Richard Yates Yates, Richard (Vol. 7) - Essay

Yates, Richard (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yates, Richard 1926–

Yates is an American novelist and short story writer. Revolutionary Road is his best known work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[Revolutionary Road, Yates's first novel,] is a vastly imperfect and vastly disturbing book, often blurred in focus by the intensity of its author's engagement, but always thoroughly in touch with what the novel is good enough to convince us is reality. It deals with the disintegration of a marriage in suburbia, but its true subject is neither the horrors of suburbia nor the frailty of modern marriage. The novel is really about the inadequacy of human beings to their own aspirations, and its target is not America but existence…. Yates seems to waver between a focus through Frank's point of view, basically one which elicits sympathy, and an omniscient focus which subjects both his protagonists to a savage contempt and leads almost to caricature. But despite this flaw he has written a bitter and impressive book, almost a tragic book. (p. 629)

F. J. Warnke, in The Yale Review (© 1961 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1961.

What makes Revolutionary Road as good as it is is mainly Yates's ability to tell the truth—both about the little, summary moments of work and marriage today and—though less clearly—about the larger social issues which the behavior and fate of the Wheelers express. Passage after passage has the ring of authenticity…. Yates has the superior novelist's instinct for the nuances by which people give themselves away; he can render Frank's glib denunciations of the illusions and the sentimentalities of American life as unerringly as he catches Frank demonstrating them. (p. 45)

The leading fact about Frank is, in a sense, his typicality, for he is made of the promising but unstable human stuff that the culture shapes according to its dominant values. (p. 46)

Over the whole novel broods [a] sense of incompleteness and attrition, of rural landscape that has become commercialized without losing its rawness, of young couples whose best possibilities are already years behind them, who have had to rely too much on their marriages, who work at life—as April sees in her moment of truth near the very end—in a way that is "earnest and sloppy and full of pretensions and all wrong." (p. 47)

Who is to blame—Frank? April? the failure of both their parents to raise them adequately? the Zeitgeist? middle-class American life? All of these are implicated in the disaster of the Wheelers, and there is at first glance a satisfying complexity in the moral vision with which Yates distributes the blame. However, it is just here that the novel betrays a certain equivocation and patness of conception that blurs its meaning and dissipates its power. The commentary on the times, both implicitly and explicitly, tries to go beyond the Wheelers' smug criticism of America's "drugged and dying culture." Every so often the local renegade emerges from the state mental hospital to tell the truth about everyone and everything; but his comments on the "hopeless emptiness" of the times are hardly more substantial or illuminating than what we have been hearing from Frank. Most of the explicit social criticism explains too much or too little: its indictment is amorphous and merely irritable, and compromises the powerful commentary implicit in the details.

At the same time, the psychology of the novel has a way of letting the air out of whatever large social protest is being made. Embedded in the narrative are a number of flashbacks that explain why Frank and April behave as they do—why he has problems with masculinity and why she is crippled as a wife and mother. The stress on their supposedly determinative childhoods undercuts the other issues being raised, for in making his tragedy neatly probable, Yates is saying in effect that the Wheelers probably would have failed under the best of circumstances. To write a more meaningful novel about the deadening effects of modern work and marriage. Yates needed characters who could have put up considerably more resistance. As is, Frank and April retain their social significance only to the extent that their early deprivations are typical…. Further, the neat consistency with which the Wheelers' behavior is shown to betray their emotional problems, the ease with which they are seen through, weakens the impact of their failure. Psychology, as Raskolnikov discovered, is a two-edged knife: depended upon too schematically in a novel, it leads the reader to begin to play the same game as the novelist, and it is easy to end up thinking: if only April had found a good psychiatrist in time.

