Celebrated in his prime, forgotten in his final years, only to be championed anew by our greatest contemporary authors, Richard Yates has always exposed readers to the unsettling hypocrisies of our modern age. In Blake Bailey's masterful and entertaining biography, Yates himself serves as the fascinating lens into mid-century America, a world of would-be artists, depressed housewives, addled businessmen, high living, wistful striving, and self-deception. The story of Richard Yates here stands as a singular reminder of what the writer must sacrifice for his craft, the devil's bargain of artistry for happiness, praise for sanity.
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About the Author
Blake Bailey has written for a number of magazines, newspapers, and literary journals. He lives with his wife in northern Florida.
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A TRAGIC HONESTYThe Life and Work of Richard Yates
By BLAKE BAILEY
PICADORCopyright © 2003 Blake Bailey
All right reserved.
The Caliche Road: 1926-1939
If the prerequisite of any great writer's life is an unhappy childhood, then Richard Yates was especially blessed. It was not something he liked to talk about as an adult except in the most oblique terms. Once, as he walked past one of his many childhood apartments in Greenwich Village, he pointed to the iron bars on the window and remarked to a friend, "My little legs stuck out of those bars and I used to kick the bricks-kick, kick, kick ..." If pressed, he might explain that he was sitting alone in the dark, staring outside and waiting for his mother to come home. And if he was drunk and sad enough, he might talk about his mother's alcoholism, or her involvement with strange men; sometimes he'd even say that he hated her. But that sort of thing was rare.
Yates aspired to a high standard of decorum both in art and life. A passage he cut from an early draft of his story "A Natural Girl," has the Yates-like protagonist David Clark announce to his young wife, "I must've had the most fucked-up childhood in American history. I've told you a lot about my parents and all that. But I've always held back. I've never gotten down to the pain of it. I've been hiding and pretending all my life." It's easy to see why Yates cut this. First of all, it doesn't quite ring true in terms of the character (as Yates liked to challenge his students, "Would that character say that? I don't think so"), but also David Clark's damaged psyche can be suggested in far more satisfying aesthetic terms-for example, his willingness to wear his hair "in the manner of the actress Jane Fonda" because he thinks his wife will like it that way. Such details objectify the matter nicely, and no mention need be made of the character's fucked-up childhood. And so in life Yates contented himself, when sober and at his best, with the image of a barred window: "Kick, kick, kick ..." He knew that direct explication rarely told the whole truth, and above all he was determined to be truthful. And one of the essential truths of Yates's childhood-of his whole life, perhaps-is that he loved and admired his mother at least as much as he later claimed to despise her. She was a source of pain he never could evade, though writing about her helped.
She was born in Greenville, Ohio, the seat of Darke County (she later spelled Darke without the e, perhaps by way of suggesting a general benightedness). Greenville, in the far western part of the state near the Indiana border, was a town of some five thousand souls in the late nineteenth century, and to this day preserves some of its frontier ethos. Annie Oakley is and will always be the town's favorite daughter-she joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1885, six years before Yates's mother was born-and one may attend the annual "Annie Oakley Days" festival there, or see the many local examples of antique steam-driven farm machinery, or visit the site where the Treaty of Greenville was signed once the Indians were subdued and this outpost secured in the name of progress. Progress meant farms and schools and Main Street merchants, and of course churches: By 1875 the citizenry was divided among eight Protestant churches and one Catholic. It was a world perhaps best evoked in the pages of Winesburg, Ohio: "Men labored too hard and were too tired to read. In them was no desire for words printed upon paper. As they worked in the field, vague, half-formed thoughts took possession of them. They believed in God and in God's power to control their lives."
