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John Cheever

 John William Cheever (1912-1982) was born in Quincy, Massachusetts and grew up in New England and, on his own admission, he saw American life through the prism of an Easterner. Cheever’s short stories and novels are rooted in some key facts of his family history. His father owned a shoe factory and was relatively wealthy until he lost his business in the 1929 stock market crash and deserted the family. Then, Cheever's mother opened a gift shop to support the family. The young Cheever was deeply upset by the breakdown of his parents' relationship. After leaving home at seventeen, Cheever studied for some time at Thayer Academy, but was expelled for smoking. The experience was the nucleus of his first published story, Expelled (1930), which was published in The New Republic. For a time Cheever lived in a strained relationship with his brother in Boston. After a journey in Europe, Cheever settled in New York, then, in 1933, he attended the Yaddo writers' colony in Saratoga Springs. In 1935, he began a lifelong association with The New Yorker, where a great number of his short stories were published for the first time.

In 1951, Cheever received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to become a full-time writer. From 1956 to 1957 Cheever taught writing at Barnard College. In 1961, Cheever moved to the home, in which he would live until the end of his days: a stately, stone-ended Dutch Colonial farmhouse in Ossining, New York, on the east bank of the Hudson.

In the spring of 1973, Cheever accepted the invitation to teach at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and spent the fall semester of 1973 in Iowa City. He was expected with reverence and hope, testimony of which is the following article published in the Des Moines Register.[1]

Iowa’s serenity beckons to Cheever

John Cheever mapped out his life's goal early. “I decided to become a writer at age 12,” he says. “This wasn't at all uncommon in the Athenian twilight of Boston. I told my parents, and they said that they trusted I had no intention of becoming either rich or famous. I assured them that that was not my intention at all."

In spite of his intentions, Cheever, 61, didn't quite keep his promise. Since he sold his first short story to The New Republic for $86 at age 17, he has had more than 250 short stories published, won the National Book Award for The Wapshot Chronicle and sold out the Russian edition of his novel Bullet Park in one day.

Cheever this fall will teach two courses at the University of Iowa's Writers’ Workshop, the first a Graduate Fiction workshop and the second, a seminar course, Problems in Modern Fiction.

Cheever has enjoyed a great popularity in socialist countries. “I don't understand my popularity in the Soviet Union," Cheever says. "I have an excellent translator and many take my work to be social criticism, but I have no political or critical intelligence. Bullet Park isn't criticism. It offers no alternatives."

One medium he hasn't written for is the movies. He explains: “My only connection with The Swimmer was to pick up the check. And I walked through one of the scenes. Hollywood ruined the film. Burt Lancaster worked very hard and did an excellent job, but they kept hiring and firing directors. They filmed 13 pools in the East and then decided to add two more from California. You could see palm trees in the background. They started to make the Wapshot Chronicle into a film. Katharine Hepburn was to play Honora. She doesn't look the part. Spencer Tracy was to play Leander but he was dying and they tried to write him out. They finally gave up.”

Invited by his friend, novelist Fred Exley, Cheever visited the Workshop to give a reading and sit in on some classes. He liked what he saw of the University, Iowa City, and the surrounding countryside, he said. "I found it very serene. That really is my reason for coming," Cheever said in a telephone interview. "I liked the students very much. The audience at the reading was not very responsive, but when I talked with the students, they were very pleasant. It is the general atmosphere of serenity. I liked that old Statehouse and being so close to the country.” Workshop director John Leggett and instructor Vance Bourjaily were the individuals who talked Cheever into coming to Iowa. Bourjaily took Cheever for a ride in the country and described the joys of Iowa and its virtues for a writer.

"Cheever thought he might like to try it for a short hitch," Leggett said. "With Vance running interference for me, I put the proposal to him. He was a little evasive at first but he finally said that he would enjoy coming out for at least the fall semester."

Cheever last taught in a college setting in the late 1950s at Barnard. But more recently he has been teaching writing at Sing Sing prison, two miles from his home in Ossining, New York. He is one of seven instructors for an inmate population of 2,000.

“I became interested in this after reading a novel by a prisoner,” Cheever said. “Mainly, I try to encourage them to read. You can’t teach writing, but you can provoke it and you can get people to read. It is a matter of a shared enthusiasm. The important thing is getting your own voice. Grammar is a delusion. Skip it, it's nothing."

