This article originally appeared in the Reader on November 14, 2003.
This summer Picador illuminated an overlooked chapter in American literature when it published a hefty biography of my old writing teacher and friend Richard Yates (1926-’92), the author of Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade, and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. I’d been keeping an eye out for the book ever since I was interviewed for it two years earlier, but I procrastinated for weeks before finally cracking it, because as anyone who’s read his fiction might suspect and as anyone who knew him well would testify, Yates was much better acquainted with the varieties of loneliness than joy.
His greatness has never been seriously disputed. His first novel, Revolutionary Road, published in 1961, has been lauded by Kurt Vonnegut (“The Great Gatsby of my time”), William Styron (“A deft, ironic, beautiful novel that deserves to be a classic”), and Tennessee Williams (“If more is needed to make a masterpiece in modern American fiction I am sure I don’t know what it is”). Dorothy Parker thought him “extravagantly gifted.” Robert Stone has called him “one of the most important and influential writers of the second half of the century.”
His goodness is another matter—especially now that Blake Bailey has opened the floodgates to Yates’s private life with A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates. What comes pouring out is mostly alcohol, because for nearly his entire adult life Yates drank—and drank and drank. He suffered from bipolar disorder, which could never be properly medicated because he refused to quit drinking. He drove away wives, children, friends, and potential employers with his verbal abuse, his psychotic episodes, and his serial nervous breakdowns. Yet many of those interviewed for the book, myself included, remember Yates with great affection: at his best, which is how I saw him much of the time, he could be disarmingly candid and grimly funny, especially regarding himself, and the compassion for life’s losers that made his stories heartbreaking was evident every time he spoke. Despite all the pathetic and horrifying incidents chronicled in the book, there are just as many moments that made me miss his company.
I found his work the way many undergraduates do—through his anthologized 1952 story “The Best of Everything.” Its vivid New York dialogue reminded me of J.D. Salinger, but unlike the penthouse misfits of Nine Stories, Yates’s characters were an ordinary lower-middle-class couple, warily circling the knowledge that their impending marriage will be a colossal mistake. Two of my writing teachers, Robin Metz at Knox College and Mark Costello at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, had studied under Yates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop back in the mid- to late-60s and urged me to check out his work. I read Young Hearts Crying (1984), at the time his latest novel (which he would later disown), and from there made my way back to Revolutionary Road. Since then I’ve given away innumerable copies of it because it’s the perfect gift: few people I’ve met have read it, and few people who’ve read it have ever forgotten it.
The first time I saw Yates, in August 1990, he was standing alone in the foyer of a restaurant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, trying to catch his breath after the short walk to the front door. I’d been looking forward to meeting him, and I recognized him immediately from his dust-jacket photos, but he was having such a rough time that I decided to introduce myself later. He was only 64, but years of emphysema had doubled him over slightly, and his skin was sallow from a lifelong habit of four packs a day—a couple days earlier he’d been taken off an airplane in a wheelchair and revived with oxygen, which he would soon begin using daily. His hair and his beard were white, set off by bright blue eyes, and he was clad in the casual prep-school ensemble he’d picked up as a teenager and never shed: herringbone tweed jacket, crisp white shirt, tan khakis, crepe-soled shoes.
I was beginning my last year in the graduate writing program at the University of Alabama, and he’d just won a cushy one-term fellowship that included residence in the Strode House, just north of the English Department’s Morgan Hall. For the past five years he’d been living hand to mouth as he wrestled with his tenth book, an autobiographical novel encompassing his brief employment as a speechwriter for Attorney General Robert Kennedy. I’d long counted Yates among my favorite authors, and because none of my classmates had read all of his work I’d nabbed the perk of introducing him at the public reading he was scheduled to deliver that evening.
Despite his violent coughing fits at dinner, he impressed the crowd with a lovely reading of “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired,” a long story about his mother’s thwarted career as a sculptor. I never had any idea how sick he was that night: in A Tragic Honesty Bailey reports, “After the last well-wisher had departed—but not before—Yates doubled over in his chair.”
His health took a turn for the better once he was set up with oxygen, and every Thursday afternoon he taught a literature class at Morgan Hall, showing up with a well-annotated copy of Madame Bovary or The Great Gatsby or The Good Soldier and trying to explain what made realistic fiction tick. The class was full of graduate students in fiction writing, and I was among those he asked to drive him to Morgan or to the grocery store.
He couldn’t have been more pleased to meet someone who’d read his work closely, and he was happy to satisfy my curiosity about his work. I was surprised to hear him give such a grim assessment of it: he liked Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade (1976), a novel about his mother and sister, yet he considered himself a failed writer.
