John Cheever

John Cheever (1912-1982), nicknamed "the Chekhov of the Suburbs," is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author for his novels and short stories. His stories revolve around the sad reality of Suburban life and include elements of satire and humor. He is most famous for his novels, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957) and Falconer (1977), as well as his short story, "The Swimmer" (1964). 

John Cheever John Cheever

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Table of contents

    A Biography of John Cheever

    John Cheever was born on the 27th of May 1912 in Quincy, Massachusetts, and grew up in a prosperous household. However, his family lost a majority of their money by the mid-1920s. Despite this, Cheever had a fairly normal childhood and, while attending Quincy High, won the Boston Herald short story contest in 1929. Cheever was a talented writer, and after his expulsion from school, Cheever wrote a piece for The New Republic called "Expelled" (1930).

    When the stock market crashed in the 1930s, the family money was lost, so Cheever and his brother moved to Boston in 1932. By the summer of 1934, Cheever went to the Yaddo artist colony in Saratoga Springs which would become a second home to him. He divided his time between Manhattan, Saratoga Springs, and Quincy.

    In 1935, Maxim Lieber became Cheever's literary agent and would remain so until 1941. Cheever also published a story called "Buffalo" (1935) in The New Yorker, and In 1938, Cheever got a job with the Federal Writers' Project, which he didn't enjoy. Cheever quit by 1939, and in 1942, Cheever, now married, decided to enlist in the army and fought as an infantry gunner during WWII. Around the same time, he published his first short story collection, The Way Some People Live (1943).

    John Cheever was nicknamed "Chekhov of the Suburbs." Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was a Russian playwright who helped lead the modernist movement in theater. Cheever was given this nickname because he could demonstrate the sadness in his character's suburban lives by revealing to the reader what seem to be insignificant events, much like Chekhov did.

    By 1945, WWII was over, and Cheever moved with his wife and daughter to an apartment in Manhattan, where he would become a productive writer. In 1947, Cheever published "The Enormous Radio" in The New Yorker, gaining him many fans. Cheever started to write longer, more complex pieces, which included "Goodbye, My Brother" (1951) and "The Day the Pig Fell in the Well" (1954). The former won Cheever a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1953, Cheever published his second short story collection, The Enormous Radio (1953). It was met with positive reviews, but many people still considered Cheever a writer for The New Yorker. At the same time, Random House, which paid Cheever to finish The Holly Tree many years prior, was placing pressure on Cheever to produce a novel. Harper & Brothers, another publishing house, bought Cheever out of his Random House agreement.

    John Cheever, Open Book, StudySmarterFig. 1 - John Cheever published his first novel in 1957.

    In 1957, Cheever published his first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), followed by the sequel, The Wapshot Scandal, in 1964. Cheever also published his short story "The Swimmer" in The New Yorker in 1964, later adapted into a film by the same name. Cheever suffered from alcoholism and depression around this time, and when his novel, The Bullet Park (1969), was published, it was met with bad reviews. He also nearly died in 1973 due to alcohol-related issues but was unable to quit drinking for long.

    In 1973, despite health issues, Cheever taught at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, and in 1974, began a professorship at Boston University. By 1975, however, Cheever was admitted to the Smithers Alcoholic Rehabilitation Unit, which helped him reach sobriety. Now sober, Cheever published his next novel, Falconer (1977), which became a massive success, winning first place in the New York Times Best Seller List three weeks in a row. In 1978, Cheever published a successful collection of short stories titled, The Stories of John Cheever (1978).

    In 1982, Cheever published his last novel, Oh What a Paradise it Seems (1982). A year prior, Cheever learned he had cancer in many parts of his body. Before his death in 1982, he received the National Medal for Literature. He died on 18 June 1982 and is buried in Norwell, Massachusetts.

    Novels by John Cheever

    John Cheever wrote a total of five novels throughout his career. His most successful novels include The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), The Wapshot Scandal (1964), and Falconer (1977). Bullet Park (1969) and Oh What a Paradise it Seems (1982) are two other novels by John Cheever. Let's take a closer look at his two most successful novels.

    The Wapshot Chronicle (1957)

    The Wapshot Chronicle is set in a Massachusetts fishing village called St. Botolphs and follows the story of the eccentric Wapshot family. It is the story of Leander Wapshot, his cousin Honora, and Wapshot's sons, Moses and Coverly.

    John Cheever, Fishing Boat, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Wapshot Chronicle is set in a fishing village.

    In the declining town, Leander must rely on the charity of his cousin while simply trying to deal with life. The novel is considered a satire and contains the themes such as tradition, family, the issues of contemporary man, and optimism. In 1958, the novel won the US National Book Award for Fiction.

    Falconer (1977)

    Falconer is the story of Ezekiel Farragut and is set in the Falconer State Prison. Farragut was a professor and drug addict but was imprisoned for murdering his brother. While in prison, Farragut begins an affair with another inmate and tries to figure out how he can escape prison. It is a tale based on crime, punishment, and contradictions. It contains themes such as justice, punishment, and self-destruction. Falconer was arguably Cheever's most successful novel and was added to Time Magazine's list of 100 best novels (1923-2005).

    Short Stories by John Cheever

    John Cheever published seven short story collections. His most famous short story collection is The Stories of John Cheever (1978), which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1979 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978. Here is a full list of Cheever's short story collections:

    • The Enormous Radio and Other Stories (1953)
    • The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories (1958)
    • Some People, Place, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel (1961)
    • The Brigadier and the Golf Window (1964)
    • The World of Apples (1973)
    • The Stories of John Cheever (1978)
    • Fall River and Other Uncollected Stories (Published Posthumously, 1994)

    John Cheever's most famous short story is titled "The Swimmer," originally published in The New Yorker in 1964. Let's take a closer look.