While Cheever has generally avoided the academic community, his first short story was an autobiographical tale of a boy who was kicked out of a prep school. He has constantly been involved in writing. During the 1930s, he wrote for The New Yorker and spent six months with the Federal Writers Project. For two years he wrote television scripts for Life with Father.

“The New Yorker is the happiest medium,” he says. “I wrote Goodbye, My Brother in three days. It was in print Tuesday, mail from the staff came on Wednesday, and world mail on Thursday. Playboy, on the other hand, offers no suggestions and little reader response. Things aren't like they were.”

His works have been translated into 16 languages. After 44 years of writing, Cheever is still at it. A collection of short stories, The World of Apples, was published this year and Cheever is working on another novel. He says:

"When people asked me what I was writing about, I used to tell them ‘the people I have met in the last four years.’ All I've said about this book is that it is massive. You will need an outboard motor to get it from place to place. I am not interested in the writing as a competitive sport. I don't want to argue, just speak with my own voice about my own raw material. Some writers clear the woods or swim the stream for others. Like a relay race. Malamud depends on Bellow and Bellow depends on Odets. Someone writes something and someone exploits it. No, that's the wrong word. Someone else finds it useful.

Cheever welcomed to the Workshop

The Daily Iowan published a bit story, entitled “John Cheever to teach in UI workshop next fall,” which uses the same quotes from Cheever but also quotes Workshop director John Legget: “It is absolutely great to have at least one of the instructorships in the Workshop available to people who are actively engaged in the writing of fiction rather than teaching it. We’ve been fortunate over the past two years to have really a parade of such people. I mean Angus Wilson, Dan Wakefield, Fred Exley, Ann Birstein. John is the fifth progression of people of wide reputation who in many cases have had no teaching experience whatsoever, but have a lot to give people here.”

Cheever in awe with Iowa City

The following article,[2] published in Travel & Leisure a year after Cheever left Iowa was commissioned to Cheever as a PR piece, but he turned it out into a poetic tribute to Iowa City:

An Afternoon Walk in Iowa City, Iowa,

There are porches, a river, barefoot students, touch football, serenity, and a long twilight

 

“It is beautiful, isn’t it,” they used to say, “but don’t tell anyone. They’ll spoil it.” They were speaking of the little fishing villages in France and Italy, The Tuscan hill towns and the small places in the Austrian Tyrol. They were expatriates from Iowa, driven with such force by the loneliness and bigotry of the prairie towns and the cornfields that one could single them out in any café by their marked air of escape. God knows what it was like – I'm not that old – but I used to see them come through New York on the first stage of their flight to Paris, Sperlonga, or Vienna. They would do anything to get out of the cornfields, and a dropped, eastbound train ticket in Iowa City in those days must have seemed worth a life. When I settled in Iowa City, not long ago, I had it in another sphere of time. “It’s beautiful, isn't it,” they said, “but don't tell anyone. They’ll spoil it. We try to keep them moving on to Omaha. We call this the gateway to Nebraska."

I am alone, separated from my wife but not terribly lonely. I walk the streets a lot, often late at night. One checks down the longer, sad list of cities where this is no longer possible. Here there are no muggers, no hustlers, and the only strays I see are joggers who trail through the autumn night a rich smell of sweat. I think of my old friend Josie Herbst, who, after spinning it around the world for fifty years, would still be profoundly depressed by a memory of Iowa City. She may have been troubled by the uniformity of the front porches in this place. They run the breadth of the house. The supports of columns are pyramidal, and they sustain a very gradual arch. A large window looks onto the porch, and the upper section of this is made of colored or leaded glass. Some of the windows are contained, some of them are used to display wax flowers, and in some of them one sees a man and a woman playing dominoes or reading the evening paper. ("Iowa Declared Hog Capital of World!") These porches are so similar that they seem to have been produced by edict.

