Chloë Moloney discusses the author Richard Yates, most often identified with the ‘Age of Anxiety’.
‘How is it possible that an author whose work defined the lostness of the Age of Anxiety as deftly as Fitzgerald’s did that of the Jazz Age, an author who influenced American literary icons like Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus, among others, an author so forthright and plainspoken in his prose and choice of characters, can now be found only by special order or in the dusty, floor-level end of the fiction section in secondhand stores? And how come no one knows this? How come no one does anything about it?’
Stewart O’Nan, The Boston Review
Novelist and short story writer Richard Yates has been hailed as one of the best writers of the twentieth century. However, he never made the so-called ‘literary big time’ whilst he was in his prime. With remarkably autobiographical fiction, and notable works to his name including The Easter Parade, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and A Good School, Richard Yates wrote novels concerning self-deception, grief and the woes of suburbia.
Yates was born on February 3, 1926 in Yonkers, New York. His early life was particularly unstable, with his parents divorcing when Yates was three years old. The author moved between a number of different towns, and first became interested in journalism whilst at school in Connecticut. However, journalism was not the author’s first pursuit. After leaving school, Yates joined the army and served in both France and Germany during the First World War. Yates returned to New York City in 1946, where he worked as a journalist and freelance ghost writer. During his stint as a ghost writer, he briefly wrote speeches for Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
His first novel, Revolutionary Road, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1961. Subsequently, Yates taught writing at a number of academic institutions, including Columbia University, the New School for Social Research, Boston University, the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Wichita State University, the University of Southern California Master of Professional Writing Program and at the University of Alabama. He was also the author of two short story collections, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love.
Despite his rewarding career in journalism, teaching and fiction, there was not a huge amount of critical acclaim for Yates when he was alive. In fact, none of his books sold over 12,000 copies in hardcover on their first edition. The interest in his work has been sparked after his death, most likely due to the 2003 biography of the author by Blake Bailey, and the Academy Award-nominated and Golden Globe-winning film Revolutionary Road (2008), starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The author married Sheila Bryant, daughter of British actor Charles Bryant, in 1948. Yates was married twice, and had three children. Yates died of emphysema, which he had for ten years, and complication from minor surgery in 1992. The writer also smoked heavily, yet quit a year prior to his passing.
‘[Yates] wrote about the mundane sadness of domestic life in language that rarely if ever draws attention to itself. There’s nothing fussy or pretentious about his style. If anything, his work could be called simple or traditional, conventional, free of the metafictionalists’ or even the modernists’ tricks. The only writer’s writer he might be compared to would be Chekhov, or perhaps Fitzgerald, though without Fitzgerald’s poetic flair. 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.’