East 59th Street, near Sutton Place, Manhattan; 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."[12] Cheever's son Benjamin was born on May 4, 1948.[13]


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 to 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 "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,[10] in the Westchester hamlet of Scarborough-on-Hudson, 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. In Scarborough, he was a casual volunteer for the Briarcliff Manor Fire Department.[10]

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 such influential critics as Dwight Macdonald), 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".[14] 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").[15]

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, 1964, 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. Cheever was a frequent visitor on the set, and made a cameo appearance in 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, Hays said (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."[16] Cheever soon terminated therapy.

Later life and career[edit]

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."[17] 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.[18]

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, both with fellow writer-teacher, Raymond Carver[19]) 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 with the caption, "A Great American Novel: John Cheever's Falconer." The novel was No. 1 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.

Cheever was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal for outstanding contribution to the arts by the MacDowell Colony in 1979.

Personal life[edit]

Cheever's marriage was damaged by his unfaithfulness.[20][21] His sexuality has been described as gay, homosexual, or bisexual. Cheever had relationships with both men and women, including a short relationship with composer Ned Rorem and an affair with actress Hope Lange.[22][23][24][25][26][27] Cheever's longest affair was with a student of his, Max Zimmer,[20] who lived in the Cheever family home. Cheever's daughter, Susan, described her parents' marriage as "European", saying: "they were people who felt their feelings weren't necessarily a reason to shatter a family. They certainly hurt each other plenty but they didn't necessarily see that as a reason for divorce."[28][29]

Illness and death[edit]

In the summer of 1981, a tumor was discovered in Cheever's right lung, and, in late November, he returned to the hospital and learned that the cancer had spread to his femur, pelvis, and bladder. His last novel, Oh What a Paradise It Seems, was published in March 1982; it received respectful reviews in part because it was widely known the author was dying of cancer.[citation needed] On April 27, he received the National Medal for Literature at Carnegie Hall, where colleagues were shocked by his ravaged appearance after months of cancer therapy. "A page of good prose", he declared in his remarks, "remains invincible." John Updike wrote that "All the literary acolytes assembled there fell quite silent, astonished by such faith."[30]

When Cheever died on June 18, 1982,[31] flags in Ossining were lowered to half staff for ten days.[32] He is buried at First Parish Cemetery, Norwell, Massachusetts.[33]


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, eventually resulting in Thirteen Uncollected Stories by John Cheever, published in 1994 by Academy Chicago Publishers.

Two of Cheever's children, Susan and Benjamin, became writers. Susan's memoir, Home Before Dark (1984), revealed Cheever's bisexuality, which was confirmed by his posthumously published letters and journals. This was parodied to comedic effect in a 1992 episode of the TV sitcom Seinfeld, when the character Susan discovers explicit love letters from Cheever to her father.

After Blake Bailey published his biography of Richard Yates, A Tragic Honesty (2003), Cheever's son Ben suggested Bailey write an authoritative biography of Cheever. It was published by Knopf on March 10, 2009, and won that year's National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography and the Francis Parkman Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer and James Tait Black Memorial Prize.[34]

Also in 2009, Cheever was featured in Soul of a People: Writing America's Story, a 90-minute documentary about the WPA Writers' Project.[35] His life during the 1930s is also highlighted in the companion book, Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America.[36]



Short story collections[edit]


  • 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)


  1. ^ Cheever's Stories won the 1981 award for paperback Fiction.
    From 1980 to 1983 in National Book Awards history there were dual hardcover and paperback awards in most categories. Most of the paperback award-winners were reprints, including this one.


