The Case for the Literary Life

New York Sun, 7/23/03
By Carl Rollyson

Who first propounded the preposterous notion that writers' lives do
not make for good biography? Supposedly nothing significant happens in a
writerís life except for the writing. Most writers are not men or women of
action. E.L. Doctorow once told me in an interview that his biography
would make dull reading. That is like saying the life of the imagination
has no story to tell. Or was it just the writer's way of warding off a
prospective biographer? Writers of even autobiographical novelists like
Richard Yates have a horror of the naked narrative and are shocked when
one of their fellows forsakes fiction for the starker precincts of memoir
as William Stryon did with Darkness Visible, in an account of his suicidal
depression. Even though Yates put himself, his family, and writer-friends
like Styron into his novels, he was appalled when Styron denuded himself
in nonfiction.

Biography strips bare; that is why novelists like Joyce Carol Oates
detest what she calls pathography, in a term she coined when reviewing a
biography of Jean Stafford that faithfully reported the prolonged mental
and physical debilitation that made writing virtually impossible in
Stafford's later years. The biography was true to the arc of Stafford's
life but not to the importance of her writing. When a subsequent biography
focused on Staffordís writing and downplayed her foibles, critics
applauded.

Such hostility to biography especially among the literati and the
academic community requires rectification. "It is frequently objected to
relations of particular lives that they are not distinguished by any
striking or wonderful vicissitudes", Samuel Johnson wrote. This desire for
dramatic doings is prompted, he argued, by "false measures of excellence
and dignity." Biographers should eradicate such prejudices by passing
"slightly over those performances and incidents, which produced vulgar
greatness, to lead the thoughts into domestick privacies, and display the
minute details of daily life, where exterior appendages are cast aside,
and men excel each other only by prudence and by virtue." Johnson was not
speaking only for himself; he relied on no less of an authority than
Montaigne, who confessed: "I have a singular curiosity to pry into the
souls and the natural and true opinions of the authors with whom I
converse." He would much rather learn about what Brutus said in his tent
the night before a battle than about the speech the hero delivered the
next day for public consumption.

Fortunately, Blake Bailey does not spare us Richard Yates's agonies or
his lifelong alcoholism, psychotic episodes, failed marriages, and doubts
about the value of his writing any more than Yates spared his characters
their indignities. April and Frank Wheeler, the principal figures in his
greatest novel, Revolutionary Road (1961), begin their marriage in a
1950s Connecticut suburb terrain familiar to readers of John Updike and
John Cheever, to whom Yates has often been compared with a sense of
superiority, a dream of greatness that they manifestly will not be able to
fulfill. It is an old story, the gap between aspiration and achievement,
but Yates redeems the clichÈ by the vividness of his observations and his
unrelenting, unsentimental revelation that this couple is not much
different from their mediocre neighbors. This Gatsbyesque fable of
thwarted dreams would become Yates's signature tale, told again and again
in exquisitely wrought stories and novels that critics praised for their
art and condemned for their pessimism. As a result he failed to capture
the larger audience that gravitated toward Cheever and Updike. Yates might
have been in the running for awards, but he was always the kind of writer
who just missed the prize.

 

Let us hope Mr. Bailey will be the one finally to thrust Yates into the literary canon. He has written not merely a splendid biography of Yates, one that makes acompelling case for his subjectís greatness and explains why he has been neglected, but one of the most moving and engrossing literary biographies of our times. Mr. Bailey seductively interweaves the facts and fiction of Yates's life into a fine mesh of life and literature, which, the
biographer candidly notes, cannot always be disentangled. First drafts of
Yates's work used real names, and even the final drafts made only superficial changes, so that, for example, his mother's nickname, Dookie, becomes Pookie. Mark Twain once said that history did not repeat itself, it rhymed. That is how Yates used fiction, as a kind of rhyme for his life

There is wonderful comedy in Yates's selfdestructiveness just as there
is in the lives of his self-destructive characters. Bailey knows how to
present it:
'He wanted to be a proper country husband, a productive member of his
household and community. He wanted to show he could "pull his weight,"
"stay on the ball," and "cope" as well or better than the most banal bore
in Redding, but his efforts had a way of ending badly. One morning while
his wife wa s fixing breakfast he went outside to burn some trash. A few
minutes later he let loose an aria of obscenities, but the jaded Sheila
[his first wife] simply assumed heíd stubbed his toe and went on with her
business. Finally, she glanced outside: there was a brushfire in the
backyard, on the edges of which Yates gamboled ineffectually. The
volunteer fire department arrived in time to save their house, and a
penitent Yates agreed to become a member, faithfully attending meeting
every Saturday night.'

Literary life is often portrayed as a competitive free-for-all; it may be
that, but it can also be a heroic world in which writers like R.V.
Cassill, Grace Schulman, and George Garrett treat Yates with an uplifting
generosity and respect. Biography may strip its subjects bare, but in this
case it also brilliantly restores the life and work of a great artist.

Mr. Rollyson writes a weekly column about biography.