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John Cheever in Ossining

John Cheever in Ossining

Biosketch is a composite from Pearson Educators website, The John Cheever-George McLoon Collection website,
and Gareth Hougham of www.ossining.org

Best known for his depiction of the emptiness at heart of the so-called American Dream, John Cheever lived and wrote in Ossining, NY from 1956 to the time of his death in 1982. He was the winner of the the National Book Award in 1958 for the Wapshot Chronicle and of the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for "The Stories of John Cheever". Cheever lived not far from Cedar Lane Park in Crotonville (the north-western section of the unincorporated district of the Town of Ossining), was often seen milling around town, frequented the Highland Diner on North Highland Ave., and once made an impression on a highschool friend of mine by picking him up hitch-hiking.

It was in 1975 on Cedar Lane. He stopped for my friend in his little red car with his two big dogs in the back seat. They chatted casually as they drove along that strech of road where Cheever lived which my friend describes as "a place that was always autumn. Dark from a steep slope on the south side, water seeping year-round onto the road from numerous springs, and open to a great swamp on the north side from which would occassionally emerge massive snapping turtles that could snap a garbage can lid in half". Asked to elaborate on this brief encounter, he said there was nothing more to tell. Just that Cheever seemed like a "nice man".

I recently inhaled the Journals of John Cheever. Read these journals and you will meet this man. Not just the sardonic detached observer of the cocktail party set. Yes, the journals verify that he is that. And not just the gentle introspective genius who pours his heart out to the labradors as he empties his nth glass of gin sitting on the porch as a warm summer night drifts to an end. (is that too). But the man who, when a grand and ancient 3 and a half foot snapping turtle dares trample his flower bed, pumps 10 shotgun rounds unceremoniously into its head. Ten. (and remember, this is in Westchester). A man who basked in his celebrity and yet felt insecure around people of learning (he was high school dropout). A man who loved his wife as deeply as he resented marriage (ok, that's many of us - but he captures it). Some slogging, no doubt. But the gems make it overwhelmingly worthwhile. To read it is not just research, but a prose adventure into a soul. Very private thoughts over 40 years, made public at his urging soon before his death.

This is also true of The Letters of John Cheever. It gives you a sense of the semi-private world of his written correspondence. Only semi because he became aware that with his fame, his letters were being saved and sold. While there is no evidence that he withheld for this reason, it must have been on his mind. And, as a counter example, there are some startling revelations to be had. For instance, he described to a friend his (presumed) first ever homosexual experience with the photographer Walker Evans in deliciously prurient language. Explicit and poetic. Other writings demonstrate that 40 years after that event he still cared for, and was as confused and angry as ever about his relationship to Walker Evans.

I also highly recommend reading Home Before Dark, a memoir by his daughter Susan Cheever who writes with wit, lots of great anecdotes, and thoughtful rumination. This book as well as one by Benjamin Cheever titled Selling Ben Cheever are highly engrossing. In fact, don't expect to be able to put them down. The latter is not directly about John Cheever, but is thoroughly infused with many anecdotes and penetrating insight about growing up as John Cheever's son.

