The Boston Globe, Sunday, July 13, 2003
By DeWitt Henry
I wonder who might be my soul's best advocate on Judgment Day. My mother? My wife? Who would know me as innocent enough, despite the flaws mistakes, and failures of my life? A writer might, I imagine. Chaucer,perhaps; Chekhov, perhaps. When I came to know Richard Yates as a writer, teacher, reader, and friend, I thought of him as the ideal advocate, far more so than any other contemporary writer. To sympathize and to judge is the novelist's vocation. But then what of the novelists themselves? To Milton's maxim that only a good man can become a good poet, we have Tolstoy's counter-maxim: good art, bad life.
Yates's advocate is Blake Bailey, his biographer, who, while depicting Yates's aesthetic and personal flaws, argues for his place in the American canon alongside Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner, not to mention the most celebrated writers of Yates's generation and later.
Since Yates's death, 11 years ago, his stature as one of the purest American writers of this century has been endorsed by Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron, Richard Ford, and many others. However, for some years Yates's work remained out of print, until the critical revival began with Random House's 2000 edition of "Revolutionary Road," with an introduction by Ford. This was followed in 2001 by "The Collected Stories of Richard Yates" (which actually made bestseller lists), as well as new editions of Yates's novels "The Easter Parade," "A Good School," and "A Special Providence." Now, with this meticulously researched, judicious, and perceptive biography, the case seems complete.
Drawing on countless interviews with family, friends, and writers who knew Yates, as well as manuscripts in the Richard Yates Collection at Boston University and Yates's own private papers, Bailey assembles the evidence into a narrative that is as moving as it is precise. Yates's voice emerges clearly, thanks to Bailey's skillful weaving together of direct quotation, commentary, by turns wry, wondering, and sympathetic, frames each moment, and the story unfolds with relentless logic. In fact, Bailey's version of Yates's life proves to be its own kind of masterpiece, as gripping as the best of Yates's novels, and more inspiring than sad.
Having grown up in Manhattan and Westchester with an art-crazed, quixotic, and class-obsessed mother, to whom he was "improperly close," Yates "discovered Flaubert," Bailey notes, "and Dookie [his mother] became his foremost Emma; his sense of her, and hence humanity, proved vital to his bleakly deterministic worldview." In the army from 1944 to '46, Yates picked up "fatalism" as a soldier, lost his virginity, and learned to drink. On his return he met Sheila Bryant, the daughter of a second-rate British actor, who would become Yates's first wife and the partial model for April Wheeler in "Revolutionary Road."
An autodidact, Yates never went to college. Instead he worked at dreary trade journals such as Food Field Reporter and Trade Union Courier, then as a rewrite man for the United Press, until he was fired for incompetence. During one of several separations from his wife, with yet apprentice novel hopelessly stalled, Yates attempted suicide. As Bailey points out, "At 23, Yates remained unpublished, unmentored, and largely unencouraged as a fiction writer." A little later he was hospitalized for tuberculosis, recovered, and was able to take Sheila and their 1-year-old daughter to Europe on a veteran's disability pension, "determined to grind out stories at the rate of one per month."
In 1953 Yates returned to New York and public relations work for Remington Rand, and two years later he began his long struggle to complete his first and most famous novel, "Revolutionary Road." In the meantime he began drinking heavily, his marriage ended, and shortly after he delivered the finished novel to Seymour Lawrence at Atlantic / Little, Brown, he had the first of many mental breakdowns and was taken to Bellevue.
"Revolutionary Road," nominated for the 1962 National Book Award, brought Yates a certain amount of opportunity and acclaim. That year he went to Hollywood, where he was hired by director John Frankenheimer to write a screenplay for Styron's "Lie Down in Darkness." The following summer Yates suffered another breakdown, at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and subsequently became a trial patient of Nathan S. Kline, later celebrated for his innovations in psychopharmacology. In 1963 (thanks to Styron) Yates, now an outpatient, found work as Robert F. Kennedy's speechwriter, which ended with President Kennedy's assassination. For the rest of his life, amid occasional intervals of (relative) financial independence, Yates would reluctantly support himself as a writing teacher - most notably at the Iowa Writers' Workshop from 1964 to '71, where his friends included Vonnegut, R. V. Cassill, and the young Andre Dubus. It was there, too, that he met and married the 22-year-old Martha Speer.
Yates had followed "Revolutionary Road" with the publication of hisstories, "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness" (1962), but after eight years of writing, rejection, and revision, he published "A Special Providence" and saw it as a failure. He had changed publishers, but after he was denied tenure at Iowa and forced to take a post at Wichita State for two years, Seymour Lawrence (now an independent publisher) signed up "Disturbing the Peace," which enabled Yates to return to New York with Martha and their baby. Here, in 1974, his second marriage broke up as a result of his drinking and bizarre behavior. Miraculously, his work flourished: Within two years of his divorce he finished "Disturbing the Peace" and "The Easter Parade," the second a classic on par with his first novel. A few months before it was published, the chain-smoking Yates set his apartment on fire and was badly burned while trying rescue his work in progress.
He moved to Boston, where he lived from 1976 to 1988. With Lawrence nearby, along with local friends and admirers such as Dan Wakefield and Dubus, he published "A Good School" (1978), "Liars in Love" (1981), "Young Hearts Crying" (1984), and "Cold Spring Harbor" (1986). He advised and contributed to Ploughshares, which published his Styron screenplay in 1985. He taught briefly at the Harvard Extension, Boston University, and Emerson. He lived to write. When he wasn't writing, he held court at the Crossroads bar, he drank and womanized, all the while struggling with poor physical and mental health. After another abortive stint in Hollywood, Yates took a last teaching job in Alabama, where he died in 1992.
Through it all Bailey evokes his essential nobility: "He deviated not a whit from the true north of his artistic conscience" - or, as Vonnegut put it, "He knew what a good writer he was and he also knew the futility of being one." Gina Berriault called him her guardian angel, and Yates's student Robert Lehrman perhaps put it best in 1999: "This wonderful writer, whose character was always thought to have inhibited his career, was also a man of great character; a man who fought mental illness to produce book after finely wrought book; who was dedicated to his students, friends, and children; who above all was agonizingly loyal to telling the truth."
Refuting the shortsighted critical estimates that originally greeted Yates's work, Bailey argues Yates was unpopular for the very reason his work endures: Because he forces us to see ourselves in his mediocre, flawed characters.
DeWitt Henry is the author of "The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts"
and teaches at Emerson