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John Cheever - Biography

John Cheever (1912-1982)
by Karen Bernardo

John Cheever had the unique ability to see the monstrous in the mundane. He wrote about the American suburbs, and chronicled its pulse so accurately that few of us who have ever lived in that environment can fail to see ourselves in his characterizations. Yet he saw the darker side as well -- the toll that being too tame, too bland, too ordinary can take on the human psyche.

Cheever, ironically, spent his childhood hovering just on the brink of the gentility he describes so well in his novels and short stories. At 17, he was expelled from a respectable private school for smoking, and around that same time his father went broke in the stock market crash that precipitated the Great Depression. There being no money to continue the young Cheever's education, he decided to become a writer, and had the rare good luck to have a story published in the New Republic on his first try.

Cheever was friends with many of the literary luminaries of his time: John Don Passos, Malcolm Cowley, E.E. Cummings, James Agee, and James Farrell. He was, in that sense, a writer's writer, rather than a writing academician as is so often the case today. He did briefly teach writing at the University of Iowa, Barnard College, Boston University, and Sing Sing Prison, but seemed to find teaching an unwelcome distraction from the pursuit of his muse. A number of awards and fellowships at least occasionally gave him the financial means to do what he loved, and what he did so well. Although he published several novels, he is best known for his short stories.

John Cheever's work seems to argue that the lifestyle we pursue as ordinary Americans is not enough for the heroic heart. We need excitement; we need a sense of mission in life. Unfortunately, the suburban ideal virtually eliminates any possibility of our following such a quest. We want to be safe, we want to be sane, we want to be logical. We don't want any trouble. We want to behave in a respectable manner. Cheever's work argues, however, that the insurance policies we have so smugly invented to assuage the dangers of the world merely mask the chaos at its core - and we actually need to battle that chaos to survive.

Read Storybites' analysis of...

The Country Husband

The Swimmer

Both "The Country Husband" and "The Swimmer" can be found in "The Stories of John Cheever."

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