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Dismembering the American Dream: the Life and Fiction of Richard Yates

Posted in Uncategorized on August 15, 2014 by kateonyates

Today is a wonderful day. Ten copies of my book, Dismembering the American Dream arrived in the post, in a box in a sack, actually. I wonder if the person who delivered them had a long white beard and a scarlet tunic.

It looks wonderful and I am completely thrilled: it’s been a long haul. Sadly, the price tag is high and I’m concerned that the graduates and undergraduates (for whom it was intended) will find it prohibitive. Buy lots of copies, those of you who can afford to, and tweet like crazy!

Big thanks to all of you for taking an interest but especially to DeWitt Henry and Alex Siskin for their helpful, incisive comments for so many years.

I hope you can get your hands on a copy (publication date is August 30th 2014: Alabama University Press) and I hope you enjoy it.



Finally, a book is approaching…..

Posted in Uncategorized on May 20, 2014 by kateonyates

Dear Yates fans,

I have been very quiet on here, for which many apologies. But the good news is that I have been concentrating my efforts on the book and, if all goes to plan, it will be published by Alabama University Press on August 30th 2014. Sweating blood over the index right now!

Look out for Dismembering the American Dream: the Life and Fiction of Richard Yates 

You can pre-order it on Amazon now.

All the best,


So what is going on here?

Posted in Uncategorized on October 4, 2010 by kateonyates

Time for an update I think.

I am now working on a book on Richard Yates. What a surprise! There’s a mountain of work to do and I want to get it right but this is all new territory for me. Some people seem to snap out books with apparent ease. Blake Bailey for one. Two masterful biographies and not a big gap between them. Anyway, I will do my best and hope that I can produce something enjoyable as well as informative. Cutting out academic jargon should be easy enough since I don’t go in for it in a big way, but cutting out references is harder; I don’t want to lose the ‘meat of the thing’, if you see what I mean.

Also, what to call it? Now there’s a question…..My external examiner commented that I wasn’t much good at titles and there was I thinking I was brilliant. Any thoughts would be helpful, oh silent readers. Obviously you don’t know the work, but let’s just say it’s an extended critical look at all Yates’s work, or rather, it will be.

2010 Update: more on women

Posted in Uncategorized on January 2, 2010 by kateonyates

Many apologies to those of you who loyally clock in hoping to find something new, interesting and challenging here: how disappointed you must be to discover that I’ve been so idle and haven’t written anything for weeks. By the way, who are all the hundreds of people who checked into this blog on the 27th December?? I’d love you to get in touch – perhaps not all of you though! It’s been ‘head down time’ as I get ever nearer to completing and submitting my thesis while at the same time editing a couple of pieces for different journal articles and running a family of young adults.

I’m currently putting the finishing touches to a piece about Yates’s fictional treatment of women; it’s too long and so I have to cut it down but here’s a taster:

In all his fiction, Yates explores a world in which women live diminished lives; while not overtly championing women’s right to work, nor indeed their domestic rights, Yates observes that society restricts women and interrogates the forms of those restrictions. (With the publication of The Feminine Mystique, 1963 is normally regarded as the date when ‘the problem that had no name’ was addressed and I use it therefore as an indicator of change even if that view now seems simplistic.) By focussing on Sarah Grimes’s thwarted desire to write, or Rachel Drake’s (Cold Spring Harbor) determination to get married in order not to break the cardinal rule that forbade sex before marriage (Jessica Weiss addresses this issue, indicating that the desire to have sex was, in the fifties, a powerful inducement to marriage: ‘Bowing to or upholding social conventions that frowned on premarital sex, couples married early in part because they were eager for sexual intimacy.’ (Weiss, To Have and To Hold, p.24), Yates highlights the terms of their controlled lives. What he does not do, however, is suggest that women were, in any organised fashion, becoming articulate about their situation. In that sense he stands apart from the terms of many of the retrospective sociological commentaries. Wini Breines, for instance, prefaces her book with these words:

The feminism of the past twenty-five years enables us to see that white, middle-class girls who were taught in the 1950s that their main goals in life were to become wives and mothers only ambivalently internalized these values and sometimes rejected them outright, embracing instead a wider world.(Wini Breines, Young, White, and Miserable, p. ix)

Rather than adopting a radical standpoint which would have marked him down as an early feminist of the second wave, Yates explores women’s uncertainty about their role in his fiction. Of course, his explorations come from a male perspective but the ambivalence of his standpoint was indicative of the uncertainty and confusion of the era. Whatever their intellectual or rational selves taught them about the way forward for the division of labour within the home, for instance, men and women ‘valued traditional family patterns and followed a traditional…course’ (Weiss, p.69); as Jessica Weiss expresses it, ‘norms of masculinity and femininity still tethered these postwar couples.’ (Weiss, p.31)

The Easter Parade (1976), suggests his increasing awareness of the difficulties of life for women as his story is centred on the struggles of his female protagonist, Emily Grimes, and her older sister Sarah.  Both sisters try to become writers and for different reasons fail in this ambition.  Their thwarted desire to write is just one of the ways that Yates uses to indicate how men, threatened by female ambition, hold back the women they live with. As Elaine Showalter indicates in her chapter on the 50s, ‘women writers tended to be isolated in their rooms, homes, and marriages.’ (Showalter, A Jury of Her Peers, p.393) At the same time, Yates also weaves domestic violence into this novel, suggesting an understanding of the vulnerability of women within marriage that should be noted.  Furthermore, Yates’s inclusion of abortion in several stories, notably Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade, suggests attentiveness to, and sensitivity towards, the wider political debate about the rights of women.

