A Harrowing Mirror of Loneliness

Richard Yates was the supreme chronicler of American solitude

Richard Yates just might have been the saddest writer America has produced. Solitude and sorrow pervade his fiction, marking it so deeply that his reluctant suburbanites, demobilized GIs, corporate drones, and dreamy women seem to be unwittingly engaged in the pursuit of unhappiness. Moments of joy or communion are as brief and bittersweet for them as day trips from a convalescent ward. Set in an era when American triumphalism was achieving its self-congratulatory summit, Yates's work consistently reminds the reader of the depths awaiting those unable to make the climb.

Of course, Yates, who died in 1992 at the age of sixty-six, was not alone among his writing peers in providing a dissenting perspective on the so-called Greatest Generation. Novelists as diverse as Jack Kerouac and John O'Hara also howled against their era, while social critics ranging from the best-selling Vance Packard to the deeply analytic Herbert Marcuse protested the corporate conformity that afflicts so many of Yates's characters. But with the passage of time it is becoming clear that Yates's achievement was of a different order from his contemporaries'. His writing is more than just a protest against the sterility of the suburbs and corporations that overtook the American landscape during the 1950s. At its heart his fiction is a painful exploration of the solitude that afflicts us all, whether we are bourgeois or bohemian, city dwellers or suburbanites.

This bleak vision pervades Yates's Collected Stories, written over a period of thirty years but set almost exclusively during the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations. From the tentative efforts of his first collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962), which enumerated various strains of human isolation (an adopted boy in a new school; two Americans out of their depth in the jazz clubs of postwar France) with an almost scientific precision, to the mature genius of late stories such as "Liars in Love" and "Saying Goodbye to Sally," Yates proved himself to be without equal as a chronicler of American solitude. Although many of his characters initially seem to be suffering from simple cases of the suburban blues (nothing that a trip to Paris or a year off to write that novel wouldn't cure), it soon becomes clear that the facile distinction between the bourgeois and the bohemian is a reflection of the characters' own self-delusion rather than of the author's agenda. Again and again Yates's people misdiagnose the cause of their loneliness as a boring job or a conventional marriage, when these are in fact merely symptoms of a desolation that endures even after they manage to break free of the mainstream. Although his stories have their share of unimaginative housewives and gray-flannel men who sink without a trace into the vast oatmeal of the American monoculture, the real pitfall facing his characters comes when they try to convince themselves that salvation lies outside of the ordinary. Thus the two women who attempt to set up a liberated, cosmopolitan haven in Westchester County in "Trying Out for the Race" soon find their idyll ruined by their own weakness and petty squabbling. As Yates wrote of the older of the pair, "if self-deception was an illness she was well into its advanced stages." Like so many of his characters, these women try to bolt the door against bland convention but manage only to lock it in. Jack Fields, the young writer in "Saying Goodbye to Sally," also seems to have escaped from the crushing grayness of the American middle when he gets a novel published and is then invited out to Hollywood to work on a film. But this apparent release from the ordinary only lands him in a different sort of solitude. His affair with his agent's secretary is doomed to bitter dissolution not so much by Jack's short-term contract as by the fine print in his soul, which allows him "to entertain the thought that he might be a self-destructive personality after all." Then "What saved him ... was his knowledge that any number of sanctimonious people had agreed to hang that bleak and terrible label on F. Scott Fitzgerald too." Although Yates's literary peers were often willing to blame their characters' alienation on the big bad world, Yates had the honesty to look within those damaged personalities for the true cause: the self-deluding belief that their emotional flaws are romantic rather than simply sad.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Lonely in America" (September 21, 2000)
Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, argues that the time has come "to reweave the fabric of our communities."

It is no mistake that Jack Fields sees himself in terms of Fitzgerald, whose spirit haunts not just this story but all of Yates's fiction. Fitzgerald's preoccupation with romantic delusion was a theme that Yates made his own, updating it to the ascendant middle-class ethos of the 1950s. At first blush Fitzgerald's Jazz Age characters, who crashed and burned in a blaze of class and money, seem to have little in common with Yates's doomed dreamers, who quietly try to break out of a web of corporate headquarters, ticky-tacky suburban housing, cocktail parties, and amateur dramatics that Daisy and Tom Buchanan would never have known. But a closer reading reveals that they are engaged in the same sad and fascinating process of trying to flee loneliness. The only thing separating Jack Fields from Monroe Stahr is that the latter gets a seat at the Brown Derby.