It was one lesson I couldn’t have learned in class. For ten years I’d been pursuing the same career, encouraged by praise from teachers and classmates just as he had been, and here he sat with 40 years of clear accomplishment, as insecure as I was. The better I got to know him the more he frightened me, largely because I saw some of myself in him: the crippling self-doubt, the mordant humor, the addictive personality, the talent for articulating other people’s flaws. No wonder I loved his books so much. I’d just gotten married that summer; he’d been living alone since 1974, when his second wife left him. He told me he was still “carrying the torch” for her. Years later when my wife and I divorced, I wondered if I would live out my days like him, old and alone.
The English department at UA was rife with gender warfare that fall, and the women in class were put off by Yates’s affectionate chauvinism and white-bread book list, though his sickly pallor seemed to prevent the term “dead white male” from being uttered in class. He quizzed me about women in the department who attracted him, though his infirmity was so evident he didn’t stand a chance. Among the writing students he was a treasured elder and a huge nuisance, coughing horribly as he knocked cigarette ashes over every inch of a room. My wife and I invited him over for dinners, and our friend Tim Parrish tried to integrate him into his rock ‘n’ roll house parties. But whenever the conversation turned from writing he seemed out of place and behind the times.
His only real friends in town were George and Kathy Starbuck, more transplants from Iowa City. George had served briefly as director of the Writers’ Workshop over Yates, and after winning a UA chair the previous year, he and his wife moved to Tuscaloosa, intending to retire there. Tall, soft-spoken, eccentric, and terribly afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, George was a brilliant poet with a mathematical bent, and Kathy was warm and whip smart. One evening I invited them over for dinner to keep Yates company. When they arrived he went for them like a drowning man.
I took advantage of Yates too, assigning Revolutionary Road to my American-lit survey and recruiting him for a classroom visit. Putting him in front of young readers, especially southern belles, seemed like the best thing I could do for him in his condition, and the book certainly merited close study. Apart from Nicholas Ray’s movie Bigger Than Life, I can’t think of another story that peers as steadily into the anguished soul of middle-class America in the 1950s. Yates was a hit, speaking frankly and humorously about his career and his characters and the process of writing the book, and he seemed pleased to hear young people’s reactions to Frank and April Wheeler.
Though he wasn’t quite this candid in class, the novel was based on his years living in suburban Redding, Connecticut, with his first wife, Sheila Bryant, and working as a hack writer at the Remington Rand Corporation in New York. An attractive couple in their early 30s, Frank and April marry to rescue each other from loneliness but several years and two children later find themselves trapped in a stultifying Connecticut suburb, their love fading as surely as their dreams of greatness. Frank wears a veil of irony to shield himself from a pointless office job, April slides into angry despair as a dutiful housewife. They spend countless boozy evenings with their neighbors Shep and Milly Campbell discussing “the elusive but endlessly absorbing subject of Conformity, of The Suburbs, or Madison Avenue, or American Society Today,” luxuriating in the sense “that they alone, the four of them, were painfully alive in a drugged and dying culture.”
Hoping to escape their materialistic life, Frank and April hatch a scheme to move their family to Paris for a year, the better to discover themselves. The Campbells are wounded when the Wheelers drop in for one of their little cocktail parties but are suddenly and visibly bored by them (for Shep, who’s secretly infatuated with April, the moment is doubly painful). Then Frank begins to change his mind about leaving their little house on Revolutionary Road—not because of the attractive job offer he receives or because of April’s unexpected pregnancy, but because he’s begun to wonder whether he was really meant for greatness after all and he’s frightened by the prospect of finding out.
After April dies trying to abort her third child, Shep unexpectedly emerges as the modest hero of the novel, securing for himself and us a piercing moment of clarity that rescues the story from despair. He and Milly are awkwardly entertaining the Braces, the young couple who’ve just moved into the Wheelers’ old house, when Shep agrees with Milly that April’s death has brought them closer together: “And the funny part, he realized, the funny part was that he actually meant it. Looking at her now in the lamplight, this small, rumpled, foolish woman, he knew he had told the truth. Because God damn it, she was alive, wasn’t she? If he walked over to her chair right now and touched the back of her neck, she would close her eyes and smile, wouldn’t she? Damn right, she would. And when the Braces went home—and with God’s help they would soon be getting the hell on their way—when the Braces went home she would go in and bustle clumsily around the kitchen, washing the dishes and talking a mile a minute (‘Oh, I like them so much; don’t you?’). Then she would go to bed, and in the morning she’d get up and come humping downstairs again in her torn dressing gown with its smell of sleep and orange juice and cough syrup and stale deodorants, and go on living.”
