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Richard Yates: Chronicler of Disappointed Lives

Andrew Madigan By Andrew Madigan Published on October 17, 2017
This article was updated on November 18, 2017

Richard Yates is one of the 20th century’s great writers, but he wasn’t famous, never sold many books, and lived his final years alone in a shabby Alabama apartment. By the time of Yates’ death, 25 years ago, all his books were out of print. His New York Times obituary was headlined “Chronicler of Disappointed Lives.” The first sentence alluded to “novels about self-deception, disappointment and grief.” Yates’ own story, like his fiction, is both compelling and unsettling.

The Life

Yates was born in Yonkers, New York, 1926. His parents fought often and viciously, divorcing when he was three. Afterward, he lived with his mother and sister, rarely seeing his father. They moved frequently, never settling in one place for long. Money was always an issue, but somehow his mother found enough coins between the seat cushions to send him to boarding school in New England. Ruth—his mother—was a sculptor who devoted most of her time to art and socializing, at least from her son’s perspective. She was an alcoholic in poor mental health who never made it as an artist. Yates was deeply bitter about his childhood. Domestic unhappiness would become the central theme of his work.

Yates’ high school years coincided with the Second World War. After graduation, he enlisted in the Army and was deployed to France, where he was assigned to the infantry. The fighting in Europe was winding down, but Yates saw a bit of action before the Armistice. Afterward, he went to Germany with the Occupation forces. Here, he caught tuberculosis and was given a small disability pension.

In 1946, after being discharged, Yates returned to New York, where he worked as a journalist. He married Sheila Bryant two years later and, in 1951, sailed for Paris. He embodied the romantic, hard-living image of a writer—drinking and smoking incessantly, crammed into a shoebox apartment, working doggedly at the typewriter, lounging in cafés. Yates wrote short stories, slowly and carefully, sharpening his craft.

1953. Back to New York. Yates worked as a freelance copywriter for Remington Rand, which manufactured business machines. He and Sheila had two children, Monica and Sharon, but divorced in 1959. Monica was the inspiration for Elaine Benes, the Seinfeld character. Monica dated Larry David, the show’s creator. Yates himself is parodied in “The Jacket” episode, in which Elaine’s father appears—a grim, angry, unsmiling writer.

Yates wanted to write full-time, but fiction never paid the bills. He survived by teaching writing at Columbia, Wichita State, USC, the New School, the University of Alabama, Boston University and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Yates was a conscientious, beloved teacher who often went out for drinks with students. He was typically attired in Brooks Brothers suits, a habit he cultivated at boarding school. Yates never went to college or had money. He envied the upper class and was resentful about his own lot in life.

There were a few modest successes. Yates wrote the screen adaptation for a 1962 production of William Styron’s Lie Down In Darkness. Around the same time, he wrote speeches for the Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy.

In 1968 Yates married Martha Speer. They had a daughter, Gina, and divorced after seven years. The longer he lived the more bleak, unhappy and isolated his life became. Novelist Robert Stone reflects on his friend’s solitary existence in Boston:

The apartment was kept tidy and Spartan: he had two tables he used as desks, a typewriter, a radio tuned to classical music stations, and a television set on the floor that he never plugged in. Without fail, he wrote every day, breaking only for meals at a restaurant called Crossroads, dressed in a suit and tie. One time, he was…jotting something down on a napkin. When pressed, he bashfully revealed that he was listing the titles of his books.

James Woods commented in the New Yorker that Yates moved all over the country but “his homes were identical in their shabby discipline of neglect.”

Yates went through four packs of cigarettes a day, chain-smoking even while confined to a tuberculosis sanitorium, even when dying of emphysema and hooked up to oxygen tanks. He burned down his apartment “on at least one occasion,” and in his final years lived in near-poverty in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He alienated friends with a cantankerous personality and violent outbursts. He suffered from nervous breakdowns, alcoholism and depression. Yates died in 1992 at a VA hospital in Birmingham, due to emphysema and complications from surgery.

The Work

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One of Yates’ earliest stories, “A Really Good Jazz Piano,” was rejected by nine editors. He considered it one of his best works—sad, funny and true. His devoted, long-suffering agent Monica McCall eventually found a place for the story. He would’ve been lost without her. His first novel, Revolutionary Road, was a finalist for the National Book Award, but unfortunately—and, for Yates, typically—1962 was a remarkable year for fiction. He was competing against Salinger, Bellow, Walker Percy and Catch-22. Yates did not win.

Revolutionary Road (1961) is a witty, sardonic title for the story of an average married couple who are bored, unfulfilled, angry and unhappy. There’s nothing revolutionary about them, except in the deluded arena of self-perception. Halfway through the novel the wife, April Wheeler, confides: “I still had this idea that there was a whole world of marvelous golden people somewhere.” When she finds them, she knows that she’ll fit right in, but she never finds them and, if she had, she probably wouldn’t have fit in.

