I first came across Richard Yates’ work through Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in the screen adaptation of Revolutionary Road. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon the book in HMV, for something ridiculous like £1, that I actually read his work. I loved them both equally. Maybe I’m just a sucker for all things retro, but I felt he was extremely talented at capturing the human condition in characters who were entirely believable; both romantic and tragic. His ability to do this seemed to extend to a variety of characters and situations when recently reading his Collected Works.
Although it has been stated that there is no ambiguity as to whether Yates was pro-Feminist (he wasn’t), when reading each story, I felt so gripped to these characters and their individual crises. I wouldn’t have known that his views were so far aligned form mine from simply looking at his prose. Perhaps due to my lack of historical knowledge and fascination with programmes like Mad Men, which touches on similar themes (focusing, of course, on the same line of white men as epitomised by Don Draper), I can’t help but eat it all up. Especially given that the women who Yates writes about are fully developed, complex human beings.
I wouldn’t have known that his views were so far aligned form mine from simply looking at his prose.
Maybe I do need to set my sights higher, if that’s my idea of progressive writing around the 1950s. Surely we can do better than this, even if it was fifty years ago? Perhaps this says more about the literature we are exposed to through education, that a hard-working young woman chooses to even give the column inches to someone like Yates – for a radical publication to boot. But a part of me refuses to give up my love for Yates’ writing. Death of the Author, and all that. I read his collected short stories as including what I interpreted to be strong female characters, and I found his dissection of masculinity in line with the Feminist ideals of dismantling patriarchal notions of gender norms.
In The Boston Review, Stewart O’Nann quotes Robert Wilson saying that Yates lacks sympathy for his characters, speaking of Revolutionary Road’s April Wheeler. However, he asserts that “what Wilson really means here is that he’s held back a final measure of emotion for her because with all her flaws she doesn’t fit his idealized view of a saintly, more deserving heroine.” Yet, April – like all his characters to some extent – is Yates.
Writing now, in the 2010s, where mental illness is still arguably stigmatized, Yates’ writing does seem ground-breaking in this way.
Even with the success of The Easter Parade, Yates was filled with a combination of self-doubt and criticism – the poster-boy for the Age of Anxiety in both his fiction and his true self. Writing now, in the 2010s, where mental illness is still arguably stigmatized, Yates’ writing does seem ground-breaking in this way. Perhaps that’s why his work is appealing to a lot of writers and literary types: those familiar with the undying hope needed to work towards dreams deemed by most to be impossible. Perhaps the tragedy is that we read these stories, journey along with their characters, until their inevitable unhappy endings – their failures – and we still have hope.
Through these stories we can live out these failures through the characters, and still survive.