Richard Yates' Real Masterpiece
What Kate Winslet doesn't tell you about Yates and women.
The film adaptation of Richard Yates' first and most famous novel, Revolutionary Road, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, is a remarkably faithful treatment of the book, which—in case you've missed the buzz—is about an attractive young couple who are discontented with 1950s suburban life and come to a bad end. The novel was published in 1961, and almost 50 years later many seem tempted to read Betty Friedan-style discontentment into it, viewing Winslet's character, April Wheeler, as a kind of proto-feminist. It is she, after all, who has the idea to chuck everything and move to Paris while her husband Frank loses his nerve and decides that the "hopeless emptiness" of Eisenhower America isn't so bad.
Yates would have groaned at such an interpretation. Outside the niceties of art, he expressed an almost pathological hatred for what he was apt to call "feminist horseshit," and, indeed, his work has a reputation for its misogynistic edge. Not that his men seem very admirable themselves; behind all the pseudo-intellectual posturing, Frank Wheeler is a cringing mediocrity and (on some level) knows it. He is, in short, a paradigm of the ineffectual Yates-ian male. It is telling, though, that when April's own dreams of being an actress—one of the "golden people," as she puts it—are dashed, she reverts to a misguided faith in her husband, who, she hopes, will "find himself" while she supports him with secretarial work in Paris.
The fact is, Yates was quite capable of exploring the hazards of self-deception from the perspective of either gender. "You know so much about women," Gloria Vanderbilt gushed in a fan letter to Yates—this with particular reference to his fourth novel, The Easter Parade (1976), now available in an omnibus volume from the Everyman Library that also includes Revolutionary Road and the story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. Apart from being (I submit) a masterpiece in its own right, The Easter Parade proves that both feminism and misogyny are beside the point in Yates' best work.
"Emily fucking Grimes is me," Yates was liable to rejoin of the novel's heroine, rather than accept a compliment for his gender-transcending empathy. An earlier work, A Special Providence (1969), had been an autobiographical account of the author's childhood and coming-of-age (or not) in the Second World War; it was, in Yates' eyes foremost, a relative failure. Struggling afterward with the question of how to objectify the raw material of his life for the purpose of art, Yates hit on the ingenious idea of making the "me character" (as he called it) a woman. For the sake of a more rounded picture, he phoned an old girlfriend named Natalie, who'd led the kind of independent and rather isolated life he had in mind for his protagonist.
A person of remarkable candor, Natalie was happy to tell Yates whatever he wanted to know—among other things, that she'd been married briefly to a man who told her he "hated [her] body," that she'd had two abortions in the '50s, that her drinking had gotten so bad that she lost her job and stayed drunk all day until, finally, she went to the Payne-Whitney walk-in mental health clinic and got help. Such was the embarrassment of riches that became Emily Grimes—"the original liberated woman," as her nephew Peter, an Episcopalian priest, characterizes her. The wounding irony of that remark is reflected in Emily's scornful response ("What are you—one of these 'hip' priests?"), given that her "liberation" has led to promiscuity, poverty, and despair.
By way of a dialectic, the life of Emily runs in counterpoint to that of her older sister Sarah, a woman with "a look of trusting innocence" who wishes that Emily would, like her, settle down and have children. "You're always telling me to 'marry' people, Sarah," her exasperated sister remarks. "Is marriage supposed to be the answer to everything?" If Yates were as strictly anti-feminist as he often affected to be, then the dutiful housewife Sarah would get the better shake in life; but as we know from the novel's opening line—"Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life"—both women are in for a very rocky time of it. Indeed, Sarah Grimes is based (with harrowing particularity) on the author's sister, Ruth, a woman who devoted her adult life to playing the role of "happiest, most contented little housewife in the world" until she drank herself to death at the age of 46. And no wonder: Like her fictional surrogate, Ruth Yates was married to a lout who beat her on a regular basis. How often? "[O]nce or twice a month for about—well, twenty years," as Sarah Grimes matter-of-factly explains to her sister. Emily is sympathetic and offers the occasional lifeline but in the end decides that Sarah doesn't really want to be saved ("I love the guy").
Blake Bailey is the author of Cheever: A Life.