Yates went on living, following the Starbucks’ lead and staying in Tuscaloosa after his semester in the Strode House was up—rent was cheap, and the writing department would pay him a small stipend to read student manuscripts. Whenever I talked to him about his situation he told me he had to make 66 and get on social security. He moved into a spartan two-room apartment near campus, on Alaca Place, and Dan Childress, a writing student who took care of Yates in innumerable ways, helped him buy a used car.
We students were glad to see him stay. He was precise and honest in his responses to our work, and he seemed to take us seriously as writers. He also understood one thing even some of our spouses didn’t—the time demands of the work, the need for long stretches of silence and solitude. “I think it probably is the hardest and loneliest profession in the world,” he told the Transatlantic Review in 1972, “this crazy, obsessive business of trying to be a good writer. None of us ever knows how much time he has left, or how well he’ll be able to use that time, or whether, even if he does use his time well, his work will ever withstand and survive the terrible, inexorable indifference of time itself.” Surely he envied us our time as much as we envied him his talent.
I always pressed him for details about his new book, but aside from telling me the title—”Uncertain Times,” taken from a remark Robert Kennedy made to him—he just laughed. The Justice Department had hired Yates after Kennedy’s disastrous meeting with James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and other black cultural figures in May 1963, hoping this talented young novelist recommended by William Styron could lend some poetry to Kennedy’s civil rights pronouncements. Yates described Kennedy to me as aloof and conceited, though he wrote a friend at the time that Kennedy “seemed to like what I wrote, which fortunately was almost all about civil rights, and I think I even managed to put a few words in his mouth that were stronger than he otherwise might have used.”
Kennedy’s inclusion in the book had prompted Esquire to buy two chapters as an excerpt, but Yates had been struggling with the manuscript for years: he couldn’t seem to get the characters, and the book stalled just like the 1969 A Special Providence, which had taken up seven years of his life and then flopped. It was the only one of his books I hadn’t read in my early 20s, because it was long and hard to find and he’d disparaged it in interviews. Begun as an “autobiographical blowout” after the careful craft of Revolutionary Road, it dully chronicles a young man’s unexceptional experiences in Germany at the tail end of World War II, while uncertainly exploring his painful relationship with a delusional mother. The lack of distance from the material had clearly tied him in knots, and I could only guess the same thing was happening with “Uncertain Times.”
When PBS broadcast Robert Drew’s documentary Kennedy v. Wallace: A Crisis Up Close, about Robert Kennedy’s telephone standoff with George Wallace over integrating the University of Alabama in June 1963, I taped it and invited Yates and some friends over to watch it. He was fascinated, identifying people and rooms from his time in the attorney general’s office as he dropped ashes all over our new couch. How strange it must have been to suddenly see again people he’d worked with three decades earlier, to watch Nicholas Katzenbach confer with Kennedy by telephone, then confront Wallace in the “schoolhouse door” of Foster Auditorium, a mile from where we now sat.
The next fall Mark Costello was awarded the writing chair and moved into the Strode House. A handsome ex-marine from Decatur, Illinois, Costello was as able as Yates was disabled. But they both loved good writing, and I loved hearing them talk about it. Costello is a wonderful stylist with a unique voice, and his eulogy for Yates perfectly describes the little first-floor apartment on Alaca Place: “Bare, cramped, indifferently furnished, one small Hopper reproduction hung crookedly on the wrong wall, it was an apartment in which you expected to see space heaters and you did. The cracked, tobacco-colored floor (like a floor from one of Dick’s own institutional stories), the single bed (on rollers) that doubled as a couch, the metal folding chair that was the only chair in the livingroom, the utter ruglessness and TV-lessness of it all, these seemed to get more unfair and forbidding as Dick got older.”
After Costello returned to his tenured job at the University of Illinois in January 1992, I saw less of Yates than ever: he never visited the campus, and I had a new job teaching four English classes a semester. One afternoon he came to my fiction-writing class to talk about “Builders,” the marvelous long story that closes Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. The narrator, an aspiring writer who’s going nowhere, answers an ad in the Saturday Review and soon finds himself apprenticed to an aging cabbie who wants him to ghostwrite inspirational stories from his life for Reader’s Digest. A purely autobiographical tale, written just after Revolutionary Road as a “warm-up” for A Special Providence, “Builders” is a high-water mark in Yates’s work—hilarious, poignant, and commanding in its simple but exact prose. My students were taken aback to hear how close it was to his own experience, how little fictional crafting it had required. Yet as he’d said about the story 20 years earlier, “Somehow, and maybe it was just luck, I managed to avoid both of the two terrible traps that lie in the path of autobiographical fiction—self-pity and self-aggrandizement.”
