"The Lamentation of a Vacuum Cleaner": Appliance Disappointments in John Cheever and Richard Yates

Rachele Dini

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    This article examines the representation of domestic appliances in a selection of short stories by John Cheever (a man who famously feared and mistrusted all electrical appliances), and Richard Yates (the son of an alcoholic regional sales representative for General Electric) published between 1947 and 1981, examining the ways in which these realist narratives challenge and indeed dismantle the idealised depictions of appliances in post-war radio, magazine ads, and television sitcoms (the majority of which were sponsored by the very same appliance brands that appeared in said sitcoms’ storylines). What I call Cheever and Yates’s “appliance disappointments” provide a counter to the optimistic narratives of the television sitcom and become, in these texts, props in the dramatization of post-war white working- and middle-class anxiety. I argue that these texts merit particular attention in light of recent developments in American studies that have shed light on the imbrication of television, consumer culture, and Cold War politics. In Cheever’s fiction, shiny new washing machines and hand-held electric mixers malfunction in ways that explicitly recall the explosive potential of the atomic bomb while Yates’ more straightforwardly autobiographical fiction form part of a very explicitly sullen, shabby backdrop from which they throw into relief the characters’ vanquished aspirations. Cheever and Yates’s appliance narratives draw attention to both authors’ acute awareness of the extent to which domestic life post-1945 revolved around gadgets (both televised and real) and their acknowledgement of such gadgets’ status as veritable actors in the drama of particularly white middle-class domesticity.
    © 2020, Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. The attached document (embargoed until 10/08/2021) is an author produced version of a paper published in TEXTUAL PRACTICE uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy. The final published version (version of record) is available online at the link. Some minor differences between this version and the final published version may remain. We suggest you refer to the final published version should you wish to cite from it.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages36
    JournalTextual Practice
    Publication statusPublished - 4 Aug 2020


    • John Cheever
    • Richard Yates
    • Post-1945 fiction
    • American Studies
    • Cold War
    • Advertising
    • Electrical appliances
    • Electricity
    • Domesticity
    • Consumerism
    • Realist fiction

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