John Cheever published well over one hundred short stories, including some of his finest ones, in the pages of the The New Yorker, a fact which both helped and hurt his career. His association with that magazine brought him recognition and wide readership, but it also led to the false assumption that his stories, like those generally associated with The New Yorker, were well-made but superficial, adept at skimming surfaces with precise descriptions and ironic detachment, but afraid to engage the rawness of life and human nature at their most intense. Recognition of the true depth of his achievement would also be delayed by his focus on upper middle-class characters in urban and suburban settings, as well as, to a certain degree, the inaccurate perception of Cheever as a suburban squire who shared his characters' shallowness and complacency—although most of his characters, however shallow many of them may be, are far from complacent. Thus, his work fell between the popular taste for romances about the rich and powerful and the critical preference for proletarian figures of presumed greater vitality and social relevance. Recognition was also delayed in part by his predilection for the short-story form in a literary culture that, often mistaking mass for substance, places a greater premium upon the novel. In an irony that would be perfectly at home in his own work, it was his novels that finally brought him sufficient visibility and attention for his short fiction to be properly valued. John Cheever was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, on May 27, 1912, the younger son of Frederick Lincoln Cheever, a shoe salesman who was forty-nine years old when John was born, and Mary (Liley) Cheever, a native of Sheffield, England. Cheever attended Thayerlands, a progressive junior school, where he did well academically and published poetry in the Evergreen, the school's student journal. In 1926, he moved on to prep school at the affiliated Thayer Academy, where his record was quite poor. Family difficulties may offer at least a partial explanation for this reversal. Cheever's father lost his job in 1926, and, despite intensive efforts, was unable in his mid-sixties to find any other employment. To keep the family afloat, his mother opened a gift shop—Cheever would subsequently claim that in her shop she sold some of the family's possessions, including his bed—and later a dress shop as well. Rather than admiring his mother's resourcefulness, Cheever seems to have resented the shops as a public symbol of the family's social decline, and to have seen their success as a humiliation of his father. Already-existing tensions between his parents were further aggravated by his father's drinking. Cheever later felt that their combat consumed so much of their energy that neither was attentive to him and his needs. Matters came to a head in the spring of 1930, when Cheever was expelled from Thayer Academy for poor grades. He would later claim that he had been thrown out for smoking, that he had been caught in the act, and that he had wanted to be caught. He turned the incident into a short story, which was promptly accepted by Malcolm Cowley, an editor of The New Republic, a weekly journal of left-leaning social and cultural comment; it appeared in the October 1, 1930, issue under the title "Expelled." Thus, ironically, John Cheever—who published a story in a major magazine at the age of eighteen; who was closely associated with The New Yorker, universally regarded in its heyday as the epitome of sophistication; and who won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his fiction—never graduated from high school. For several years, he lived with his brother, Frederick, in Boston. In 1932, his parents lost their home through foreclosure, and then separated. At the age of twenty, Cheever also went out on his own, moving to New York City. Over the next decade, he supported himself at a variety of writing jobs, including the writing of synopses of novels for possible option by MGM Studios. Later, for the Works Progress Administration, a government employment program for artists during the Depression, he was an editorial assistant on The New York City Guide (1939), one of the volumes in the WPA's classic American Guide series. In the early spring of 1942, he enlisted in the United States Army. Originally assigned to a rifle company, he was transferred to the Signal Corps to work on public-relations films when the publication of his first book in 1943 alerted his superiors to the fact that he was a writer. His original company later sustained catastrophic losses in the D-Day invasion of June 1944. On March 22, 1941, Cheever married May Winternitz, daughter of the dean of the Yale Medical School and granddaughter of Thomas Watson, who, as Alexander Graham Bell's laboratory assistant, had been the recipient of the world's first telephone call. Mary Cheever would herself go on to become a published poet, and the first two of the couple's three children—Susan, born in 1943; Benjamin, born in 1948; and Federico, born in 1957—would also become novelists. In 1950, the Cheevers moved from Manhattan to Scarborough in the Town of Ossining, in the northern suburb of Westchester County, and settled permanently in the Crotonville section of the Town of Ossining (Crotonville is roughly the N.W. section of the unincorporated portion of the Town.) in 1956. Out of this region he fashioned the "Cheever country" whose world of country clubs and commuter trains became the setting of many of his best and best-known stories, including "The Five-Forty-Eight."

