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Richard Yates

In anticipation of the soon to be released film of Revolutionary Road, adapted from the debut novel of the same name by the late writer Richard Yates I thought I'd post a brief overview.

To write so well then to be forgotten is a terrible legacy,” said Stewart O’Nan of Richard Yates in 1999.

Most critics would agree that the main reason why novelist, short-story writer and screenwriter Richard Yates fell from view was because of his distinctively clear, yet deceptively simple prose style, which he unflinchingly adhered to throughout his seven novels and two short story collections. His adherence to social realism was despite the fact that he was writing in an increasingly postmodernist period, in which his contemporaries, such as Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, achieved far greater recognition.

Yates’ traditional social realism, sitting so comfortably in the camp espoused by Georgy Lukacs, was devoted to shining a light on the self-deceptions of his characters. It is an approach that often makes for uncomfortable reading for those readers identifying themselves with Yatesian characters and situations, not difficult when one considers how universal the Yates’ leitmotif of trying to be true to oneself and one’s own instincts for greater freedoms whilst under pressure to conform to society’s expectations.

From the existential angst of Revolutionary Road to the love-starved loneliness and thwarted ambition of Cold Spring Harbour, onwards to the tragic culmination of the alcohol-fuelled stark psychosis of Disturbing the Peace, Yates excelled in providing a clear reflection of American life from the nineteen fifties to the mid-eighties. This was the period of the Cold War and the infamous McCarthyite witch-hunts in which so many writers and other ‘creative types’ were under government suspicion for being on the left and therefore on the side of communism, deemed to be America’s greatest threat. Many of these people were subsequently blacklisted and effectively left out in the cold with no way of earning a living.

The reaction to the threat of communism was the pervasive propaganda of the capitalist American Dream which, with much help from the fast-growing public relations industry, which Yates was more than familiar with, built up in the nation’s collective conscious and seeped into the subconscious from where, Yates’ works seem to say, individuation stands no chance. Richard shows only too clearly in Revolutionary Road the hordes of commuters – corporation ‘yes men’ – making their way to the organizations of the metropolis. It is this picture of mass alienation as played out in the individual that Yates’ works would, to varying degrees and successes, set out to debunk as nothing more than soul-destroying myth.

Richard Walden Yates was born on February 2 1926 in Yonkers, New York. It is clear from Blake Bailey’s comprehensive biography A Tragic Honesty that Richard’s mother, and the young Richard too, saw his father, Vincent, as little more than someone who paid the bills. Vincent Yates was a sales executive who fitted the ‘all American’ category of capitalist lower middle-class sales chaser who would always struggle to stay ahead and, like many stressed-out salesmen, would eventually die an untimely death. Whilst Richard did not enjoy, or more accurately endure, the intense relationship with his father that he had with his mother, it is clear that his father’s daily struggles would become the model for many of his subsequent characters, many of whom fitted that particular corporate archetype from Whyte’s The Organizational Man, one of fifties America’s non-fiction best-sellers. Richard had one sibling, a sister, Helen, five years his senior. It is on Helen that he would base Sarah Grimes, the older sister in The Easter Parade, a novel which many claim was his second masterpiece, after Revolutionary Road, and in which the influence of his beloved Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is clear. The younger sister of the novel, Emily, was based on Richard himself, which he would later proclaim in the same way as his hero: Madame Bovary c’est moi.

Richard’s mother, Ruth Walden Maurer or ‘Dookie’ as she was known, was an eccentric, frustrated, and largely unsuccessful alcoholic sculptress. Dookie was vociferous in her hatred for the bland and bourgeois, yet seemed to live in a bubble of deluded grandeur. Dookie can be read as the main instigator of Richard’s need to attack the self-delusions and ingratiating class aspirations of his characters, in particular Gloria Drake in Cold Spring Harbour.

Richard’s parents divorced when Richard was three years old and he and his sister would have to endure moving homes and schools on his mother’s whim, usually when the bills piled up, from Connecticut to Greenwich Village to Scarborough-on-Hudson back to Greenwich Village and so on.

Despite his mother’s pretentions, growing up in Depression-era America Richard would experience first-hand what it was like to struggle economically, although this was not something that would remain in his childhood, for it would also become a regular feature throughout his life, progressively worsening in the years before his death.

For all of Dookie’s delusions of grandeur, however, it was her social ambition that enabled Richard to attend the elite Scarborough Country Day School. It is unfortunate that this too, like so much in his life, would prove to be short-lived due to his mother’s penchant for trying to live beyond their means and so were forced to flee the region and the school dogged by debt, further reinforcing Richard’s anxiety of never being able to fit in. However, Richard was able to spend the last period of his schooling relatively happy at the Avon Old Farms School in Connecticut where he discovered and was given the freedom to develop a journalistic talent. Yet instead of going straight to college from Avon he would join the Army, an especially vulnerable period of his life portrayed in A Special Providence.

It was whilst serving in the Army that Richard, who had felt so class conscious at schools like Scarborough Country Day, would also have to again contend with feeling that he did not fit in with the vast majority of blue-collar soldiers. Having missed out on Officer training by one point in the required IQ test – not because he was unable to answer the questions but that he read them so carefully he had only gotten half-way through the paper when the set time had passed – he tried to settle in with the regular GIs but found he never quite matched up to the overwhelming majority of them, whom he found much more macho and physically confident than he, a thin, gangly man, could ever hope to be.