So one walks block after block with the lonely sound of one's heels, past these gradual arches and these pyramidal supports. Some of the columns are fat; they are made of stucco, wood or shingling, but the summit is always narrow and the base is always broad. The very gradual arch conveys domesticity and perhaps conveyed to the expatriates the confinements of family life. There is nothing exultant or rebellious here. The houses stand, more uniform than any row of tombs, more uniform than anything in the Luxor, but not at all funereal. Where have they come from, how can one link them to the chain of domestic architecture that binds us to the cave? Have they sprung out of the soil without memory? I think of Josie, who, escaping from such porches, got as far as the porches of Leningrad, but if these streets represented embattled and provincial domesticity that time is long past.

The University, of course, gives the city's life, but there are industries and the cornfields that reach nearly to Chicago. The Iowa River winds through the city, no wider than a ten-minute swim, given moderate currents. Its purity is questionable, but it is an unusually pure reflecting surface, spanned by two footbridges, painted the color of verdigris, and lighted by white globes that burn all night. It is the kind of stream that represents continuity, meditation, and sometimes love, and walking there on a Sunday afternoon one finds all three.

Most of the students, when the weather is warm, our barefoot, and most of them carry books – Descartes, Middlemarch, KozinskiBasic Italian Grammar, Wittgenstein, Auerbach, Flaubert, Double- Entry Bookkeeping. Under a tree a young man plays a guitar and sings to a red setter. The dog seems pleased. The river smells of bilge – catboat bilge – a vital and summery odor. There are some bushes where the path turns that smell of apples.

Farther along the banks a young woman plays a recorder to her friend who lies on his stomach. The music is Dowling, and she sharps and flats, but the sound of the pipe is pleasant. At the other end of the musical spectrum is a man playing a Black Watch quickstep on bagpipes. Across the river a couple lie on the park bench, giggling over what must be some difficulty with their clothing. On a pediment above them one reads, Ars Longa, Vita Brevis Est. On the next bench is a long-necked young woman with a watercolor pad. Beyond is a man throwing a stick for a Labrador that does not seem to have any retrieving instincts at all. The man whistles and throws the stick, but the dog wags its tail and seems amused or uninterested. It looks at the view. There are lovers everywhere.

On such a walk, on such an afternoon, you might encounter a visiting writer – Tom Burger or Bill Styron, for example. On such a walk, Jim Van Allen stopped me and took out of his wallet a color photograph of Jupiter that he had taken while the University astronomers were tracking the planet.

One also encounters along the banks of the Iowa River Willard Boyd, the university president. He walks with his pleasant wife, but there is no entourage, not even a dog. President Boyd is a man in his forties with a long and handsome face, a black forelock, and the composure of an international lawyer who has represented the United States at The Hague. It is partly because of his relaxed and intuitive administration that there are, within the University, no warring colleges, no deadwood and none of the badmouthing that seems to afflict academic communities; although President Boyd is sometimes discriminated against by his peers because he has only a single campus.

The view, the panorama, might be thought artificial. All the buildings and bridges one sees belong to the University and thus to the state, the nation, and the people. Everything – including that bag of French fries being eaten by a lonely fat girl – is being paid for by the checks from home, state grants, federal grants, the Danforth Foundation, and the G. I. Bill of Rights. The rich grass is nurtured and the trees are fed by public monies, but if such serenity can be arrived at this easily, why is it so seldom achieved?

Some men are playing touch football on the banks. They asked me to join them, and I do for 15 minutes when I get winded, but where else will a man with short gray hair and tight Peal shoes be asked by strangers to join a game? A young woman comes down the walk. Wrapped around her is a good-sized boa constrictor. “Is the snake yours?" I asked." Oh no," she says nicely, "it belongs to the girl upstairs." We part.

On Saturday everyone goes to the football game. You walk to the stadium, a fifteen-minute stroll from the center of town, remembering the traffic hang-ups on the way to the Yale Bowl. Going to Shea for a football game on an alternate afternoon, I remembered the eight-dollar cab fare and that the crowds, moving from all directions toward the stadium, seem not so much to be moving toward a sport as to be hastening away from some metropolitan catastrophe. At Shea, that crown of incandescence that lights the field goes on in the first quarter and the unchanging light seems like some distortion of time, experienced during a long flight. At about the half, the planes from LaGuardia take off, paving the sky with darkness. Epoca? Time? Paris-Match? Would you like to order something from the bar?