Yates's grandfather, Amos Bigelow Maurer, was one of sixteen children born to German immigrants, Henry and Julia Ann (Bigler) Maurer. Amos was twenty-two in 1871, when he left the hamlet of Bradford for a session of schooling in Greenville, about ten miles away. He planned to clerk for a dry-goods merchant that summer, but first he needed to perfect his penmanship, the better to write out orders and receipts with a credible flourish. His teacher in Greenville was Fannie Hatch Walden, and her own penmanship was impeccable-full of ornate curlicues and so forth, such that the sense of what she wrote was liable to be lost amid the finery, which was just as well. At any rate she subsequently corresponded with her favorite pupil and "dear friend Mr. Maurer," who in turn did his tremulous best to emulate Miss Walden's skill. With a well-meaning travesty of loops and swirls, he wrote her from such towns as Minster, where he worked at a private auction on behalf of his employer, Mr. Sharpe: "He says I am the best clerk for a beginner that he ever seen. I was in the store until ten o'clock, sold about fourty dollars worth. I have learned a great deal in the way of dry goods." But the Minster letter ends on a doleful note. "I don't like this town a bit. Because the people are all German," Amos explained, without detectable irony, and Fannie replied: "I should like to have seen you when you sold the first yard of goods. Would it not be nice if you could be a clerk for Mr. Sharpe a while and do so well. After a while be clerk for yourself." The two had been corresponding for more than a year before they attained this level of intimacy.
In October 1873 the hand of Providence pressed them together at last; with the end of their long courtship in sight, the letters suggest the kind of life they envisioned in the heart of Darke County. Fannie, but a week away from moving out of Widow Adams's boarding house on northeast Main Street, described a funeral she'd attended for one of the more venerable citizens of nearby Union: "[He] was buried in the honors of the Odd Fellows last Tuesday his name was McFeely and there were five different lodges here. His remains were conveyed to the cemetery in the new hearse which we seen at the fair." Such were the rewards of a busy life devoted to faith, family, and friends-five lodges!-and Amos was as anxious to get on with it as Fannie. He wrote her a prenuptial poem to this effect: "I know thine's no worldly heart," it began accurately, then went on a bit and ended with,
And now the day's close at hand. But, dear, it's far enough away, Yet soon we'll be one happy band. I'll close wishing you a good day.
For the honeymoon they went to Dayton.
Over the next eighteen years Amos and Fannie had seven children, at least four of whom, it's safe to say, were made more or less in their parents' image. The oldest daughter Ida lived to the virtuous age of ninety-one, and spent her dotage painting flowers in watercolor and collecting Saturday Evening Post covers in bound fifty-two-page volumes, one for each year. Margaret, Mina, and Love Maurer married young and moved away from Greenville; later they joined Ida and their parents in ostracizing their brother Rufus, who'd gone to Washington, D. C., and married a Jew. Elsa Maurer was different, somewhat; at least as respectable as her sisters, and deeply spiritual, she inherited these qualities without quite the dose of provincial bigotry that went with them. Rather late in life she married a math professor who, within a few years, drowned off the coast of Galveston; before and after this event, Elsa devoted her life to contemplating the Infinite and helping her sister Ruth, the youngest and most wayward of the lot. As with Rufus, the rest of the family would have little to do with Ruth and vice versa-which left Elsa, who always had both time and a bit of money to spare.
Ruth Walden Maurer was born December 31, 1891, though her entry in Who's Who of American Women gives her birthday as exactly five years later, as do her entries in all the various artists' directories and even her Social Security application. Indeed, it's likely that her own children-who called her "Dookie" to distinguish her from her daughter and namesake-were unsure of their mother's age until a sad day in 1961 when circumstances forced them to find a birth certificate ("you know how Pookie's always been about her age," says Sarah Grimes in The Easter Parade). But such fudging was a minor detail in a vast reinvention that began almost at birth-a quest for self-realization by a woman who was, as her son wrote of her model in A Special Providence, "remarkable and gifted and brave":
How else could anyone explain the story of her life? At the turn of the century, when all the sleeping little towns of Indiana had lain locked in provincial ignorance, and when in that environment a simple dry-goods merchant named Amos Grumbauer had raised six ordinary daughters, wasn't it remarkable that his seventh had somehow developed a passion for art, and for elegance, and for the great and distant world of New York?
Give or take a few syllables, the passage sticks to the facts, as does most of Yates's fiction about his family. Just like Alice Prentice in A Special Providence, Dookie left her hometown before she finished high school, and was in fact one of the first female students at the Cincinnati Art Academy, where she studied China Painting and Drawing from Life. At the time she had only a vague idea of becoming an artist, and wouldn't settle on a particular métier until much later. Her immediate goal was to gain the skills to get out of Ohio and find a job in New York, and never to look back except in scorn and derision. For the rest of her life Dookie scoffed at everything that struck her as bland and bourgeois, though in one respect (at least) she never left Greenville: No matter how bohemian she later affected to be, or how destitute she often became, Dookie was always proud to call herself a "good Republican." "[S]he had probably grown up hearing the phrase 'good Republican' as an index of respectability and clean clothes," Yates speculated in a later story. "And maybe she had come to relax her standards of respectability ... but 'good Republican' was worth clinging to."
