Decoding Mad Men with Cheever

July 26, 2010
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With Ossining, New York as the locale of Don Draper’s broken home in the TV series Mad Men, notes the New York Times, “If ‘Mad Men’ came with a decoder ring it would surely spell out: Read John Cheever.”

    Cheever delved beyond the idylls of suburbia to find the mixed blessings beneath the surface in his prize-winning stories. Before he became the Ovid of Ossining, he learned the layers of American life and complexity writing about Manhattanites, including his stint on the New York Writers’ Project, finishing up the WPA guide to the city.
    “One of Cheever’s most prominent themes is that things are not what they seem,” notes Blake Bailey, Cheever’s biographer. In that, Cheever has much in common with fellow WPA alumni Richard Wright and noir novelist Jim Thompson (whose The Killer Inside Me was remade as a film released this year). Thompson’s biographer Robert Polito says in Soul of a People, “Thompson said that Karl Marx gave him a language to understand his life, and he later put that in literary terms. He said that there were 32 ways of telling a story but really only one plot: that things are not what they seem.”
    Wright similarly wrote of African American life in 12 Million Black Voices, penned while he was on the New York writers’ project with Cheever: “Each day when you see us black folk upon the dusty land of the farms or upon the hard pavement of the city streets, you usually take us for granted and think you know us, but our history is far stranger than you suspect, and we are not what we seem…”
    Maybe this is only natural. The Great Depression heightened writers’ awareness of the contradictions in American life. As literary historian Maryemma Graham notes in the current issue of Poets & Writers, WPA writers discovered “the possibility that there was another story of America that had remained untold…”

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