For some thirty years, Richard Yates quietly wrote beautifully sad stories of American loneliness. He influenced and was revered by many of the greatest writers of the century, yet by his death in 1992 he had seen every one of his books fall out of print. In recent years, a Hollywood adaptation of one of his best loved novels somewhat renewed the public’s interest, though his many ardent fans still wait for the day when Yates’ work receives the recognition it deserves.
Born in Yonkers, New York in 1926, Richard Yates was a journalist and a freelance ghost writer before finding his own creative voice. His first novel, Revolutionary Road, was published in 1961 and earned a National Book Award nomination. Revolutionary Road told the story of Frank and April Wheeler, two bright and frustrated young suburbanites with big dreams of escaping their banal surroundings. Through the course of the novel the Wheelers see their dreams almost come to fruition before being tragically and irreversibly crushed.
Revolutionary Road was a critical, though not commercial, success. Yates was compared to J.D. Salinger and John Cheever, and literary giants such as Tennessee Williams and Dorothy Parker fell over themselves with praise for Yates’ work. Kurt Vonnegut once called it The Great Gatsby of his time, yet hardcover sales of Revolutionary Road barely reached 9,000 copies. Other works followed, including the short story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and The Easter Parade, which is widely considered to be one of Yates’ masterpieces.
Though Yates’ simple and painfully realistic style was loved by many writers, the general public failed to catch on. None of his books sold more than 12,000 copies in their first run, and gradually they all fell out of print. There are many theories as to why such a promising new talent failed to catch on. Some think perhaps his tales were simply too depressing and too realistic for his audience to bear. Certainly no one captured the feeling of the post-war “Age of Anxiety” as honestly as Yates. He himself once said of his writing, “If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.”
The stress of unmet expectations along with the scars of an unstable childhood took their toll on Yates. He was a chain smoker and drank heavily throughout his life, and occasionally suffered from periods of psychosis. He was married and divorced twice and fathered three children. He died in 1992 in Birmingham, Alabama, due to emphysema and complications from surgery.
After his death, every one of Yates’ books went out of print. However, he has been quietly making a comeback in recent years, and his work has gradually come back to life in reissues and new additions. In 1999, an essay by Stewart O’Nan appeared in The Boston Review called “The Lost World of Richard Yates: How the great writer of the Age of Anxiety disappeared from print.” The first in-depth biography of Yates followed in 2003, called A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates. Finally, in December 2008, acclaimed director Sam Mendes released his theatrical adaptation of Revolutionary Road, which reunited Titanic stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Like Yates’ books, the film was not a commercial success, though it won both Golden Globes and Academy awards, and introduced a new generation to the work of Richard Yates.
Those who love Richard Yates know that it’s only a matter of time before he takes his rightful place in the history books as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Until then, his books quietly sit on shelves and wait to be discovered by new minds.
Timothy Dumas, Who’s Afraid of Richard Yates? Moffly Media