In the end, Revolutionary Road is too obsessive and portentous a novel, too laden with personal meanings of all sorts placed on the frame of a slender and overly simplified story. But it is also an extremely conscious book, and Yates's ability to see so much in his material, to bring out so much of the truth that lies behind the clichés about suburbia and the organization man is more important finally than his partial failure to dramatize his characters and ideas effectively. One of his ideas seems particularly interesting…. [The] attrition that marks their life together lies along a greater curve of decline in American life—a thinning out of class vitalities from generation to generation, an ever-diminishing legacy from the national dream of combining hardiness and grace. The revolution invoked by the title has several possible references, but the main point is that its spirit in America is nearing the end of the road. (pp. 47-9)

Theodore Solotaroff, "The Wages of Maturity" (originally published in Commentary, July, 1961), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties (copyright © 1961, 1970 by Theodore Solotaroff; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers), Atheneum, 1970, pp. 44-9.

In 1961 Richard Yates published a disturbing and prophetic novel, Revolutionary Road, which was nominated for the National Book Award. This novel explored various contemporary delusions, one of them being our American tendency to dream and to attribute to our necessary environments certain qualities of failure, impotence, deadliness, which supposedly account for the devastation of our dreams. No matter that we ourselves are underlings: let us blame our families, our husbands or wives, or society, America itself, the age itself! What we cannot and will not face is our own mediocrity.

A Special Providence is a novel about the grayness of lives, gray as the dust jacket of the book, relieved only by the irony of its title—a special providence?—and the continual comic antithesis between what the young hero imagines his role should be and what it actually is. (p. 512)

[Most] of Yates's characters, in this novel, in Revolutionary Road, and in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (a collection of short stories published in 1962) are invisible people, not quite there, unable to assert themselves or to guide their own destinies. They share, vaguely, in the destiny of their society. They seek personal grandeur, based upon ill-considered praise from ignorant judges who in any case do not mean what they say; they seek salvation of a kind, the transcendence of what they imagine to be a world not good enough for them. The only possible hope for them lies in their realizing, at some dismal time in their lives, that they deserve no special fate…. (pp. 512-13)

One feels that his people never have a chance: odd things may happen to them, but they are never odd enough, never tragic and awful enough, to lead to a change of vision. And there is a curious lack of detail in the work, as if it were imagined as a movie; the visual dimension of the Prentices' world is to be supplied by the viewer, automatically, perfunctorily…. A sad, gray, deathly world—dreams without substance—aging without maturity: this is Yates's world, and it is a disturbing one. (p. 513)

Joyce Carol Oates, "Dreams without Substance," in The Nation (copyright 1969 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 10, 1969, pp. 512-13.

If there is lack of regard for Revolutionary Road, it is likely not caused by changing fashion, but by the fact that the book strikes too close to home. It is so relentlessly honest and so embarrassingly personal that any critic who tries to take the customary view-from-above, the "superior" stance (which is probably necessary, after all, in order to judge), has got to feel hypocritical and obtuse.

You see yourself here. When you have an argument with your wife, or with someone who is a bit less articulate than you, or with someone over whom you imagine yourself to have a slight edge socially or economically, you begin to hear Frank Wheeler standing inside your voice, expostulating with false earnestness. A glib pompous fat voice with an undertone of hysteria, and it echoes hollow and ridiculous in the most comfortably furnished room. In the bathroom mirror when the party is at its loudest his face appears in your face: flushed with bourbon and with the excitement of hearing itself talk, the eyes slightly glazed and at the same time unnaturally clever, the lips twitching with the reckless sophisticated phrases that almost but didn't quite get said at the exact dramatic moment. And if you are dressing for an appointment and have a sudden vision of Mr. Yates's protagonist dressing, well…. (pp. 247-48)

Revolutionary Road isn't moralistic, is no sermon. It is rigorously—almost doggedly—all story, so completely dramatized that not even Henry James could find fault with it on that score. This being so, it becomes that much more difficult to praise the distinctly moral thinking that went into the conception of the novel. The morality is dramatically implicit in the situation. We can say the same thing of the Divine Comedy; although Virgil and Beatrice are moralizing personages, their moralizing is built into their dramatic roles as characters. There is in fact a figure in Revolutionary Road who corresponds to Dante's Virgil; his name is John Givings and he sees through the sham and pretense that make up the lives of the Wheelers. (p. 249)

