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literature

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Cheever, John (1912-1982)  

John Cheever, who was bisexual, gradually came to invest homosexuality with redemptive and transforming powers.

Cheever was born May 27, 1912, in Quincy, Massachusetts, the second son of Frederick Lincoln Cheever and Mary Devereaux Liley Cheever. Born to older parents, Cheever felt rejected and ignored as a child, and was haunted by the family story that his father had invited an abortionist to dinner during his mother's pregnancy: an incident Cheever included in both The Wapshot Chronicle (1957) and Falconer (1977). In 1926, Cheever's father lost his job as a salesman, and his mother opened a gift shop to support the family. Not only did these events heighten Cheever's feelings of neglect, but also led to his blaming his mother for "emasculating" his father.

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In 1930, Cheever published his first story, "Expelled" (based on his own expulsion from the prestigious prep school, Thayer Academy), in The New Republic. Cheever's relationship with his brother Fred deepened while they were on a walking tour of Germany in 1931. The brothers moved to Boston in 1932 and shared an apartment until Cheever felt their relationship was becoming too "incestuous."

Fred helped Cheever support himself during these lean years even after Cheever moved to New York in 1934. On May 25, 1934, "Brooklyn Rooming House" appeared in The New Yorker, beginning Cheever's long association with the magazine.

In 1941, Cheever married Mary Winternitz and remained married to her throughout his life despite his numerous affairs with partners of both sexes. Cheever's first book, The Way Some People Live, was published in 1943, the same year the first of his three children was born.

Despite his own lack of a college education, Cheever taught for brief periods at Barnard, University of Iowa, and Boston College. An alcoholic for most of his life, Cheever was successfully treated in 1975 and spent the last seven years of his life sober.

Throughout a long and distinguished career, Cheever was recognized with many awards and honors, including the National Book Award (1957), the Pulitzer Prize (1978), and the National Medal for Literature (1982). On June 18, 1982, he died of cancer and was later buried in Norwell, Massachusetts.

Prior to the publication of Cheever's selected short stories in 1978, he was regarded by most critics as a writer of formulaic stories in "The New Yorker style" that dealt exclusively with middle-class suburban American life. What The Stories of John Cheever revealed, however, was that Cheever had employed various forms and explored many subjects (including homosexuality) in his stories. This realization of the breadth of Cheever's work led to his recognition as a master of the short story.

The treatment of homosexuality in Cheever's work can be broken into two periods, each of which reflects Cheever's feelings toward his own bisexuality at the time.

In Cheever's early work, homosexuality is treated ambivalently, stereotypically, and humorously. The first stories Cheever wrote that contained homosexual overtones are "Late Gathering" (1931) and "The Brothers" (1937). Each of these explores the close bond between two young men that not only parallels Cheever's relationship with his brother, but also reflects the ambivalence he felt toward it.

In "Clancy in the Tower of Babel" (1953), Cheever dealt with homosexuality overtly for the first time. But his treatment is stereotypical; he portrays his homosexual characters as effeminate, hysterical, and tortured.

In The Wapshot Chronicle, Cheever's comic treatment of Coverly Wapshot's doubts about his sexual orientation on being pursued by a male coworker only partially masks Cheever's own apprehension and ambivalence toward his bisexuality during the late 1950s.

As Cheever became more accepting of his sexual orientation, however, it was reflected in his work. In his breakthrough novel Falconer, Cheever invests homosexuality with redemptive and transforming powers. Ezekiel Farragut, who is imprisoned for murder, acquires the ability to love only after his affair with a fellow prisoner.

In "The Leaves, the Lion-Fish, and the Bear" (1974) and Oh What A Paradise It Seems (1982), Cheever depicts bisexual experiences free of guilt or remorse within the context of marriages, signaling his acceptance of his own bisexuality.

Carmine Esposito

     

 
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A portrait of John Cheever by Stathis Orphanos.
  
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    Bibliography
   

Cheever, Susan. Home Before Dark. New York: Bantam, 1991.

Collins, Robert G., ed. Critical Essays on John Cheever. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982.

Donaldson, Scott. John Cheever: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1988.

Waldeland, Lynne. John Cheever. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Esposito, Carmine  
    Entry Title: Cheever, John  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated June 9, 2005  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/cheever_j.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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