The Re-emergence of Richard Yates
Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road offers a coruscating portrayal of the mind numbing conformity of suburban American in the 1950s; all set within the confines of a Connecticut commuter town, where the failed hopes and dreams of the Wheeler family play out to devastating effect.
Revolutionary Road has been acclaimed as one of the classic texts of 20th century American literature. In this, his first novel, Yates portrays the lives of the Wheelers, Frank and Alice, who have moved to the Connecticut suburbs from New York to raise their family. Both Frank and Alice are trapped by the confines of the American suburban community of which they have become members; they feel a yearning for more fulfilling lives but lack the courage and the clarity of vision to make any changes. Yates makes the tragic events of this couple’s lives emblematic of a larger impasse in American society, in which conformity and enforced uniformity have become national traits.
Upon its release in 1962 Revolutionary Road was hailed as a minor classic which delved deep into the national psyche. Kurt Vonnegut called it ‘The Great Gatsby of my time... one of the best books by a member of my generation’ whilst no less an icon than Tennessee Williams had this to say about the book: ‘Here is more than fine writing; here is what, added to fine writing, makes a book come immediately, intensely and brilliantly alive. If more is needed to make a masterpiece in modern American fiction, I am sure I don't know what it is.’ By the time Yates died in 1992, however, almost all of his books had gone out of print and he was considered a relic of a bygone age. His lucid and realistic prose style and the focus on the prosaic lives of average Americans put him at odds with the linguistic flights of fancy favoured by writers of the latter half of the 20th century. He was a largely forgotten relic, cherished by a closed circle of fanatics, but ignored by the general public.
This changed when Revolutionary Road was turned into a film by director Sam Mendes in 2008, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in the lead roles. The film brings Yates’s bleak vision to life; it received a mixed critical reception because of this, with many claiming that the film was simply too depressing. However it brought Yates back into the public eye and brought his books back into bestseller lists. Yates is now being recognised for the unique talent he was; he does not engage in verbal pyrotechnics or magic realist fantasy. Instead, his down-to-earth, unpretentious prose and his commitment to recording the stultifying day-to-day lives of ordinary working Americans mean that his work will remain profoundly moving and relevant for generations to come.
By Thomas Storey