Revolutionary Road is not a hysterical novel, it is not turgidly symbolic, it hasn't a complex plot, it is decidedly not clever. But … [it] is traditional that the virtues of a good novel do not call attention to themselves. A good plot has a "natural" feeling about it, a good prose style is unobtrusive, a well-drawn character is one whom you do not have to struggle and suffer to understand. (p. 250)

A truly admirable book. Not to say that it's a likable one. When I try to recall admirable novels that are also likable I come up with the picaresque (Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn) or children's books (The Wind in the Willows) or farces (Cranford) or fantasies (Childhood's End). But I don't like many of the novels I revere most: Anna Karenina, Miss Lonelyhearts, Lost Illusions, L'Assommoir, The Idiot, Invisible Man, Wise Blood. All these latter volumes, along with many others, are books which impose themselves on the consciousness by sheer force of honesty and intensity; if I had to choose a single word to describe them, I should probably say "unsparing." This is the quality Revolutionary Road shares with them, and the means by which it classes itself among them.

And I suspect that it is this quality which has cost Mr. Yates's book a fair number of readers. I know for a fact that the tributes most of my friends and colleagues pay to Balzac and Zola are only lip service. At some point in their lives they have felt they needed to know Père Goriot or Nana, but having experienced these, nothing on earth will persuade them to open another by the same authors. It's an understandable reaction. Reading the first forty or so pages of Cousin Bette, I too experience a sinking feeling; I know all too well what I'm in for, and it's only a momentary effort of will that propels me further into this harrowing milieu. (p. 252)

Probably the readers of a few generations ago were compounded of sterner stuff than we are. The audiences that appreciated The Scarlet Letter and Vanity Fair and the stories of Chekhov would have no trouble discerning the bitter virtues of Revolutionary Road. But even merely as readers, most of us now share the faults of the Wheelers: we are cowardly, self-indulgent, and, worst of all, irresponsible. The central justification for the novel as a work of art, its fibrous angular morality, we would like to avoid, or at least to consider as secondary.

Morality isn't secondary to a novel. Likableness is. Likableness is a secondary quality in all forms of art. (p. 253)

Frank and April Wheeler are—whoopee!—liberals, precisely the kind of white liberals black leaders complain that they most often encounter. Not merely impotent but apathetic, not merely hollow but crumbling…. [These] two have failed to acknowledge the simple scary fact that ideals demand not profession but adherence, not speech but action….

Richard Yates doesn't condemn idealism, but instead the claiming of ideals not truly possessed. (p. 254)

I should probably have spoken more about technical triumphs, about the sharpshooter's eye for detail, the unfailing ear for dialogue and the exact English sentence, the improbably taut construction of scene and transition. But after all: first things first. In this era of elaborately technical criticism, possibly attitudes, ideas, and purposes go unrecognized more often than anything else. (pp. 254-55)

Fred Chappell, "Richard Yates's 'Revolutionary Road'," in Rediscoveries, edited by David Madden (© 1971 by Crown Publishers, Inc.; used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.), Crown, 1971, pp. 245-55.

In art as in life, vigor is a useful substitute for refinement, and a novel that lacks grace or depth may be redeemed by readability. So it is with ["Disturbing the Peace," a] fast, hard, bleak story so full of crude contrivances and so lacking in the poignancy, compassion and sense of avertible domestic tragedy that made the author's first book, "Revolutionary Road," one of the best American novels of the '60s. Richard Yates is, at very least, a mesmerizing storyteller: by the end of his first paragraph he has seized us by the throat, and by the end of the third page, when the drunken protagonist telephones his wife to say he can't come home for fear of killing her and their son, we have lost all will to resist him….

We won't remember [this book] a week from now because Wilder is an unmemorable, unsympathetic wretch, and his wife a dismal cow. The coincidences, the elaborate irony and artifice, will fade quickly. Of such stuff is melodrama, not tragedy, made. Yates is a good writer who really likes to torture his characters, and there's a certain satisfaction to be had in seeing such a pummeling delivered. Wilder belongs to him, doesn't he? Yates is within his rights, isn't he? Why should we feel a little let down by it all?