As I have indicated, Yates’s work reinforces a contemporary revisionist view that sees the fifties, not the sixties, as the time when women’s rights became a new part of the socio-political agenda. However, I do not, and could not, argue that Yates was a proto-feminist: he was not.  There is a real split between Yates’s intellectual appreciation of how life is peculiarly difficult for women within marriages that constrain them or diminish them and his emotional distaste for anything that smacks of a political move to address those issues.  Blake Bailey draws some attention to Yates’s feelings on the subject, when, in the early 1970s, his second wife Martha was thinking of leaving him:

Largely to spare his feelings, she’d spoken in rather vague terms about wanting to “find herself,” and Yates concluded that she’d become a “womens’-libbing bitch” as he sometimes put it.  He couldn’t speak calmly on the subject; partly, perhaps, because his mother’s “independence” had caused him so much grief, Yates’s hatred for all “feminist horseshit” bordered on the pathological. (Bailey, A Tragic Honesty, 2003 p.429)

The contradictoriness of his attitude towards women and their role in life is evident here. His observations about gender roles in his fictions only make sense if one understands that his views were not driven by ideological concerns. Noticing how constrained they were, Yates felt women should be able to work and have a life independent of the home: feeling the effects of this in his own life, he felt they should still put the concerns and needs of their husbands first; to do less was to earn his contempt.

In his fictions, despite much interest in the plight of the ‘diminished female’, scorn is heaped on both feminists and postmodernists alike and it is with some relish that he fuses the two in his fourth novel The Easter Parade. Emily is invited to a party, a grim affair with no single men, but the hosts tell her about Trudy, their neighbour, who gives masturbation classes to lonely women: ‘Sort of the ultimate in radical feminism. Who needs men? (TEP, p.215) the host dryly observes. Emily goes along with others to see Trudy’s studio and finds herself looking at ‘what looks like a sculptured sunburst of many podlike aluminum shapes’ (Ibid., p.216), cast, Trudy explains, from her students’ vaginas. ‘There were no more parties’,(Ibid.)Yates writes. As Bailey points out, this ‘elliptical leap…nicely summarizes his attitude toward radical feminism.’ (Blake Bailey Women independent of men was something Yates was both contemptuous of and feared; he expressed similar contempt towards homosexuality with equally conflicting results. Despite highlighting the homophobia prevalent in the fifties in a story such as ‘A Clinical Romance’, or in his depiction of artists in Young Hearts Crying, Monica Yates, in a recent interview with Yates’s daughters, recalls his horrified reaction when she suggested that she might join the army: “Everyone in the army is lesbians! You can’t go in the army, baby.” (Kate Charlton-Jones, ‘Living on Revolutionary Road, The Times, Jan. 24th 2009

James Agee

Posted in Other writers, Uncategorized on May 27, 2009 by kateonyates

I know this is a bit of a departure from my work on Yates but I have only just discovered the incredible work of Mr James Agee, and in particular A Death in the Family. I have been struck by it as forcibly as I was struck six years ago by Revolutionary Road. It is a work of true genius with recognisable homage paid to Faulkner, Hardy and, I think, many of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century poets.

I am only two thirds of the way through my first reading but I am getting up early and staying awake late to keep reading. The prose is poetic without ever being overdone; the observations about human behaviour are so precise, so detailed and breathtakingly sharp; the shift in narrative view, and the gap between the inner and outer person, all carefully and dynamically conveyed. And then there’s the debate about Man and his beliefs threaded throughout, like an argument the author is having with himself, that strikes me as being so like Wallace Stevens’s work. It’s all a very different perspective on the family from the one Yates gives and makes for some interesting comparisons.

I want to know more about James Agee….Have any of you read any of his work, prose or poetry? Is there a biography? I only have the information that Wikipedia provides and it is’t much.

I have to thank my friend Mark for putting me on to this work and I look forward to finding time to read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Libby Purves

Posted in Debatable issues, Uncategorized on February 9, 2009 by kateonyates

There is something breathtakingly arrogant about Libby Purves’s piece in today’s Times. I refer you to this link for the whole piece:

What shocks me is her absolute certainty that no one could have noticed Yates’s prescience but her. Ms Purves, he didn’t just anticipate the digital revolution but the whole sorry business of  engulfing materialism, the obsession with celebrity and, in so many ways, the equal rights of women. Have a read!

‘Well, it was probably just about worth making, and deserves its prizes. America in the Obama era – rediscovering its sense of hopeful revolution – may find it too dated to bother with. But for me the eye-opening moment was one that has not been noticed, not even (I suspect) by the film-makers. As the despairing wife plans her last act, she decides for once to be nice to Frank over breakfast. She makes scrambled egg and asks about his job. So he tries to explain the nature of these “business machines” his office sells – early computers – and on a napkin draws the vacuum tubes that lie at their heart. She feigns interest and tells him, insincerely, to be proud of his work.

But I sat bolt upright in the cinema seat and thought “Yess!” Because the huge unseen irony in the film is this: Frank’s dull commercial world was actually playing midwife to a revolution that would change the lives of millions of Western women who feel just as fed up, imprisoned and prone to Parisian fantasies as April did in 1955. Poor petulant kid, she was just born too early for the PC, the Mac, and the Internet. She could not have foreseen (who did?) that because of rapid development funded by companies like her husband’s, the computer would soon evolve from being a “business machine”, fall into the hands of fascinated hobbyists and inventive geeks, and thence move into the social mainstream. In the past ten years in particular home computers have been passionately embraced by women just like April, with no technical or scientific interest whatsoever.’

Perhaps I am being arrogant myself but it is galling to have someone clearly new to Yates suggest that he was extraordinary in ways that only she can see. I suggest you read some more Yates, LP.

Yates Reading

Posted in Uncategorized on January 10, 2009 by kateonyates

All Yates’ fans will want to hear this….Yates reading ‘The Best of Everything’. Just wonderful. Click on the link within the article.