The last time we spoke at length was that August, when he asked me to drive him to the Birmingham airport to pick up Gina, his 20-year-old daughter from his second marriage. Yates joked that he wasn’t going to let any of us near a dish like his daughter, but he seemed surly. I wondered if he was angry about our phone conversation a couple months earlier: he’d called to see if I had any beer, having forgotten that Alabama blue laws prevented the sale of alcohol on Sunday, and I’d told him I couldn’t help him out. Since he’d arrived in Tuscaloosa he’d tended to drink at most five or six beers a night—nothing like the bottle of whiskey a day I’d read about—and once in a while I would pick up beer for him. But this was the first indication I’d ever had that he couldn’t go without. He probably sensed my pity and hated me for it, and I, as other people in his life, imagined him dicing me up in a story, finding the one ugly, honest detail that would lay me bare.
His mood soared after we collected Gina, who lived in Denver with her mother, Martha Speer, and was studying at the University of British Columbia. I invited them to dinner when I dropped them off, but Yates never got back to me or anyone else, as far as I know. He wanted his daughter all to himself. I’d seen her portrait the week he arrived, propped up in the living room of the Strode House, and for years the pictures of his three daughters had been the sole personal touch in his cheap apartments. I never saw either of them again.
He died early that November at the VA hospital in Birmingham, where he’d gone for a hernia operation. Somehow I was shocked by the news. He’d seemed close to death for so long I couldn’t believe he was actually gone.
Allen Wier, the head of the UA writing program, called a few of Yates’s friends, and four or five of us cleaned out his apartment and boxed up his things for his two older daughters, who were on their way down. A memorial service was held in New York a month later.
Wier recovered the manuscript for “Uncertain Times” from Yates’s refrigerator and sent it to Seymour Lawrence, his long-suffering publisher. But it was never published in any form, and as Bailey reveals, only the first section, dealing with Kennedy, was completed. The second section was a mess, the final part little more than a collection of notes.
A few months after Yates’s death a professor told me, “You should write the story of Dick’s life.” The idea didn’t appeal to me. The small portion of his life I knew was enough to persuade me that the rest had been far from happy, and I didn’t want to spend five years of my life inhabiting his.
My participation in Bailey’s book was limited to a one-hour phone call and a couple e-mails in the spring of 2001. After years of interviewing people for nonfiction stories, I was intrigued to be on the other side of the transaction—especially since Bailey kept reminding me of incidents I’d long forgotten. He knew more about Yates’s life than I ever would, though I was surprised to learn that he’d never heard Yates’s rheumy voice. Or for that matter, one of those awful coughing jags that seemed about to rip him in two.
Written with the full cooperation of Yates’s daughters and two ex-wives, A Tragic Honesty weighs in at 671 pages, providing an exhaustively researched account of a life spent mostly sitting alone at a typewriter. I can hardly be considered an objective reader, because my primary feeling toward the book is gratitude. The thought that his work would be forgotten tortured Yates, and this thick volume accompanies a spike in public interest that began with Henry Holt’s best-selling The Collected Stories of Richard Yates (2001). Bailey is a good, if occasionally verbose, writer and an avid, perceptive reader of Yates’s fiction. Yet that avidity becomes the book’s most prominent flaw: when deprived of solid information, he simply dips into Yates’s autobiographical stories and novels for the beautifully turned phrase that will render the experience.
The earliest chapters are the worst afflicted by this. The 1953 story “Lament for a Tenor” supplies memories of Yates’s father, Vincent, a fine amateur singer who left the family when Dick was three and lived out his days as an alcoholic company man at General Electric. The Easter Parade, A Special Providence, and A Good School (1978) are pillaged for accounts of Yates’s mother, Ruth, a frustrated sculptor who drank heavily, clung to her dreams of artistic triumph through the Depression, and burdened Yates and his older sister with a series of shaky living situations. And A Good School provides details of Yates’s friendships at Avon Old Farms, a boarding school near Hartford, Connecticut, where he discovered his talent with words and edited the school paper in the early 1940s.