Peter S. Prescott, "Crack-up," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), September 15, 1975, p. 74.

[Disturbing the Peace] takes on a special risk. It is not only realistic but it's realistic about a dangerous subject: madness, one of the essential modern themes used again and again as a device for revealing the multiplicity of experience, the hollowness of social convention. In Disturbing the Peace, madness is taken literally, a subject as real as flesh….

[This] is the sort of novel that makes you feel faintly guilty when you describe it in terms of what part works and what part doesn't. Every page, flawed or not, bears the mark of comprehended pain. (p. 104)

There are things wrong with this novel. Most important, Yates enacts all too well his hero's solipsism, and other figures in the book lack depth. But at its best, Disturbing the Peace reminds you of the considerable courage that can sometimes be found in unselfconscious art. (p. 105)

Richard Todd, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), October, 1975.

Partly because of his profoundly anti-romantic sensibility Richard Yates is not a novelist whose work is easy to give a quick accounting of. Described in terms of its plot alone, "Disturbing the Peace," like "Revolutionary Road" (1961), the author's brilliantly chilling and understated first novel about self-pity, pseudo-intellectual despair and early death in the Connecticut suburbs, would fail to entice large numbers of readers. Yet to concentrate one's attention wholly upon the exact precision of style and flawless construction of Yates's third novel in 14 years would be to ignore one's most disquieting suspicion: that "Disturbing the Peace" is an eloquent minor novel by an author whom one begins to suspect of systematically denying himself major possibilities….

Like all of Yates's previous characters, John Wilder [the protagonist of "Disturbing the Peace"] lives by force of shallow habit alone, mouthing platitudes in which even he does not seriously believe and lacking both the energy and the capacity to save himself from a quotidian menace that he can scarcely describe, much less hope to transcend. Ideas appear in Yates's work only as the window dressing of delusion; his intellectual disengagement is as complete in this latest novel as it was in "Revolutionary Road," but with a critical difference. There one agonized for the foolish pretensions of characters who had fallen prey to what Yates seemed to imply was the final delusion of a distracted and centerless culture.

In "Disturbing the Peace" all illusions save those of certifiable madness are gone. Yates is one of a handful of American novelists working today who may be said to have a "vision of life." But elementary as it sounds it takes a conflict to make a realistic novel go, and one more interesting than a downhill ride. The author himself need not believe that his characters can alter their fate, but it helps if they do. (p. 6)

Gene Lyons, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 5, 1975.

Disturbing the Peace is as good as its title, beginning with the hero, John Wilder, committed to the alcoholic ward of Bellevue just at the onset of the long Labor Day weekend…. You expect lost-weekend nightmares and sadistic keepers, but the stay in Bellevue is brilliantly managed, funny and horrible by turns, complexities of caring and despair seen from the inside. Any one who has read Richard Yates's first novel, Revolutionary Road (1961)—and if you have it's time to read it again—knows him to be a master at dramatizing how things go wrong in American marriages, how with the best of intentions people, particularly men, destroy what they've built, extending themselves through fantasies of liquor and sex into crazy versions of people for whom things go wrong and wronger. Yates's writing, so close to the banal, is in fact rivetting in the extreme, to the extent where you ask yourself whether anything this compulsively readable mustn't be slick rather than art. (p. 151)

Maybe it's both…. [The] soap-opera base is … there, providing a firm one on which to proceed and perhaps accounting for Yates's spellbinding.

Even if one feels Yates has a problem about how to end a disaster-chronicle like this one, the achievement, the writing page-by-page, is high enough to make it not matter much. One hopes we will begin to be more grateful for American writers like him: if you can't be Pynchon why try to be second best? Richard Yates works superbly within the limits of his strength. (p. 152)

William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1976 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Volume XXIX, Number 1, Spring, 1976.