    "The Swimmer" (1964)

    Neddy Merrill, a young and energetic man, decides to swim home by swimming through all the pools in his area. He begins in the Westerhazy's pool, then the Graham's, the Hammer's, and so on.

    John Cheever, Swimming Pool Water, StudySmarterFig. 3 - "The Swimmer" begins playfully with Neddy deciding to swim home in the pools of everyone in his neighborhood.

    He sometimes stops for a drink or a quick chat until a storm stops him at the Levy house. Things start to become very strange, and everyone seems to know about a misfortune that has happened to Neddy, except for Neddy. The short story is a metaphor for the passage of time and how no one can escape the inevitability of it. The short story is a commentary on the hollowness of Suburban life, the denial of aging, and the realities of life built on weak foundations.

    Why was he determined to complete his journey even if it meant putting his life in danger? At what point had this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay become serious?" ("The Swimmer").

    This quote from "The Swimmer" reveals that what began as a lighthearted tale has now become a serious and life-changing event in Neddy's life. Neddy doesn't understand yet why his playful way of getting home is no longer fun, but as the story unravels, we learn the deeper secrets in Neddy's life that show his unhappiness in Suburban life.

    Writing Style of John Cheever

    John Cheever chose to revolve a majority of his stories around the suburban life led by many Americans and how imperfect their lives are. There are a few key characteristics in John Cheever's writing style that helped bring his characters to life. Beginning with his novel, The Wapshot Chronicle, Cheever often experimented with narrative points of view.

    For example, in Wapshot Chronicle, the narrative point of view shifts multiple times between characters and sometimes even includes chapters from the journal of the protagonist Leander. This allows the novel to remain engaging, intriguing, and unique, which makes readers crave more.

    Another key characteristic in the writings of John Cheever is his use of clear prose, which comes off as careful and elegant.

    They were the parents of two young children, they had been married nine years, they lived on the twelfth floor of an apartment house near Sutton Place, they went to the theater on an average of 10.3 times a year, and they hoped someday to live in Westchester," (The Enormous Radio, 1953).

    In this excerpt from the short story "The Enormous Radio" (1953), we can see Cheever's use of clear pose. In a list separated by commas, the reader is informed of the key characteristics of the characters, Jim and Irene Wescott, in a clear, direct matter.

    John Cheever also frequently used literary devices such as imagery that revolved around decay and ruin, allusions to Odysseus from The Odyssey in "The Swimmer; and allegories to biblical stories such as the biblical figure Cain in Falconer.

    Quotes by John Cheever

    Here are some quotes by John Cheever that will provide you with a glimpse into his stories and writing style.

    Long ago when they first invented the atomic bomb people used to worry about its going off and killing everybody, but they didn't know that mankind has enough dynamite right in his guts to tear the f---- plant to pieces," (Falconer, Chapter 1).

    In this quote from Falconer, Cheever is commenting on the violent nature of mankind. Farragut, the protagonist, realizes that human beings are born with a motivation to destroy. Due to this innate feeling, human beings can also create powerful tools for destruction, such as the atomic bomb. This quote also shows Cheever's use of clear prose to display the internal commentary of the protagonist.

    …while he was far from young, he had slid down his banister that morning and given the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room," ("The Swimmer")

    In this quote from "The Swimmer," Cheever playfully describes the character of Neddy Merrill without directly telling the reader. Cheever uses imagery such as sliding down the banister, the smell of coffee, and the smacking of the statue's backside to paint a picture of Neddy: that he is a youthful, playful, and slightly immature man.

    I know that if there is an afterlife, I’m going to have a very different kind of family," ("Goodbye, My Brother")

    "Goodbye, My Brother" (1951) is a short story that speaks of the uneasy relationship of the two brothers, Lawrence Pommeroy and the unnamed narrator. In this quote, spoken by their mother, Cheever reveals the unhappy life she leads. Her husband is dead, and her children don't care much for her. Because of this, she dreams of a world in which she has perfect children who don't argue, and she has her husband, who is the breadwinner. This quote is related to Cheever's interest in unveiling the sad reality of the "perfect" suburban family.

    John Cheever - Key takeaways

    • John Cheever is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of short stories and novels from the 20th century.
    • His most famous novels include The Wapshot Chronicle and Falconer, and his most famous short story is "The Swimmer."
    • Cheever's work heavily focused on the reality of Suburban life, which he depicted as empty, sad, and bleak.
    • Cheever's writing style is known for its experimental narrative points of view, clear prose, and the use of literary devices such as imagery, allusions, and allegories.
    • He has won many awards for his work, including the US National Book Award and The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
    Frequently Asked Questions about John Cheever

    What is John Cheever's best-selling novel? 

    John Cheever's best-selling novel is Falconer

    Who is John Cheever? 

    John Cheever is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of short stories and novels from the 20th century.  

    How did John Cheever die? 

    John Cheever died of cancer in 1982. 

    What is "The Swimmer" by John Cheever about? 

    "The Swimmer" is about a middle-aged man named Neddy Merrill who decides to get home by swimming across all the pools in his town. What begins as a playful way to get home becomes increasingly more serious and eye-opening to Neddy about the state of his life. 

    What is John Cheever known for? 

    John Cheever s known for novels such as The Wapshot Chronicle and Falconer, and short stories such as "The Swimmer." 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The Wapshot Chronicles is based in the small fishing town of ________. 

    Which family member is in charge of the Wapshot finances?  

    The Wapshot Chronicles is John Cheever's final novel. 


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