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John Cheever | Biography


John Cheever was born on May 27, 1912, in Quincy, Massachusetts, to a middle-class family. His childhood proved to be unhappy. John's father, Frederick, was an ambitious shoe salesman, who failed at his work, partly because of the decline of the shoe industry. His mother, Mary, ran a gift shop. When the Great Depression hit, Frederick lost his job and abandoned the family. John became a rebellious teenager. Deciding at age 17 he did not like the school he attended, he orchestrated his expulsion from the Thayer Academy in Massachusetts.

In the 1930s Cheever moved to Greenwich Village in New York City. Soon he was bombarding The New Yorker magazine with his short stories. The first four were rejected, but the magazine published his fifth submission, "Brooklyn Rooming House." After this success Cheever became a regular story contributor to the publication. In 1941 Cheever married fellow writer Mary Winternitz and settled in Manhattan. Although Cheever eagerly promised his wife "a wonderful and beautiful life," his short stories, many perhaps influenced by their marriage, proved domestic life could sometimes be less than wonderful. Cheever's World War II army service was spent in the Signal Corps, where he wrote scripts for military training films.

After the war Cheever continued to publish short stories, but financial success was slow in coming. In 1947 Cheever's short story "The Enormous Radio" appeared in The New Yorker and soon became one of his best-known works. Even so, Cheever needed to earn more money and, as a result, worked for a while writing television scripts for CBS. By 1951 Cheever and his wife had two children and felt crowded in their New York apartment. A financial reprieve arrived that year when Cheever was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for his creative ability in the arts. With this award Cheever was free to concentrate on his fiction and moved his family to a home in Scarborough, a suburb of New York.

In the 1950s Cheever wrote many short stories and his first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), which became a success. This work satirizes people who misuse wealth and also conveys the falling apart of a family. During this period Cheever began to lead a double life. He became an alcoholic, referring to himself as a "solitary drunkard." He was also a deeply conflicted and closeted bisexual who had affairs with men and women.

In the early 1960s Cheever began to work on another novel. His hero was to be a man who swims from a friend's house to his own home through a river of backyard swimming pools. At first enthusiastic about this project, Cheever compiled about 150 pages of notes. He realized, however, that the story would not work well as a novel. The main character's delusion about himself and his life was too hard to maintain for 200 pages. Cheever drastically edited the material, cutting the plot to its essentials. The result is the short story "The Swimmer" (1964). This tale shows many influences from Cheever's life. It reveals the empty side of a suburban, middle-class existence, which the author knew from his childhood and his experiences living in Scarborough. Also, like Cheever, the story's main character, Neddy Merrill, is a deluded man who leads a double life. On the surface he seems to be a successful family man, but in reality he has a drinking problem and has had at least one extramarital affair. "The Swimmer" became one of Cheever's most famous stories. In 1968 Hollywood made a film adaptation starring Burt Lancaster.

"The Swimmer" received positive critical reception. Some critics hailed the story as one of Cheever's best works. Author Michael Chabon stated, "'The Swimmer' is a masterpiece of mystery, language, and sorrow." The work, however, did have its detractors. Some critics claimed that "The Swimmer" showed an unfortunate trend in Cheever's fiction to use odd narratives to convey a pessimistic vision. New York Times critic Orville Prescott labeled the short story one of Cheever's "sinister fantasies." Other critics pointed out that a weakness of the story lay in Cheever's refusal to explore Neddy's character in depth. The critic James O'Hara stated, "This reticence is essential, perhaps, to its shocking ending, but also unfair to the reader." The biographer Blake Bailey, though, sees this vagueness about Neddy's character and life as a strength. At the end of the story, the reader has no specific idea why and when Lucinda and her daughters abandoned the house. As a result, readers must use their imaginations to fill in the details, which makes "Ned's darkened house seems all the more haunted."

Cheever continued to write many short stories and more novels, including The Wapshot Scandal (1964) and Falconer (1977). In 1979 his anthology The Stories of John Cheever (1978) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and became the first collection of short stories to lead the bestseller list of the New York Times. In April 1982 the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded Cheever the National Medal for Literature. Less than two months later, Cheever succumbed to cancer on June 18, 1982, in Ossining, New York.

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