In the thirty, generally brief stories of The Way Some People Live (1943), Cheever demonstrated himself to be a perceptive observer of manners and social customs, but he later came to find these works thin and insufficient, and reprinted none of them in his 1978 omnibus The Stories of John Cheever. The reception of The Way Some People Live was generally favorable, but it also marked the beginning of a tendency to categorize—and dismiss—Cheever as "a New Yorker writer." In five subsequent collections, most of whose contents were gathered into the 1978 volume, Cheever published the stories that established his reputation and that remain, in the opinion of many, the core of his achievement. In such masterpieces as "O Youth and Beauty!," "The Swimmer," "The Five-Forty-Eight," and "The Country Husband," in a remarkable, carefully crafted style that blends poetic wistfulness and ironic colloquialism, he describes a world in which absurdity is inextricably entangled with longing, pathos, and at times even tragedy. His protagonists are frequently the commuters—whether smug and self-regarding like Blake in "The Five-Forty-Eight" or unreflective but basically decent like Francis Weed in "The Country Husband"—who divide their lives between business in Manhattan and leisure in the fictional but very real suburb of Shady Hill. They are men who drink too much and whose marriages have become hollow, who suddenly must cope with disruptions of the deliberately constructed patterns of their lives, disruptions that expose the terrifying fragility and vulnerability that lie just below the surface. Between 1957 and 1982, Cheever also published five novels. The first of these was The Wapshot Chronicle, which dealt with the eccentric members of an old New England family. It was followed seven years in 1964 by The Wapshot Scandal, a sequel involving many of the same characters. These novels attracted strongly favorable press notices and several significant literary awards, with much attention paid to Cheever's ability to amuse, move, and even shock readers in the space of only a few pages. But both of these novels, especially the latter, were also criticized for looseness of construction, with the frequent claim that they were essentially gatherings of short stories hung together on a tenuous narrative framework. This criticism was reinvoked in connection with Bullet Park (1969), Cheever's third novel. Some reviewers also complained of heavy-handed symbolism and what they regarded as his awkward attempts to forcibly attune his sensibility to the coarseness and violence of the times. More recent and measured discussions of Cheever have tended, however, to find much more value in this novel. No such carping attended the publication of Falconer (1977), Cheever's fourth novel, which was greeted with the kind of rapturous celebration that usually suggests an effort to compensate for previous neglect and undervaluation. The characters and setting of this novel were far removed from his usual milieu. The Falconer of the title is a prison on the Hudson River, obviously based on Sing Sing in Cheever's home town of Ossining, New York, where he had taught writing classes in the early 1970s. The book's protagonist is a college professor who has been imprisoned for the killing of his hateful brother—the central conflicts in Cheever's novels are often between sensitive men and crass ones, just as the conflicts in many of his stories are between alcoholic businessmen and their strong-willed wives—and who ultimately achieves both a spiritual and a physical escape. Falconer also highlighted the religious dimension that had always been present in Cheever's work, especially in his novels, an affirmation of life's joys and possibilities founded in part on a bedrock belief in the power of grace to transcend human weakness and despair. In treating these themes, Cheever wrote of his own torments: he had suffered serious heart attacks in 1973 and 1974, and was struggling not only with alcoholism but also with his long-suppressed but now active bisexuality. Throughout this difficult time, his public career continued to be a series of triumphs. The Stories of John Cheever, published in 1978, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Reading its sixty-one stories in bulk led even longtime admirers of Cheever's work to revise dramatically upward their assessments of his achievement.

As he went through serious problems with both his physical health and his emotional stability, Cheever's public successes continued to accumulate. In 1979, he won the Edward MacDowell Medal for "outstanding contributions to the arts." In 1980, PBS broadcast three one-hour teleplays adapted from "The Sorrows of Gin," "O Youth and Beauty," and "The Five-Forty-Eight." In March 1982, he published his final work, a brief novel entitled Oh What a Paradise It Seems. In April of that year, he won the National Medal for Literature. On June 18, 1982, at the age of seventy, he died in his home at Ossining, of kidney and bone cancer. Genial and gracious at his frequent best, John Cheever was a man much loved by family and friends. In the midst of the pain—both endured and inflicted—and the turmoil of much of his life, he lived to see his unique gifts appreciated and his great contribution to his nation's culture properly valued. Certain early reviewers of his work were dissatisfied with Cheever's failure to offer overt condemnation of the pettiness and cruelty of many of his characters, but we have come to realize that his intent was deeper than that of mere satire, that he never tired and never despaired in his search for the beauty and the dignity that are to be found even in the midst of waste and squalor.

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