This makes for a certain amount of wheel spinning. When Ruth Yates is commissioned to sculpt a bust of FDR in chapter one, Bailey declares, “The whole episode is so superbly recounted in ‘Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired’ that it’s difficult to do much more than speculate and summarize,” before speculating and summarizing. By chapter three, which chronicles Yates’s military service in Germany during the last days of the war, Bailey seems to throw in the towel: “It does seem likely that Yates finally made a friend and mentor of sorts at Camp Pickett: a man represented by the well-spoken, irascible character of Quint in A Special Providence.” Quint is killed in action in that book and in the unfinished “Uncertain Times,” leading Bailey to conclude, “If such a man existed, and if he died in these or similar circumstances, then certain psychological ramifications might at least be considered, and for what they’re worth, the reader is left to consider them.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Yates would have muttered. The excessive citation of his fiction as fact is doubly annoying because it tends to negate his accomplishments as a writer. “Anybody can scribble out a confession or a memoir or a diary or a chronicle of personal experience,” he said in 1972, “but how many writers can form that kind of material? How many can make it into solid, artistically satisfying fiction?” As Yates grew older he turned again and again to his early life for material, cutting closer to the bone each time but increasingly losing the big picture—and he knew it. Yet even his least impressive stories and novels deserve to be read as fiction.
Bailey is pulled out of this hole by Sheila Bryant, Yates’s first wife, who broke a long silence to talk about him and whose lively correspondence with him throughout the 50s gives a much more immediate sense of his inner life than lines cadged from his work. Their marriage, with its separations, lasted from 1947 to ’59 and encompasses many of the experiences Yates so skillfully fictionalized in his early stories—his long hospitalizations for tuberculosis, his employment at small-time periodicals, his move to France with his wife and daughter, and his gray flannel years among the frustrated dreamers and satisfied mediocrities of Manhattan office life. Here Bailey’s study of the work becomes more rewarding: it’s fascinating to see Yates turn over each experience like a lapidary, shaping it into a gem—”The Best of Everything” or “No Pain Whatsoever” or “A Really Good Jazz Piano.” And the narrative of his and Bryant’s doomed marriage, their struggle to connect and find the good in themselves and each other, provides a poignant counterpoint to Frank and April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road.
Because I’ve taught that novel to students, I’ve read it more closely than any of his other books—and now that Bailey has revealed the personal experiences that inspired it I’m even more impressed with its craft. Yet my sense of the story has changed since I first read it. Back then I always considered Frank’s lack of nerve the reason his marriage to April ended so tragically. Two decades later I’m more struck by how naively both of them clung to the conviction that they were meant for great things. April, who’s been sorely neglected by her parents, once dreamed of “a whole world of marvelous golden people somewhere. People who made their lives work out the way they wanted without even trying, who never had to make the best of a bad job because it never occurred to them to do anything less than perfectly the first time.” As Bailey reveals, Yates himself thought that way as a young man.
“I guess I’m not very interested in successful people,” he told the Translatlantic Review. “I guess I’m more interested in failures.” But of course failure is the quotidian—most of us fail more than we succeed—which is why he dwelled on it and why his books are both depressing and endlessly rich in emotion. His own success was sweet indeed: Revolutionary Road was nominated for the National Book Award, and its critical acclaim won him jobs in Hollywood and Washington, not to mention more women than he’d ever imagined. But his name faded quickly from the public consciousness, and a long series of drunken outbursts on campuses and at writers’ gatherings, including one conference from which he was carried in a straitjacket, made him unemployable despite a general high regard for his work. He was the first to admit that, like his characters, he’d failed to live up to his potential.
The last half of A Tragic Honesty is frequently squalid and sad as it follows Yates’s prolonged descent into poverty, infirmity, and isolation. Bailey doesn’t seem to have spared us much, in keeping with Yates’s high regard for truthfulness. “The most important thing is not to tell or live a lie,” he quotes Yates as saying often, and certainly as a writer, a teacher, and a judge of people, Yates was a merciless bullshit detector. But he was human, and for me the only tragedy to emerge from his biography is one of dishonesty: he was celebrated among other writers for his commitment to his work, but by never submitting to treatment for his alcoholism he seriously compromised his fiction. Once his second marriage ended he completely lost touch with the world, shutting himself in his room to write during the day and drinking himself into a stupor at night. He may have told himself that he was sacrificing everything else in life to his work, but as his world contracted with alcohol and mental illness, he had nothing to ponder but his own unhappy past.
None of that really matters now. Most of his books are back in the stores, and they offer a more compelling portrait of Yates than anything Bailey or I can conjure. Reading his collected stories, both my old favorites and the newly recovered ones, reminds me how deeply he loved his characters—as much as he loved the important people in his life. How else could he make us wince with pain at their bad decisions? He took a dim view of any story that mocked or judged its characters, because he knew from reading Chekhov and Flaubert that people are both infinitely fallible and infinitely graced and that the art of writing has a great deal in common with the art of forgiveness.