Studies in American Fiction: Volume 34 Number 2 (Autumn 2006) October 01, 2006 Studies in American Fiction
John Cheever's Shady Hill, or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the suburbs Keith Wilhite
University of Iowa
Wilhite, Keith. "John Cheever's Shady Hill, or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the suburbs." Studies in American Fiction 34.2 (2006): 215-240. http://hdl.handle.net/2047/d10016661
This work is available open access, hosted by Northeastern University.
Studies in American Fiction is a journal of articles and reviews on the prose fiction of the United States. Founded by James Nagel and later edited by Mary Loeffelholz, SAF was published by the Department of English, Northeastern University, from 1973 through 2008. Studies in American Fiction is indexed in the MLA Bibliography and the American Humanities Index.
Studies in American Fiction Autumn 2006
Keith Wilhite, John Cheever’s Shady Hill, Or: How I Learned to Stop
Worrying and Love the Suburbs
Copyright © 2006 Northeastern University
JOHN CHEEVER’S SHADY HILL, OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE SUBURBS Keith Wilhite
The University of Iowa There’s been too much criticism of the middle-class way of life. Life can be as good and rich there as anyplace else. I am not out to be a social critic, however, nor a defender of suburbia. It goes without saying that the people in my stories and the things that happen to them could take place anywhere. —John Cheever, Saturday Review (1958)
First published in the July 18, 1964, issue of The New Yorker, “The Swimmer” remains John Cheever’s most distinctive short story. Neddy Merrill’s famous journey across the swimming pools of affluent suburban homes wends through Sunday afternoon parties where caterers serve the gin ice-cold and everyone confesses they “drank too much” last night.1 Merrill embarks on his cross-country swim from the Westerhazy’s pool. Acoustically, the name Westerhazy tunes the reader’s ear for a bit of wordplay, the distinctive surname enfolding both Westchester and the haziness of inebriation and memory. As Merrill surveys the suburb “with a cartographer’s eye” (Stories, 603), the narrator notes, “The only maps and charts he had to go by were remembered or imaginary but these were clear enough” (Stories, 604). Cheever introduces a dialectic relationship between physical spaces and their representations, and this interplay between the physical and the cartographic, the real and the imagined, ripples through the narrative. As the reader discovers early on, Merrill reads spaces and contexts rather poorly. He acknowledges the falling leaves, the smell of wood smoke in the air, and the early darkness, yet he clings to the idea that it is midsummer. He misinterprets comments about his financial and familial misfortunes, oscillating between denial and repression. The home he returns to in Bullet Park—dark, abandoned, and in disrepair—promises, perhaps, to break the spell: “He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty” (Stories, 612). The structure’s physicality disrupts Merrill’s imagined cartography. Lashing out against the house, Merrill confronts the divide between conceptual and physical spaces as a voyeur at his own window.
“The Swimmer” typifies the ambiguous position Cheever occupied in relation to the suburbs and the “middle-class way of life” and offers a useful entrée into his “suburban oeuvre.” As suggested in the 1958 interview in the Saturday Review marking the publication of The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories, Cheever positioned himself somewhere between criticism and defense of suburbia.2 The perfect embodiment of this middle position is the image of Merrill peering in his window, essentially trespassing on his own...
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