JOHN CHEEVER (1912-1982)

Ossining's "Chekhov of the Suburbs"
by Bob Minzesheimer

John CheeverThe main reading room in the library is named for John Cheever, the great American novelist and short story writer who lived in Ossining from 1951 until his death in 1982.

The library's Board of Trustees named the room, which was designed as the library's "living room," to honor Cheever's contributions to literature and his strong connections to his adopted hometown. When Cheever was on the cover of Time in 1964, the headline was: "The Ovid of Ossining." John Leonard, former editor of The New York Times Book Review, praised Cheever as "the Chekhov of the suburbs."

Cheever won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Medal for Literature. With his short stories and novels, including The Wapshot Chronicle, The Wapshot Scandal, Bullet Park, and Falconer (inspired by writing classes he taught at Sing Sing), he remains one of the foremost chroniclers of postwar America.

Jane Clark, a longtime library staffer, remembers Cheever as a friend of the library. In 1982 Cheever wrote to Dorothy Lander, who was then the library director, noting that "with the destruction of the Hollow (a reference to the widening of Route 9), the Public Library, crowned on its hill, will seem to be the brains of the village and I suspect it has been all along." (That letter is now on display in the Reading Room).

John Cheever

Photo courtesy Nancy Crampton

In his 2009 biography, Cheever: A Life, Blake Bailey writes that "Cheever took pleasure in being a familiar face in his adopted hometown, the virtues of which he extolled with impressive zeal. When Cheever was profiled by People in 1979, the magazine described Ossining as a 'gritty enclave, dominated by Sing Sing penitentiary.' Cheever, indignant, rushed to disavow the slur in the local Citizen Register: 'Paradise on earth,' he said, 'with its fine views of the Hudson, its unpretentious people, its good restaurants, its nearness to New York."

When Cheever died, Ossining's flags were flown at half-mast for ten days. His son, writer Benjamin Cheever, and daughter-in-law Janet Maslin, lowered the flag at the Highland Diner themselves. The Citizen Register proudly wrote that "Cheever was as closely associated with Ossining as Emerson with Concord or Tolstoy with Yasnaya Ployana."

The John Cheever Reading Room was dedicated in a ceremony on May 10, 2007, attended by many of the author's friends and family. His widow, Mary Cheever, author of “The Changing Landscape: A History of Briarcliff Manor – Scarborough,” spoke. Barrett Clark, who was a member with Cheever of the local "Friday Club," read from several of Cheever’s short stories.

Cheever's fiction and personal life remain of interest to readers, decades after his death. Blake Bailey's ground-breaking biography received national attention in 2009. It was the subject of John Updike's last book review published in The New Yorker, which mentioned the Ossining Library.

Bailey visited the library on March 14, 2009 for a reception in the Reading Room and a book discussion, both attended by Mary and Ben Cheever. Bailey discussed his book with Max Rudin, publisher of The Library of America, which has released two collections of Cheever's writings, Collected Stories and Complete Novels.

RELATED WEBSITES

The New York Times Sunday Magazine: March 2009 by Charles McGrath

The John Cheever Web Site Critical Essays by John Dyer on Cheever's work, including "Parody and the Suburban Aesthetic," and "Cheever's Puritanism and the Pastoral." Photographs of the author are included.

The Boston Globe: "Cheever's Keeper," an interview with Cheever biographer Blake Bailey

Articles about Cheever in 2009 articles in The Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker.

The John Cheever Web Site Critical Essays by John Dyer on Cheever's work, including "Parody and the Suburban Aesthetic," and "Cheever's Puritanism and the Pastoral." Photographs of the author are included.

BOOKS ABOUT JOHN CHEEVER:

Cheever: a Life by Blake Bailey (2009)
Treetops: A Family Memoir by Susan Cheever (1999)
John Cheever: A Biography by Scott Donaldson (1988)
Home Before Dark: A Biographical Memoir of John Cheever by His Daughter by Susan Cheever (1984)

THE WRITINGS OF JOHN CHEEVER

The Way Some People Live: A Book of Short Stories, 1943
The Enormous Radio and Other Stories, 1953 -
The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well, 1954
Stories, 1956
The Wapshot Chronicle, 1957 (National Book Award)
The Housebreaker at Shady Hill and Other Stories, 1958
Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear in my Next Novel, 1961
The Wapshot Scandal, 1964 (Howell's Medal for Fiction)
The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, 1964 (includes the much anthologized story 'The Swimmer,' film 1968, dir. by Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack, written by Eleanor Perry, starring Burt Lancaster and Kim Hunter)
Homage to Shakespeare, 1965
Bullet Park, 1969
The World of Apples, 1973
Falconer, 1977
The Stories of John Cheever, 1978 (Pulitzer Prize)
The Leaves, The Lionfish and the Bear, 1980
Oh, What a Paradise It Seems, 1982
The Letters of John Cheever, 1988 (edited by Benjamin Cheever)
The Uncollected Stories of John Cheever, 1990
The Journals of John Cheever, 1991
Thirteen Uncollected Stories of John Cheever, 1994

TELEVISION INTERVIEWS

A Dick Cavett remembrance with an accompanying video on The New York Times website

RADIO INTERVIEWS

To hear a 1992 CBS Radio interview with Benjamin Cheever about his own career and his father go to: http://wiredforbooks.org/benjamincheever/

To hear Susan Cheever talking about her writing and her father in 1984, 1985 and 1991 interviews, go to: http://wiredforbooks.org/susancheever/

John Cheever

Photo courtesy Nancy Crampton

FOR LISTENING:

The John Cheever Audio Collection by John Cheever read by Cheever, Meryl Streep, Edward Herrmann, Peter Gallagher and George Plimpton (Caedmon / HarperAudio, 6 1/2 hours, unabridged).

USA Today reviewer Deirdre Donahue wrote that this "12-story collection left me gasping with admiration and shock, reminding me what a literary master John Cheever was. "Benjamin Cheever, his son, reads the preface that his father wrote to his collected stories, and the author himself reads the last two stories in the collection. Both do an excellent job, but Herrmann, Plimpton and Gallagher provide standout performances.”

"Streep opens the collection with 'The Enormous Radio,' marvelously modulating her voice to suit the story's changing pace and spirit. (Yes, she does do an English nursemaid accent to perfection.)”

"And to all those baby boomer authors who fancy that they discovered sex, booze, infidelity and the crushing despair of adult life, Cheever was there first and has never been topped. This one's a keeper — for adults and older teens only, however."