However, his time spent in the army would prove fertile ground for Richard as he mined the experiences this time afforded him, and apart from A Special Providence, these would appear in many of his short stories. Yet the army would also leave Richard with a physical reminder of his service as his lungs were damaged, resulting in regular periods of hospitalization, although it did not hinder his heavy smoking habit.

After leaving the Army many took advantage of the GI Bill and went to college. However, in a move that Richard would regret for the rest of his life, he instead took on a variety of white-collar jobs such as writing for the trade journal Food Field Observer, although he also managed to attend creative writing classes at Colombia.

In 1947 Richard become a rewrite man on the financial desk of United Press. It was perhaps his time in this role – forced to write clear, concise copy and headlines, that Yates began to build the distinctively clear and measured prose style much admired by many other writers and which would earn him the title of a writer’s writer.

Richard married Sheila Bryant in June 1948, with whom he fathered two daughters – Sharon and Monica.

In 1949 Yates began a long association with Remington Rand business machines where he wrote for the in-house magazine. It was also during this time that Richard began what he would call his ‘F. Scott-Fitzgerald phase’, from which The Great Gatsby would emerge as a favourite novel, sitting alongside Flaubert’s Madam Bovary.

The lung damage suffered during his time in the army enabled him to receive a pension with which he was able to move to Europe for a couple of years with his first wife, allowing him the much-craved for time and space needed to write his short stories. Upon their return to America he would also return to Remington Rand on a freelance basis whilst continuing to write the stories that were now being published, as well as working on what would be his debut novel. However, unable to deal with Richard’s increasing reliance on alcohol Richard and Sheila separated in 1959.

Richard shone bright upon the publication of his first novel, Revolutionary Road, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1961, but losing out to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. It drew unbridled praise from every important quarter, branding Yates as an important new writer. In fact, Kurt Vonnegut would go on to claim that Revolutionary Road was the Great Gatsby of his time. William Sytron described it as "A deft, ironic, beautiful novel that deserves to be a classic.” Tennessee Williams went one further and announced, "Here is more than fine writing; here is what, added to fine writing, makes a book come immediately, intensely, and brilliantly alive. If more is needed to make a masterpiece in modern American fiction, I am sure I don't know what it is."

Revolutionary Road was set in Connecticut in 1955, the decade that Richard had attempted to first find his own writing voice. Yet despite the increasingly outward image of fifties America as being home to happy domesticated women, corporate innovation and possibility, Richard was intent on illuminating the human misery of the decade. It was not for nothing that Richard would be described in his 1992 obituary as the Chronicler of Disappointed Lives.

Yet it wasn’t long after the publication of his much-lauded debut that he suffered his first stay on a psychiatric ward after suffering mental breakdowns, something which would be played out in Disturbing the Peace.

Not long afterwards Richard, keen to diversify his writing skills, found himself moving to LA in order to write the screenplay of a novel whose writer he had greatly admired, although William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness would never be filmed. However, a later screenplay which he co-wrote with William Roberts, The Bridge at Ramegen, would make the screen in 1969 although, perhaps typically, LA and the film business would become hated by Richard. His writing skills were further diversified when, upon returning from LA, Richard began as a speechwriter for Senator Robert F. Kennedy, although this was brought to an untimely end by the assassination of JFK.

Richard would go on to take up teaching positions at the leading Iowa University writing workshops where he would inspire many, including Andre Dubus and DeWitt Henry.

In 1962 Eleven Kinds of Loneliness was published, his first collection of short stories. It too had praise heaped upon it. Kurt Vonnegut claimed it was “The best short-story collection ever written by an American."
He re-married in 1968 which saw the arrival of his third daughter, Gina. In 1969 the seven year gap between his debut novel and his second was closed with the publication of A Special Providence.

This marriage would also end in divorce in 1974, just before the publication of his third novel, Disturbing the Peace (1975).

Perhaps the most well-known Yates novel after Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade, was published in 1976. The story followed the lives of the Grimes sisters and the novel’s opening line prepares the reader what to expect as it declares: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce." The novel also parodied Richard’s mother, although the mother of the Grimes sisters was called ‘Pookie’.

The novel ended in typical Yatesian fashion, replicating the disappointed lives of Revolutionary Road.

The combination of Yates’ progressively worsening alcoholism, the long-standing trouble with his lungs, which would lead to emphysema, and his at times precarious mental health meant that he was drifting further away from any semblance of a normal life. In addition, Richard found himself as a writer more and more adrift.

Richard returned to his school and army days in A Good School (1978), which was not received with nearly as much enthusiasm as previous works. This was followed by his second collection of short stories, Liars in Love (1979).

Young Hearts Crying (1984), like all his previous novels, featured strongly the motifs of social class, focussing on the relationship of the Davenports, as well as the blacklisting of artists during the McCarthyite witch-hunts.

Cold Spring Harbour, Yates’ seventh and final completed novel, was published in 1986, again to rather lukewarm response.

Towards the end of his life Richard was living in increasingly squalid apartments, dependent upon the sporadic money earned from the writing teacher circuit as well as an oxygen task, yet continuing to smoke up to four packs a day.

Richard Yates died in the veterans hospital in Birmingham, Alabama in November 1992.

Today Richard Yates’ works are undergoing what many see as a long-deserved renaissance – attracting large groups of newly devoted fans. New editions of his entire works are enjoying healthy sales and Yates has been re-evaluated in the books sections of the leading national newspapers. In Britain writers such as Nick Hornby and Julian Barnes sing the praises of Richard Yates.

The film of Revolutionary Road, starring Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet, and directed by Sam Mendes, is due to appear in cinemas January 2009. The film of The Easter Parade is in production.

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