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John Cheever  

John Cheever, who died in 1982 was a complex person who is regarded as one of the most important short story writers of the 20th century. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979
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John W. Cheever (1912-1982)

 

Brief Biography

John Cheever, an American short story writer and novelist was born in Quincy, Massachusetts on May 27, 1912 to Frederick Cheever, a well to do shoe saleman and businessman, and to Mary Liley Cheever. Cheever enjoyed a well to do middle class lifestyle until his father began to lose money as the shoe and textile industry declined in New England.  The elder Cheever began to drink heavily under the stress of losing most of his money. Cheever's mother opened a gift shop to help pay the bills.  Rather than  be proud of his mother's strength and courage in the face of financial difficulty, the young Cheever was humiliated, too young to understand his mother's attempt to be a responsible wife and mother.  In 1926, Cheever attended a private academy.  He was not a good student and transferred to Quincy high school.  He was invited back to the private school, only to be told by the headmaster that he must either apply himself to his studies or leave.  He chose to leave.  His experiences at this private school were described in a short story "Expelled" which was published in "The New Republic" in 1930.

Financial difficulties grew worse for the family in the late 1920's and early 30's.  Cheever's older brother, Fred, had to leave Dartmouth in 1926 because there were insuffient funds for tuition.  The Cheever family home was lost to foreclosure in 1932.  His parents separated as the strain became too difficult to hold the marriage together.  The Cheever brothers took a cheap apartment in Boston.  John's ambition to become a writer grew stronger and to further his ambition he wrote to the director of the Yaddo Artist colony in upstate New York.  The director denied his first application but offered a place the following year.  Cheever spent the summer of 1934 at Yaddo.  He would be closely associated with the Colony for many years and wrote fondly of it.  In many ways it was his second home when he was a young writer trying to establish himself.

In his early adulthood, Cheever had no permanent address.  He would drive his old car from Manhatten, Saratoga, Quincy and other places.  His parents reconciled and had an apartment in Quincy.  In 1935, "The New Yorker" bought a short story.  This would begin a long association with the magazine which would publish many of his stories.  In 1938 Cheever worked for the Federal Writers' Project, a job he disliked. He soon quit.  In 1941 he married Mary Winternitz, the daughter of the dean of Yale Medical School.  The marriage would prove to be fraught with turmoil, mostly because of Cheever.

Cheever enlisted in the Army in 1942.  His first collection of short stories was published in 1943.  By a stroke of luck, an officer read the stories and had Cheever transferred out of his infantry unit.  This transfer probably saved Cheever's life as almost all of his fellow soldiers in his infantry unit were killed on D-Day. After the war, Cheever moved his family ( his daughter was born in 1943) to an apartment on the upper East side of Manhattan.  For five years he worked on his writing.  Stories were published in the "New Yorker", most notably "The Enormous Radio"  Gradually Cheever's reputation grew.  His first son was born in 1948.  Over the next several years, Cheever's stories became more complex.  On the strength of his quality writing, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.  A second collection of stories was published in 1953 to positive reviews.  His novel "The Wapshot Chronicle" was published in 1957.  Cheever and his family were financially able to spend 1957 in Italy where his third child was born.  The "Wapshot Scandal" was published in 1964 to very positive reviews. He moved to Ossining, New York and would stay there for the rest of his life.   It was the only home he would ever own and he was very proud it it. One of his best stories " The Swimmer" appeared in "The New Yorker" in 1964.  It was made into a feature length film in 1966 starring Burt Lancaster.  Cheever often visited the set and made a cameo appearance in the movie.

For years Cheever had a serious drinking problem, probably made worse by his guilt over his bisexuality.   He had a young male lover ( who attended Cheever's funeral.)  The younger man was accepted by Cheever's family. Cheever had affairs with women.  His psychiatrist told him that his wife's behavior was not the problem, rather he was the problem and he was projecting his deep psychological issues on his wife.  He terminated his therapy, rather than work on his problems.

A negative review for his book "Bullet Park" led to deeper alcoholism.  In 1973 he had to be rushed to the hospital because of constant coughing.  He almost died from pulmonary edema caused by his alcoholism.  He resolved never to drink again but soon broke that promise.  By March, 1975 his drinking was out of control.  Finally he was admitted to an alcoholic rehabilitation hospital.  After two months of treatment, he left the hospital with his wife.   He never drank again.

In 1977, Cheever's novel "Falconer" was published to rave reviews and was a best seller.   His "The Stories of John Cheever" appeared in 1978 and was a best seller.

In 1981, Cheever was diagnosed with kidney cancer.   Within several months, the cancer spread and eventhough he received excellent treatment, the cancer could not be stopped.  Terminal, he mustered up the strength to accept the National Medal for Literature in April, 1982. Ravaged by the disease, John Cheever died on June 18, 1982 at his home, surrounded by family.  He was 70 years old.  Cancer had left him weak and suffering, but he met his death with dignity.  Perhaps his religious faith helped him.    For many years he attended services at his local Anglican church. He is buried in Ossining.  His wife, a writer and teacher, lived in the house in Ossining for another 32 years.  She died at the age of 95.

John Cheever was a troubled man in many ways,  who despite all his personal issues, wrote quality fiction.   He had a deep capacity for friendship.  He could be charming, very kind, but also cruel at times,especially to his wife.  Many people, both well known writers and just readers, were deeply affected by his death.  John Updike gave a heartfelt eulogy at the funeral.  Saul Bellow considered Cheever a good friend.   A compilation of Cheever's short stories won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a National Book Critics Circle Award.   He won a 1981 National Book Award.   Before his death he was awarded the National Medal for Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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