Dookie would later say she married beneath her, and no doubt she meant a number of things by that; at least in one respect, though, she married about as far above herself as she could get. For Richard Yates's lineage on his father's side is very distinguished indeed-what's more, Yates was aware of this. "I know," he replied, when his nephew Peter (an amateur genealogist) told him they were direct descendants of one of the country's first great men, Governor William Bradford of Plymouth. The most powerful colonial governor, a man of legendary virtue, Bradford is perhaps best known as the self-taught author of History of Plimouth Plantation-a classic among literary annals, notable for its directness of style, the author's determination to tell the truth in the plainest possible language. Yates, if he gave the matter much thought (and there are reasons to suspect he did), may well have been proud of such an ancestor.
The Bradford connection came through Yates's paternal grandmother, Clarissa Antoinette Cleveland, a member of the same illustrious, many-branched family that produced Grover, the country's twenty-second and twenty-fourth president, and Moses, the founder of Cleveland, Ohio. In 1864 Clarissa married a seminarian, Horatio Yates, who later became one of the most active and respected Methodist clergymen in central New York. The followers of John Wesley stress the social responsibility of Christians, and Horatio Yates clearly took that aspect of his calling to heart. After moving his growing family from one tiny pastorate to another throughout Cayuga County, Yates became chaplain of Auburn State Prison in 1887, a year after the birth of his eighth and last child, Vincent Matthew, the father of Richard Yates. Vincent's formative years, then, were spent (happily or not) in the parsonage of a prison that was infamous for its brutality. The so-called Auburn system was informed by the spirit of Calvinism, a belief in the utter depravity of humankind, and its foremost mandate was to break the prisoners' spirits through beatings and floggings, forced labor, solitary confinement, shaved heads, striped suits, and lockstep. Such a life was conducive to thinking about one's heavenly reward, and in 1826 the Auburn warden, Gershom Powers, conceived the idea of a resident chaplain-a man "activated by motives of public policy and Christian benevolence," he wrote. "Residing with convicts, and visiting their solitary and cheerless abodes, they will consider him their minister, their guide, their counselor, and their friend."
The evidence suggests that Horatio Yates was all these things. One of his grandson's most cherished possessions was a violin lovingly carved by a prisoner for Chaplain Yates, with a woman's head at the end of the fingerboard and a mother-of-pearl inlaid case. Horatio Yates's devotion to his wayward flock became a matter of public record in August 1890, when the country's first capital punishment by electrocution took place at Auburn State Prison. William Kemmler had killed his common-law wife Tillie Ziegler with a hatchet, and was held in a single cell for almost a year waiting for death. Horatio Yates visited the man several times a week, and read to him from a picture Bible (Kemmler was mentally deficient). The prisoner's last hours were spent in prayer with the kindly chaplain, who proved such a comfort that Kemmler insisted he be one of the twenty-six witnesses to the execution. "Gentlemen, I wish you all good luck," said Kemmler as he was strapped to the chair. "I believe I am going to a good place and I am ready to go." Horatio Yates, having convinced the poor man of God's infinite mercy, sat and watched with the others as shock after shock failed to kill him-as he gasped and gurgled, his teeth grinding audibly, the capillaries bursting on his cheeks, the room filling with the stench of roasting flesh and feces, until several witnesses fainted and the district attorney ran retching for the door. Chaplain Yates's reaction went unrecorded, though the episode might have put things in a curious perspective for a while. In any case he continued to serve as chaplain for seven more years, and his passing in 1912 was noted at respectful length by all the Auburn newspapers.
His son Vincent was destined for a life of comparative obscurity. A small man of average good looks and few apparent pretensions, he made little impression on his son or the world at large except in a single respect: He had a lovely tenor voice, though not quite enough talent or monomania to make a career out of it. "I think he sang professionally a few times," Yates surmised in A Good School. "I imagine he joined the General Electric Company in Schenectady as a delaying action, in order to have a few dollars coming in while he continued to seek concert engagements, but before very long the company swallowed him up."
Excerpted from A TRAGIC HONESTY by BLAKE BAILEY Copyright © 2003 by Blake Bailey
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.