The Voyage Out Book Group’s Reader’s Guide to Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
The Great American Novel
Other Books From Region:
Lolita Vladimir Nabokov
Housekeeping Marilynne Robinson
Richard Walden Yates was born in Yonkers, New York on February 3rd, 1926 to Vincent and Ruth. Both of his parents were aspiring artists. His parents’s aspirations and failures have been recounted in much of Yates’ work.
Although Ruth and Vincent divorced in 1929, Vincent continued to support the family for the rest of his life. Part of this support went to sending Richard to ‘proper New England boarding schools. It took a while, but Yates was eventually able to gain acceptance in these schools. He was also able to become the editor for his high school newspaper. This was Yates’s first foray into the writerly world.
In 1944 Richard was, along with most of his classmates, drafted into the Army. Yates was a horrible soldier, showing his awkwardness in deployments in both Belgium and France. During the Battle of the Buldge, Yates contracted pleurisy. He was unwilling to leave the battle, and eventually collapsed and was carted off. The ordeal left him with physical incapacities for the rest of his life.
After being discharged from the Army, he wound up in the Village. He planned his life as an overly read intellectual. He was reading too much Hemmingway and loving T.S. Eliot, even going so far as to take on the lifestyle of some of Hemmingway’s most masculine characters.
In 1948 he met Sheila Bryant, who would later become his first wife. The marriage fell to strains of Yates’s inability to earn a living. Sheila was even forced to take secretarial work late in her pregnancy to pay overdue bills. The couple’s daughter, Sharon, was born in 1950.
After his daughter’s birth, Richard contracted tuberculosis. He then spent the next two years in Veterans Hospitals. Although sick, Yates was able to spend a lot of time reading. He fell in love with Madame Bovary. He used Flaubert’s classic novel as a model for the book Yates was writing—Revolutionary Road.
Yates was discharged, and given a veteran’s disability pension. He used the pension to become an expat artist in Europe. Yates was able to get a story, ‘Jody Rolled the Bones’, published in The Atlantic Monthly. Based on the story’s success, Yates was able to attract editor Seymour Lawrence’s attention. Lawrence encouraged Yates to start getting serious about his novel.
The novel, Revolutionary Road was published in 1961, followed by a short story collection in 1962. On the strength of these two books, Yates was asked to teach at prestigious Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. Yates was a good, and active teacher. His focus was on precision in writing.
Yates then published a few novels that took a long time to write and were in print for only a few years. These failures, A Special Providence and Disturbing the Peace, took a long time and left Yates dejected, broke, and tired. In the 70’s Richard’s life began to take a real turn for the worst. Already divorced from Sheila, he married his second wife, Martha Speer. Yates’s heavy drinking a sporadic behavior led to a quick divorce from Martha, denial of tenure at Iowa, and a dive into a deep depression that would live with him for the rest of his life. Yates began experimenting with self medication by mixing his heavy alchohol use with psychotropic drugs.
Yates was able to continue to work on his writing through all of this turmoil, even winning a grant from the National Institute of Art and Letters. The grant allowed him to move back to New York ad write Easter Parade. Easter Parade is considered some of his best work.
Following the success of Easter Parade, Yates published another novel A Good School and a short story collection Liars in Love. Both were well reviewed, but poorly purchased. Continuing a lifelong torment of being well received by the Literati, but having none of it reflect in tangible spoils.
Yates tried to return to the hot spot of Revolutionary Road by writing a similar novel titled, Young Hearts Crying. Young Hearts Crying came out to a mild puff of publicity and no sales. Anatole Broyard’s review of the book was titled “Two-Fisted Self Pity”.
Yates was now desperate for funds, so he turned to television. He was unsuccessful. Most of his failure came from his thought process that he was above this type of thing anyway.
Shockingly, Yates was given another two book deal based on his newest novel in progress, Uncertain Times. The book was based on his time as Robert Kennedy’s speechwriter in the early 60’s. He also took a position as a professor at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.
Although he tried valiantly to fulfill his obligations as a writer and teacher, Yates’s health was rapidly deteriorating. In November of 1992 he traveled to the VA hospital in Birmingham for a minor procedure. He would die of suffocation shortly after the procedure.
Questions/ Tangents/ Topics:
1) How does The Petrified Forest interact with Revolutionary Road?
2) Many of the characters lament their ‘boring suburban life’ and feel above the place they are living. What does it say about them that they all feel so strongly about this, but none of them leave?
3) How does Yates move back and forth between time periods?
4) The narrator is always a third-person narrator, but how does this narrator change from chapter to chapter?
5) How is the book making space for gender?
6) John Givings is put forth as a ‘truth sayer’, but how much truth is he putting forth?
7) Why did April Wheeler leave a note?
8) What happens to the Wheeler’s in the last 20 pages?
9) Is this book dated?
What We Talked About When We Talked About This Book:
- The easy target for this book is to view it as a critique of the suburbs, but we went past that. In fact, we feel that the place is simply a vehicle to help show the true hopelessness of the novel.
- We spent a lot of time talking about how the characters see each other, and how their wants are tied up in the ways in which they are seen. As an example: Frank knows he doesn’t work very hard, and he knows he doesn’t do a great job at his work, but he allows April to feel sorry for him because he works so hard, and he allows Bart Pollock to praise him for work he did while making up for not keeping up with his job. Frank is actually fulfilled, we thought, by this false praise.
- We started one conversation lamenting how empty the characters lives are, and tried to find how ways in which they became empty. Quickly, however, the group realized that the real tragedy of this book is not in the ways that characters are emptied, but in the ways they are filled. As an exercise, go through all the times when characters where happy or energized.
- The ending was of particular interest to the group. The brilliant choice of Yates to follow Shep in the hospital marks him as the only writer I know of who could successfully eliminate the manipulation and sentimentality from this scene. The passage about the janitor was particularly wonderful, and we read it out loud.
- We talked about the characters in terms of their being ‘good’ people. It was argued that they were not as bad as their actions may show, and that many of them are likeable as humans, but bad at being people. The main arguments in this debate centered on Frank Wheeler and Helen Givings.