  1. ^ Foderaro, Lisa W. (July 21, 2014). "Home of Cheever, Chekhov of the Suburbs, Is for Sale". The New York Times. Retrieved November 11, 2015.
  2. ^ Chilton, Martin (October 15, 2015). "John Cheever: 'the Chekhov of the suburbs'". The Daily Telegraph. UK. Retrieved November 11, 2015.
  3. ^ "National Book Awards – 1958". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-14.
    (With essay by Neil Baldwin [1] Archived October 19, 2015, at the Wayback Machine from the Awards 50-year anniversary publications and from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.) "National Book Awards 1958". Archived from the original on October 19, 2015. Retrieved February 9, 2016.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  4. ^ "National Book Awards – 1981". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-14.
    With essays by Willie Perdomo, Matthew Pitt, and Robert Wilder from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.
  5. ^ Susan Cheever, Home Before Dark: A Personal Memoir of John Cheever by His Daughter (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), 84.
  6. ^ From Cheever's unpublished journal, on deposit at Houghton Library, Harvard University.
  7. ^ Jon [sic] Cheever, "Expelled", in The New Republic, October 1, 1930, 171–4.
  8. ^ The Letters of John Cheever, ed. Benjamin Cheever (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), p. 33.
  9. ^ The Letters of John Cheever, ed. Benjamin Cheever (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 47.
  10. ^ a b c "How Cheever Really Felt About Living in Suburbia" by Joseph Berger, The New York Times, April 30, 2009 (p. CT1, 5/3/09, CT ed.). Retrieved 5/2/09.
  11. ^ Glad Tidings: A Friendship in Letters, ed. John D. Weaver (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 58.
  12. ^ Letters from the Editor: The New Yorker's Harold Ross, ed. Thomas Kunkel (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 308.
  13. ^ Morace, Robert A. (2012). John Cheever. Pasadena, California: Salem Press. p. 25.
  14. ^ The Letters of John Cheever, 179.
  15. ^ The Letters of John Cheever, 196.
  16. ^ The Journals of John Cheever, ed. Robert Gottlieb (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 214.
  17. ^ Benjamin DeMott, New York Times Book Review, April 27, 1969, 1, 40–1.
  18. ^ John Cheever. iUniverse. 2001. ISBN 978-0-595-21138-8. Retrieved October 31, 2008.
  19. ^ Ebert, Roger (October 22, 1993). "Short Cuts". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on April 13, 2020. Retrieved January 5, 2010.
  20. ^ a b Updike, John (March 2, 2009). "Basically Decent". The New Yorker. Retrieved January 24, 2020. Max Zimmer, the chief of the male acolytes and servitors brought into Cheever's life by his belated homosexual acknowledgment and by his gradually increasing debility, said at the time, "If there's someone who never loved himself, it was John."
  21. ^ McGrath, Charles (February 27, 2009). "The First Suburbanite". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved January 24, 2020.
  22. ^ Chilton, Martin (October 15, 2015). "John Cheever: 'the Chekhov of the suburbs'". The Telegraph. Retrieved January 24, 2020.
  23. ^ "Cheever's Demons: A Conversation With Blake Bailey". March 24, 2009. Retrieved January 24, 2020.
  24. ^ "Nothing succeeds like excess". The Spectator. November 4, 2009. Retrieved January 24, 2020.
  25. ^ "Cheever Country". May 17, 2010. Retrieved January 24, 2020.
  26. ^ Donaldson, Scott (2001). John Cheever: A Biography. iUniverse. p. 237. ISBN 978-0-595-21138-8. Retrieved January 11, 2009.
  27. ^ Wolcott, James (March 16, 2009). "James Wolcott on John Cheever". Vanity Fair. No. April. Retrieved January 24, 2020.
  28. ^ Cooke, Rachel (October 17, 2009). "The demons that drove John Cheever". The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved January 24, 2020.
  29. ^ Battersby, Eileen. "Great writer deserves better". The Irish Times. Retrieved January 24, 2020.
  30. ^ Bailey, Blake. "Cheever – A Life" (PDF). Retrieved September 18, 2020.
  31. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (June 19, 1982). "John Cheever Is Dead At 70. Novelist Won Pulitzer Prize". New York Times.
  32. ^ Minzesheimer, Bob. The John Cheever Reading Room. Ossining Public Library. Archived from the original on February 10, 2009. Retrieved September 16, 2009.
  33. ^ Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Location 8214). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  34. ^ Wolff, Geoffrey. "Suburban Suffering", New York Times Book Review, March 15, 2009, 1, 8-9.
  35. ^ "Soul of a People: Writing America's Story". February 6, 2013. Archived from the original on September 12, 2012. Retrieved December 5, 2013.
  36. ^ Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America Archived October 7, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  37. ^ Yardley, Jonathan (July 20, 2004). "John Cheever's 'Housebreaker,' Welcome as Ever". The Washington Post.

External links[edit]