Dreams of bohemia aren't the only bacillus infecting Yates's characters. Many are forced, as was the author himself, to grapple with a real illness—tuberculosis. His stories provide a detailed picture of the last generation to suffer widely from the disease—and the first to have a good chance of surviving it. "No Pain Whatsoever" memorably depicts TB wards as places where "the sheets and the hospital pajamas were dyed yellow, to distinguish them from uncontaminated linen in the hospital laundry, and this combined with the pale green of the walls made a sickly color scheme." Against this jaundiced backdrop Yates played out a variety of dramas, from adultery to romance to homoerotic combat, showing how the disease created a sort of spiritual stasis in the midst of America's hurly-burly, suspending sufferers in a limbo where emotions were free to fester and multiply without the intercession of workaday concerns. Reading these stories in conjunction with Yates's equally fine works on boot camp and combat, one is struck by just how deeply the men of his generation were affected by varieties of enforced communalism. The tragedy of their lives—as seen in "Out With the Old," in which an infirm father cannot find the words to counsel his pregnant teenage daughter—is that this communalism fails to cure the men of their loneliness. Tom Brokaw and his fellow generational enthusiasts would have us believe that this mandatory postwar togetherness made for a closer-knit, less alienated society, but Yates's work reminds us that the essential solitude at the heart of the American enterprise has never been easily escaped. His characters are always bowling alone, whether in the company of others or not.

Given the enduring integrity of his vision, it is not surprising that Yates's popularity now looks set to rival (if not to outstrip) that of O'Hara and Kerouac, whose reputations so often eclipsed his during his lifetime. Not only have his stories finally been collected into a single volume but his two best novels—Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade—are also being reprinted with much fanfare. Although contemporary critics were eager to label Yates a social realist, we can now understand that realism was only his means to a deeper end. Whereas O'Hara's fulminations against status-seeking and Kerouac's rogue posturing are showing their age, Yates's writing retains the power to disturb us. There is a timeless honesty to his work; one need not know about Levittown or Tupperware parties or George Shearing to enter its emotional universe. The manner in which he describes an aging midwestern housewife in "A Natural Girl" is typical of the way his work starts out planted in the black-and-white reality of the 1950s, only to blossom into literary perpetuity.

There wasn't much left of her once-lustrous hair except what the hairdresser could salvage and primp; her body sagged in some places and was bloated in others. She looked like what she was: a woman who'd been called Mother in shrill, hungering voices for most of her life.

The sentence starts out with the language of postwar Madison Avenue ("lustrous," "primp") and moves into the universal, flattening the reader with that heartbreakingly capitalized noun. This ability to move from the specific to the universal can be seen in the collection's best story, "Liars in Love," about a love affair between a young American Fulbright scholar and an inexperienced working-class prostitute in 1953 London. The story is shot through with period references to the Rosenbergs and Joe McCarthy. It graphically re-creates postwar London as a place of crowded buses, raucous pubs, and "evil-smelling sulphurous fog that stained everything yellow, that seeped through closed windows and doors to hang in your rooms and afflict your wincing, weeping eyes." But as the two lovers find themselves trapped in a complex network of mutual deception, the period detail slowly begins to fade, the prose becomes less time-bound, and the action moves from bustling Piccadilly to featureless bedrooms and lounges that could be anywhere, anytime.

Here readers experience what lies at the heart of Yates's work—the beauty that can arise from the rendering of sadness and desolation. It is a beauty that derives not from writing-school mannerisms or precious prose but from the sense that truth—absolute, unadulterated, almost unbearable—is being communicated. As these stories begin to exert their considerable hold, the refined and the historical gradually give way to the raw, the immediate, and the unforgettable. Just as Joyce's slatternly maids, Hemingway's would-be writers, and Chekhov's country doctors prove to have souls deeply resembling our own, so Yates's company men and Junior League housewives wind up providing harrowing mirrors for our secret selves, however superior we may at first feel to them. The fashions and the furniture may have changed, but Richard Yates remains a dangerous and devastating writer.