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A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates

A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates

by Blake Bailey

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The first biography of acclaimed American novelist and story writer Richard Yates

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. Classic novels such as Revolutionary Road and The


The first biography of acclaimed American novelist and story writer Richard Yates

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. Classic novels such as Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade are incomparable chronicles of the quiet and not-so-quiet desperation of the American middle-class. Lonely housewives, addled businessmen, desperate career-girls and fearful boys and soldiers, Yates's America was a panorama of high living, self-doubt and self-deception. And in the tradition of other great realistic writers of his time (Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Cheever and Updike), Yates's fictional world mirrored his own. A manic-depressive alcoholic and unapologetic gentleman, his life was a hornets' nest of childhood ghosts, the horrors of war, money woes, and ebullient cocktailed evenings in New York, Hollywood, and the Riviera.

A Tragic Honesty is a masterful evocation of a man who in many ways embodied the struggles of the Great American Writer in the latter half of the twentieth century. Fame and reward followed by heartbreak and obscurity, Richard Yates here stands for what the writer must sacrifice for his craft, the devil's bargain of artistry for happiness, praise for sanity.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Richard Yates's most famous novel, Revolutionary Road, set the tone for most of his later fiction: it was, for biographer Bailey, a thinly veiled depiction of Yates (1926-1992) and his immediate surroundings, in many cases with the names barely changed, and was widely praised at the time of its release only to fade into semi-obscurity except for a small group of devotees. Bailey's (The Sixties) massive biography strip-mines Yates's fiction for details of his life; on more than one occasion, the abundance of story elements with real-life parallels is used to suggest that another element, such as the protagonist's affair with a prostitute in the short story "Liars in Love," might also have some basis in fact. These conjectures are offset by extensive interviews with surviving family and acquaintances. At times the sheer amount of information can be overwhelming, in part because the reader is subject to an unrelenting depiction of Yates's life as "a parody of the self-destructive personality." He smoked heavily for decades despite tuberculosis, emphysema and pneumonia, and was often barely able to breathe, and eyewitnesses recall numerous provocative outbursts and emotional breakdowns brought on by the potent combination of manic-depression and alcoholism. And there's the repeated heartache of an author pushing himself time and time again to complete a book, never quite obtaining the success he so desperately wants. Apart from a tendency to throw in disruptive foreshadowing asides, Bailey has done a great job of sorting through the facts of Yates's difficult life, assembling them into a story that mirrors the best of his subject's fiction. (July) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
British critic Paul Connolly once called Richard Yates "America's finest forgotten author," and Norman Podheretz referred to him as our most "unfairly neglected author." Best-remembered for his novels Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade, which contain some of the most unflinching and unsettling portraits of 20th-century middle-class life, Yates developed a reputation as a writer's writer. Drawing on letters and other archival materials, Bailey (The Sixties) offers the first in-depth glimpse into Yates's tormented psyche and brilliant work, chronicling his life from a childhood influenced by his mother's grandiose artistic schemes and smothering love to an adulthood marked by depression, debauchery, and disappointments. Bailey plumbs the thematic depths of Yates's stories and novels, using them to demonstrate the various ways in which Yates's art entwined itself with his life. In exhaustive detail, he narrates Yates's steady descent into an inferno of alcoholism and manic depression, even as the writer was carving out a space for himself in American letters. Bailey also traces Yates's influences to Flaubert and Fitzgerald and discusses his influence on students like Tony Earley. The overabundance of banal detail sometimes makes this book a bit tiring to read, but overall it has all the hallmarks of a definitive biography, especially with its authenticity validated by the Yates family's cooperation. For all literature collections.-Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Overly detailed biography of the critically esteemed author limns every up and down in his self-destructive life. Mind you, there’s no way to write about Richard Yates (1926-92) without spending a lot of time describing alcoholic seizures, nervous breakdowns, and ghastly coughing fits resulting from lung damage sustained during WWII and exacerbated by heavy smoking. The son of ill-matched parents who split when he was three, Yates hardly ever saw his father after the divorce and grew up to despise his feckless, alcoholic mother. Yates seems never to have recovered from his dreadful childhood, and although his early short stories won him a devoted literary agent (Monica McCall) and some magazine sales, their bleak point of view was already prompting the uneasy reactions that would always limit his commercial success, though fellow writers were—and continue to be—awed by the elegance, economy, and bitter honesty of his prose. Revolutionary Road, nominated for a National Book Award in 1961, cemented his reputation as a painfully acute observer of the discontents of the American middle class, but it took him eight years to write its flawed successor, A Special Providence, and his personal demons increasingly dominated his life. Although he recovered his artistic equilibrium in the’70s with Disturbing the Peace and The Easter Parade, Yates was almost always broke and lived in horrifying squalor. A shuffling, shabby, prematurely old man, he died at 66 when his abused body failed to recover from minor surgery. Bailey (The Sixties, not reviewed) tells this heartbreaking story adequately, writing smoothly about Yates’s two failed marriages, his devotion to his three daughters, hisfriendships with various literary figures (Seymour Lawrence and Andre Dubus among them), his influence on his creative-writing students as an exemplar of the committed artist. But though he spends many pages quibbling with bad reviews, the biographer doesn’t really convey the qualities that make Yates’s work so distinctive. And without that mitigating achievement, this author’s life, retold at excruciating length, seems merely a sad, sordid waste. Agent: Elizabeth Kaplan/Ellen Levine Literary Agency
From the Publisher

“The arrival of Blake Bailey's great, perceptive, heartbreaking, Yates biography is a landmark event.” —The New York Times

“[A] tremendous book...It's a storytelling success that Bailey can turn Yates's long, slow grind toward obscurity into a fabulous and often hysterical read.... Yates rises up as something he never allowed in his fiction: a hero.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Compulsively readable...Indispensable...Excellent in itself, it records, with photographic accuracy, where Yates's obsessively autobiographical fiction originated.” —The New York Times Book Review

“[A] meticulously researched, judicious, and critically perceptive biography...Bailey's version of Yates's life proves to be its own kind of masterpiece, as gripping as the best of Yates's novels, and more inspiring than sad.” —The Boston Globe

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The Life and Work of Richard Yates


Copyright © 2003 Blake Bailey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0312287216

Chapter One

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.

Meet the Author

Blake Bailey is the author of a previous book, The Sixties, and has written for a number of magazines, newspapers, and scholarly publications. He lives in Waldo, Florida, with his wife Mary.

Blake Bailey is the author of The Sixties and has written for a number of magazines, newspapers, and literary journals. He lives in northern Florida with his wife, Mary Brinkmeyer.

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