John Cheever was born on May 27th, 1912 in Quincy, Massachusetts. Cheever’s parents were mature and he had an older brother, Frederick. As a young boy, Cheever decides to become a writer. He discovers that he has a gift for spinning yarns, and that stories are a great escape from his dreadful childhood and adolescence. (Donaldson 18) “During homeroom his teacher at Thayer Academy used to promise her class that John would tell a story if they behaved. With luck and increasing skill, he could spin the story out over two or three class periods so that the teacher forgot all about arithmetic, and geography, and social studies.” (S. Cheever 1)
Sadly for John, he was aware from a young age that he was the unwanted second child of Frederick and Mary Cheever. His father was a hopeless, unemployed alcoholic “who reached fifty before [John’s] first birthday, generally made it very clear that he could be expected to do very little for the boy. He had already formed a bond with his older son and namesake, Fred—often taking him sailing in Quincy Bay, for example—but John was born too late. Once, John’s mother told him ‘If I hadn’t drunk two manhattans one afternoon, you never would have been conceived.’ It seems as though one son was enough for John’s father, and perhaps for his mother as well.” (Donaldson 19)
Without doubt, such emotional abandonment, and lack of attention from one’s parents causes deep emotional scars. John’s escape from the emotional cruelty of his childhood was fiction, and the arts. He maintains it was his “passion and also, his salvation.” (Donaldson 18) Cheever is a master storyteller. “At seven, he began to entertain his grammar school classmates with preposterous tales. At seventy, in the last year he lived, he finished his last book of fiction. ‘I can tell a story,’ [Cheever] observed. ‘I can do…little else.’” (Donaldson 4)
After the Great Depression, Cheever’s father loses his shoe factory. John’s mother Mary was forced to abandon her life of gentility, and start working to support the family. Mary Cheever opens a small gift shop, and becomes the solitary source of income for the family. The fact that Cheever’s mother worked distressed his father greatly. “Being supported by his wife was a humiliating experience for my grandfather…” writes Susan Cheever, John’s daughter…“At home there were angry fights and terrible silences. My father’s parents, locked in their private agonies, hardly seemed to notice him.” (S. Cheever 3)
In 1930, when John is eighteen years old, the Wollaston Cooperative Bank repossesses the Cheever home, and subsequently tears it down. In the same year, John is expelled from Thayer Academy. Throughout his life, Cheever maintained his expulsion was for smoking cigarettes. “More likely, he just dropped out.” (McGrath NYT) His brother Frederick is forced to leave Dartmouth. “The family’s financial disaster became a personal disaster.” (S. Cheever 3)
Cheever never seemed to recover from this financial trauma; he felt stigmatized by it his entire life. He hated that his mother worked in her gift shop, and was ashamed his family lost their home. These matters affected how he felt about money, and class for the rest of his life. I feel this is the true inspirational basis for Cheever’s chronicles of the middle class. Decades later, though he had achieved financial, and critical success as a published writer, he still had misgivings about the liability of taking out a mortgage on a home. “As a child of the Depression he could hardly forget the disaster that had befallen his parents in Wollaston. He regarded a mortgage as a pernicious document…” (Bailey 174)
In 1941, Cheever marries Mary Winternitz, the daughter of Dr. Helen Watson and Dr. Milton Winternitz. Mary’s mother is the daughter of the co-inventor of the telephone, Thomas A. Watson, and her father was dean of the Yale School of Medicine. (Bailey 102) Mary Winternitz’s heritage overshadowed...
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