Famous First Words: Revolutionary Road
There is no product on the market in the United States that has been pushed as vigorously and persistently as the American Way of Life. Abstract in theory but boundlessly profitable in connection to any number of tangible goods for sale, the concept began to pick up steam in the years following the end of World War II, when the country’s economy was on the rise and the population was responding in kind. Coming out of the horrors of war with the opportunity to start fresh, American consumers, now flush with cash, were all too ready to embrace the new path toward affluence that is traditionally afforded to the victors, and they set about occupying new territory in the suburbs with ever-expanding families.
Appealing as the pitch may have been, Richard Yates never had the chance to buy into it. His own experience growing up in New York during the Great Depression was one of constant uncertainty and domestic chaos. Yates’s parents divorced when he was three years old, leaving him and his sister in the care of their mother, Ruth, an ambitious but largely unsuccessful sculptor with a drinking habit that Yates would later develop as well. Though he tended to downplay the experience when speaking with others as an adult, the precariousness of his family’s nomadic lifestyle—moving from one temporary lodging arrangement to the next—had a lasting effect on him. The strain on Yates through the years would inevitably find its way into his work through characters that were modeled rather directly on the principal players of his youth.
After spending time at several educational institutions schools over the years, Yates ultimately landed at the Avon School. Though he went in without the social and financial pedigree normally required there, and was an outcast by default, he learned to write at the campus newspaper and would later acknowledge his time at Avon as being an indispensable apprenticeship. When his father died of pneumonia in 1942, Yates’s tuition bills stopped getting paid, but he managed to make it through to a mostly official graduation in 1944. (His diploma was held hostage by Avon, as Yates had been during school holidays, in the futile hope of settling the accumulated debts.) Taking the first opportunity to leave this stage of his life behind, he promptly enlisted in the army and was shipped off to France.
Yates was discharged two years later and he returned to New York, opting not to enroll in college on the GI Bill. Instead, he decided to make up for lost time by getting on with his career, and it was a hard slog from the beginning. He got married in 1948 to Sheila Bryant, with whom he had two daughters, and he began to assemble a meager income through sporadic newspaper work and then as a publicity writer, mixing in the odd freelance assignment whenever possible. Their marriage gradually began to fall apart, however, and in 1951, when Yates received a veteran’s pension for the treatment of his tuberculosis, Sheila convinced him to try and salvage what remained of the union by picking up and setting sail for Paris, where he could concentrate for the first time on writing fiction. They stayed until 1953, and if the getaway didn’t do much to help them to reconnect (they ended up keeping their distance from one another most of the time), Yates came out of it having generated a heap of new material.
Finding venues for his work proved to be a much more difficult proposition, though. His first published story, “Jody Rolled the Bones,” was purchased by the Atlantic for their February 1953 issue, winning an Atlantic “First” award in December of that year. With the newfound attention brought on by the story’s recognition, Yates’s breakthrough seemed imminent. But subsequent publication proved to be an equally arduous endeavor, and he was soon obliged to take on extra jobs again, which came primarily in the form of more PR work. His marriage, meanwhile, had continued to deteriorate and was now beyond repair. The couple made one last effort at counseling, and when that failed, they agreed to separate in 1959. Yates accepted a position teaching a writing class—though it was a subject he always believed was impossible to teach—at The New School in Greenwich Village.
He stayed with friends in the city before finding a basement apartment for himself, and with nobody around to object, he quickly began to spiral down into an even more unsettling physical and emotional condition than had previously been his custom. Now on his own, Yates sought out companionship wherever he went, many of whom were driven away by the startling volatility of his demeanor, while others were convinced to reconsider after being invited back to his apartment and witnessing the relative squalor that they found him living in. Through it all, Yates tried to hold up his divorce proceedings for as long as he could, before finally being forced into it in early 1961.
Fortunately for him, Yates wasn’t without allies during this period. Chief among them was his tireless, unwavering agent, Monica McCall, who had been fighting to get Yates into print since he had first expressed his intention to do so. She had encouraged him to trudge forward with every new rejection that rolled in, and now she was urging him on to complete a novel that was still unfinished after five years of work. Yates had started writing it in the midst of the disintegration of his marriage, and his progress had been stalled at several stages along the way. McCall kept on pushing through all the edits and revisions and setbacks, and when the manuscript was finally ready to be sent off to publishers, she didn’t stop until she got through to one of them. At the end of 1961, Little, Brown and Company, with the endorsement of editor Sam Lawrence—the same editor who had been responsible for keeping “Jody Rolled the Bones” out of the rejection pile at the Atlantic—released Yates’s deeply disturbing, unmistakably autobiographical debut about the inevitable collapse of the suburban ideal.
Revolutionary Road was given a print run of 20,000 copies, and Little, Brown moved almost half of them right away. Yates was declared a new force in American literature; publishers took notice, as did Hollywood studios looking to option the rights to adapt his novel. But the thrill didn’t last. Selected as a finalist for the National Book Award in 1962, Revolutionary Road lost out in what turned out to be a particularly loaded year. (Catch-22 was among the other finalists that didn’t quite make the cut.) However celebratory many reviews were, the response was mixed overall. A significant portion Yates’s potential audience just wasn’t quite ready to come to terms with the darkness of his assessment, and the novel didn’t sell many more copies after that initial rush. Yates continued to earn a fine living, publishing eight more novels and many more short stories through a long career. But he never quite broke through during his lifetime, critically or otherwise, at least not in the way that it seemed, for a moment, like he was certain to do.