Richard Yates has been hailed as ‘one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century’, praised by writers such as Tennessee Williams, William Styron and Kurt Vonnegut. Born in Yonkers, New York in 1926, he came from an unstable home, spending much of his childhood in different towns and residences. His parents divorced when he was three years old. His father ended up as a salesman after a failed attempt to pursue a singing career, while his mother supported him and his sister with an unsuccessful career as a sculptor. Yates attended Avon Old Farms School, a boarding school in Avon, Connecticut, and he first became interested in writing while he was editor of the school newspaper. But after leaving school he was recruited into the Army and served in Belgium and France during the Second World War. He contracted pleurisy but refused medical attention, leaving his lungs in a weakened condition.
In 1946, Yates returned to New York, where he gained his first writing experience. He worked as a journalist and publicity writer for Remington Rand Corporation, before becoming a freelance writer in 1953. In the 1960s, Yates briefly worked as a speech-writer for Senator Robert Kennedy. He also wrote the screenplay adaptation of Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron, although this came to nothing.
1961 saw Yates begin his career as a novelist, with the publication of Revolutionary Road, his most acclaimed novel and a finalist for the 1962 National Book Award. He wrote eight further books, each touching on a common theme of unmitigated sadness. This theme has been deemed too depressing for some, and may have been responsible for the books' generally poor sales. His works include: A Special Providence (1969), Disturbing the Peace (1975), The Easter Parade (1976), A Good School (1978), Young Hearts Crying (1984) and Cold Spring Harbor (1986). None of these later novels achieved the popularity or critical acclaim of his debut.
Yates also wrote short stories; his collections are 11 Kinds of Loneliness (1962) and Liars in Love (1981). But, after repeated rejections, only one of his short stories, The Canal, appeared in The New Yorker; it was eventually published nine years after his death in celebration of the 2001 release of The Collected Stories of Richard Yates. These short stories earned him a reputation as a compelling chronicler of post-war American life.
Yates gradually built up an academic reputation, teaching English on campuses around America, notably Columbia University, the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the University of Southern California Master of Professional Writing Program, and the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He also taught at Boston University, where his papers are archived.
In 1948 Yates married Sheila Bryant, but their marriage ended in divorce. He remarried in 1968, however this marriage to Martha Speers also resulted in divorce in 1975. He had three daughters: Sharon, Monica and Gina.
Shortly after the birth of Sharon, Yates contracted tuberculosis, resulting in a long period of treatment. Yates also suffered from bipolar disorder, then referred to as ‘manic depression’, causing him to suffer emotional breakdowns. Combined with bouts of alcoholism, this condition was thought to have greatly affected his work. In 1992, at the age of 66, Yates died in Birmingham, Alabama, after developing emphysema and suffering complications from minor surgery.
Although the majority of Yates’ books were met with critical acclaim, not one of them sold more than 12,000 copies in hardcover. In the years following his death, every one of his novels went out of print. His reputation has since grown dramatically, with a revived interest in his life, a movie of Revolutionary Road, and new editions of his novels.