Dig this long, thoughtful piece on John Cheever by Edmond White in April 8 edition of the New York Review of Books:
Howard Moss, the poetry editor of The New Yorker, once said that fiction should be a combination of fairy tale and newspaper report. Cheever is sometimes discussed as a sociologist of the suburbs, but in fact a gold dust of fantasy touches everything he writes. In one of his best stories, “The Country Husband” (the story that made Hemingway wake up his wife in the middle of the night so that he could read it out loud to her), a man named Francis Weed survives a plane crash and hurries overland to his Dutch colonial house in Shady Hill. His children are squabbling, his wife preoccupied, and no one seems capable of registering his near brush with death. Francis falls in love with the baby-sitter; his wife threatens to leave him not because of his adulterous yearnings (which she doesn’t know about) but because he’s inconsiderate and has jeopardized their social standing by insulting the doyenne of Shady Hill. Francis sees a psychiatrist—and the whole suburban pastoral ends with the mysterious, irrelevant, but transfiguring lines: “Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.”
…Cheever, who was immensely likable, met and befriended many of the leading writers and artists of the day, became quite close to E.E. Cummings, and even had a guilt-ridden affair with the usually heterosexual photographer Walker Evans. Yaddo became his favorite retreat, an important refuge during the Depression, and the director, Elizabeth Ames, invited him back many times. In 1941 Cheever married Mary Winternitz, whose father had been the dean of Yale Medical School and whose grandfather, Thomas A. Watson, had been a coinventor of the telephone. Cheever, working hard to support a wife, began to publish in the “slicks” such as Harper’s Bazaar, Collier’s, and Mademoiselle. In 1942 he enlisted in the army and tested low-normal on the government IQ test. In 1942 he published his first short-story collection, The Way Some People Live, which wasn’t very good but may have saved his life since it impressed a major in the army who was also an MGM executive. He withdrew Cheever from his unit, which suffered terrible casualties in Europe in the last months of the war. Cheever was transferred as a writer to the former Paramount studios in Astoria, Queens.
After the war he began his twenty-year struggle to produce his first novel, which would finally take shape as The Wapshot Chronicle. In the meanwhile he supported his growing family by writing many, many stories for The New Yorker. Although people today revere The New Yorker, in the past it was something of a liability; I can remember in the 1950s how dismissive it was to call something a “typical New Yorker story,” by which people meant something slight, stylish, and vapid.