Here’s what the New York Times said when the novel was reissued in 1983:

Writing in controlled, economical prose, Mr. Yates delineates the shape of these disintegrating lives without lapsing into sentimentality or melodrama. His ear for dialogue enables him to infuse the banal chitchat of suburbia with a subtext of Pinteresque proportions, and he proves equally skilled at reproducing the pretentious, status-conscious talk of people brought up on Freud and Marx. If, at times, we are tempted to see Frank as something of a deluded, ineffectual snob, we are also inclined to sympathize with him—so graceful is Mr. Yates’s use of irony. His portrait of these thwarted, needlessly doomed lives is at once brutal and compassionate.

The reviewer is Machiko Kakutani, an infamously tough critic. Revolutionary Road was, and still is, beloved by critics. Nonetheless, it sold fewer than 10,000 copies.

Yates’ writing was compulsively autobiographical. 

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He was precisely the same age as most of his protagonists and their lives—be they men or women—always mirrored his own. He wasn’t prolific but he was a conscientious and careful craftsman who revised with meticulous attention to detail. He wrote only nine books in a career that spanned more than 30 years. None of his works are long or, on the surface, complex. His first collection of stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962), is often compared to Joyce’s Dubliners. Each story is set in and around Manhattan; Yates portrays the quiet lives of ordinary people while also telling the story of a city.

In the postwar years dominated by experimental writers (Pynchon, Barth, Vonnegut, Kerouac, Burroughs) and extravagant realism (Mailer, Roth, Bellow, Updike, Vidal), Yates’ subtle, unpretentious and rather old-fashioned style never found a wide audience. He was admired by critics and fellow writers, but his books never sold more than 12,000 copies in hardcover.

Another obstacle to success was the unrelentingly depressing nature of Yates’ fiction. Consider the following passages from A Special Providence (1969), another ironically-titled work. It’s the story of an alcoholic single mother and her son. Yates begins by addressing the son’s thoughts regarding his mother—a failed artist—at her ex-husband’s funeral:

And he was appalled at her behavior in the funeral parlor. Moaning, she collapsed into the heaped flowers and planted a long and passionate kiss on the dead man’s waxen face.
He stared down into the plain, still face of [his father] and tried to study every detail of it, to atone for all the times he had never quite looked the man in the eye. He dredged his memory for the slightest trace of real affection…but it was no use. Turning away from the corpse at last and taking her arm, he looked down at her weeping head with revulsion. It was her fault. She had robbed him of a father and robbed his father of a son.

The ensuing paragraphs are no lighter. The son blames himself, reflects on their financial ruin, admits that his mother’s art is “stiff and labored and hopelessly unsaleable.” The section ends when the son discovers that his mother doesn’t have enough money to eat properly.

These thoughts span less than a page-and-a-half of text and are characteristic of the novel’s dour tone. The prose is impeccable and the story is captivating, but the darkness isn’t for everyone.

In “The Lost World of Richard Yates”, Stewart O’Nan touches on both the quality of his work and the disappointing fact of its obscurity:

The surface of his prose is so clear, in fact, and the people and events he writes about so average and identifiable, so much like the world we know, that it seems his books would merit a larger general audience than those of his more difficult literary peers. But that has not been the case.

The essay was published by the Boston Review in 1999. O’Nan raved about the consistent depth and polish of Yates’ work, and its importance to the canon. His enthusiastic reassessment set off a posthumous renaissance for the author. In 2001 the New Yorker published one of his stories, “The Canal.” During his lifetime, Yates had submitted many pieces to the magazine, but they’d all been rejected. The Collected Stories of Richard Yates came out the same year and was met with rave reviews. In 2003 Blake Bailey published A Tragic Honesty, a definitive, large-scale biography of Yates, and five years later Revolutionary Road was adapted into a successful film starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Yates has been heralded by a wide variety of writers, including Dorothy Parker, William Styron, Tennessee Williams and John Cheever. Vonnegut called Revolutionary Road the Gatsby of its time. Yates’ brand of stark, restrained realism was a direct and powerful influence on writers such as Andre Dubus, Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Richard Ford, A.M. Homes, Tobias Wolff and Mona Simpson, anyone who practiced minimalism or enrolled in an MFA program. His fictive children and grandchildren sell more books than he ever did, even when their work is only a dull, lifeless imitation of the master. In a final irony, today his books sell rather briskly at online retailers. Consumers buy his work using the business machines for which Yates wrote advertising copy—he loathed every minute of the work.

Yates is an seminal, if quite overlooked, architect of contemporary culture. His domestic realism, painfully quotidian dreariness, and a subtle dollop of lightness—a uniquely Yatesian stew—has informed not only contemporary fiction but also independent film, premium TV, even alternative music. We see his thumbprint in Leonard Cohen, Morrissey, True Detective, Mad Men, wherever fictional characters lead lives of quiet dissipation. 

Banner photo courtesy Paramount from the film adaptation of Revolutionary Road with Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio.


Freelance writer (food, drinks, books, travel, music, film) and former professor (creative writing, literature, Islamic studies, US history) and magazine editor who's lived in the UK, New York, ... Show More