Here the sky is much bluer and clearer then the East. The light changes minute by minute, and before the half the shadow of the stadium has begun to darken the Astroturf. At the half there is the famous marching band and the eighty-piece all-girl bagpipe orchestra. The openness and continuity of the faces around one are, for an Easterner, festive and serene. The acutely painful question of where they came from and where they are going is never raised; there are none of the rooming house freaks one sees at Shea. Iowa usually loses, but the amiable crowd, moving back into the city at dusk, has no losers, no drunks, no hustlers.

A medievalist, with whom I breakfast, tells me that we are at the same latitude as Providence, Rhode Island, but the twilights seem much longer than those in the East, and it is at the end of the day that I feel myself to be in another country, although I suppose I have no country at all. My family prided themselves on being Easterners – on seldom traveling west of Worcester – although I don't know why. They were not especially prosperous or distinguished – they were simply Easterners. One disreputable uncle did go west and died, forgotten and disgraced in Omaha; but I was the first Cheever to settle in Iowa – warned about the manners and politics of "rednecks” and that corn is a symbol of vulgarity and provincialism. Nothing could be more mistaken.

I do wait for the mail from the East and read it on a bench by the river – letters from friends and children in that more fortunate part of the world. I remind myself of those Americans, walking away from the post office in the Piazza di Spagna, reading the mail from home. Like them I smile, I frown, I pocket a check, but unlike them I am not homesick nor in the least unhappy.

On my walks I see, excepting for a house or two, almost nothing for sale, which is very unlike the Westchester suburb where I used to live. There, in the autumn, as the leaves began to fall, “For Sale” signs would appear on parked cars, sailboats, outboards, trailers, snowmobiles, and lawnmowers. Antiques were for sale; there were Attic Sales, Garage Sales, and Numbered Sales. These signs generated a sense of distress and confusion that I've not found in the Middle West. A population of 20,000 students may give the city an economic stability that some suburbs lack, but I don't miss the signs and their suggestion of panic. Friends stop by to help me in my exile and I say: “It's rather nice here, but if you like it here you’ll love it in Omaha."

In May, 1973, just a few months before coming to Iowa, Cheever 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 while teaching at the Workshop, where his students included T. C. Boyle, Allan Gurganus, and Ron Hansen.

During his time at the Workshop, Cheever was sent the following letter by a U of Iowa administrator:

November 27, 1973

Dear Professor Cheever:

A student in your course Seminar Problems in Modern Fiction (8W:490), which meets in room 215 EPB, has reported to this office that smoking is permitted in this course. A policy which precludes smoking in classes was recently adopted with the concurrence of Student Senate, Collegiate Associations Council, and the Faculty Council. I’m certain the student in question and perhaps others in the course would appreciate your cooperation in the effort to provide a setting free from what some regard as the objectionable presence of cigarette and other smoke.

Sincerely yours,

Richard E. Gibson

Director

 

In 1974, Cheever accepted a professorship at Boston University. In March 1975, his brother Fred—sober after his own lifelong bout with alcoholism—drove John back to Ossining. Just like his hotel mate in Iowa, Raymond Carver, Cheever succeeded in cutting drinking abruptly, on May 7, 1975. Since that day he never drank alcohol again.

A compilation of his short stories, The Stories of John Cheever, won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. On April 27, 1982, Cheever was awarded the National Medal for Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Only two months later he died at the age of 70, in Ossining, New York. In the summer of 1981, a tumor had been discovered in Cheever's right kidney and, in late November, he had returned to the hospital and learned that the cancer had spread to his femur, pelvis, and bladder.

Cheever’s work has been included in the Library of America.

Bibliography

The Way Some People Live (stories, 1943)

The Enormous Radio and Other Stories (stories, 1953)

Stories (with Jean Stafford, Daniel Fuchs, and William Maxwell, 1956)

The Wapshot Chronicle (novel, 1957)

The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories (stories, 1958)

Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear In My Next Novel(stories, 1961)

The Wapshot Scandal (novel, 1964)

The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (stories, 1964)

Bullet Park (novel, 1969)

The World of Apples (stories, 1973)

Falconer (novel, 1977)

The Stories of John Cheever (stories, 1979)

Oh What a Paradise It Seems (novella, 1982)

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)

Text: Zlatko Anguelov



[1] Des Moines Register, August 26, 1973

[2] Travel & Leisure 4, no. 9 (September 1974):32-33, 50


United States