America's great secret: Why did Richard Yates never make the literary big time?

Richard Yates was one of the 20th century's best writers, but he never made the literary big time. A film of his debut novel will change that, says Esther Walker

Richard Yates was once called "one of America's least famous great writers". Although fans of the author of Revolutionary Road, now a film directed by Sam Mendes and starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, are almost always zealots, they are few in number.

Yates's greatness is undeniable; he has been hailed as one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century by the likes of Julian Barnes, Kurt Vonnegut, Sebastian Faulks and David Hare. The Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Richard Ford has declared the huge influence Richard Yates's writing had on his own work.

And yet Yates barely sold any books in his lifetime; even now, recently back in print, they sell only modestly. Most people have never heard of him; his own plotline could be that of any of his terminally unlucky characters. But how could Yates, whom so many think of as an important literary voice, have been forgotten so completely?

Born in New York in 1926, Yates was a staunch realist, writing primarily about the age of anxiety, that uncertain time in 1950s America. Revolutionary Road, about the disintegrating marriage of a young suburban couple, Frank and April Wheeler, played by Winslet and DiCaprio, captured the essence of this time brilliantly.

The Wheelers – Frank with his dreary office job and April with her children, her picturesque home and the amateur dramatics society – are dissatisfied with the cloying boredom of the suburbs. They believe that they both deserve something different and better, with tragic results.

The book was published in 1961 to huge acclaim, but its success proved to be a bit of a curse for Yates. It would be eight years until he published his second novel, A Special Providence, in 1969. It is a stunning book, realism at its most pure, and writing at its most accomplished, but at the time it was seen as a disaster.

It is a tragi-comic tale of the fraught relationship between a mother and son and is set towards the end of the Second World War. The year it was published, 1969, all anyone was talking about was revolution and change. But the fact that the book was set during and just after the war wasn't necessarily the problem. The trouble was that fans of Revolutionary Road were expecting something more modern, and potential new readers saw nothing in it that was current or relevant to the age. Yates was neither experimental nor fashionable, and it seemed to many as though he had captured the zeitgeist in Revolutionary Road merely by accident; he was not the voice of his generation, after all.

Certainly, almost all of Yates's novels after Revolutionary Road obsess about the same themes: disappointed hopes, crumbling romance and suffocating family life. Less concerned with wider social issues, Yates's stage is typically a forlorn sitting room, his players small, unremarkable and unlikeable.

In A Special Providence, Alice Prentice is a dreamy, hopeless single mother to her son Robert. She is transparently based on Yates's own mother, Dookie, who, divorced from Yates's father, dragged Yates and his sister from one grim apartment to another, only ever just making ends meet. Like Yates's mother, Alice Prentice is an unsuccessful sculptor, doggedly holding out hope that one day her work will be discovered, but it never is. (Yates brutally sketches this hideous mother figure – a drunken, jabbering embarrassment – over and over again.)

The 18-year-old Robert Prentice manages to escape from his mother's clutches to a new life in Europe thanks to the convenient upheaval of the war. The novel ends with Robert sending his mother – hopeful that "Bobby" might return to America and support her – a token sum of money.

Robert Prentice is one of Yates's more fortunate characters. Most of the time, Yates takes his creations to dark places and then abandons them. He will repeatedly dangle the promise of golden opportunity and new life, only to snatch it away.

In his 1992 Boston Review essay on Yates, the novelist Stewart O'Nan says: "Yates refuses to spoonfeed us the usual redeeming, life-affirming plot twist that makes everything better. No comedy dilutes the humiliation. When it's time to face the worst, there's no ... softening of the blows."

The buying American public has never been crazy about losers, and Yates's special talent was to chronicle, in technicolour detail, failure after failure. But to say that Yates doesn't enjoy the status of, say, Philip Roth or John Updike because he was "too depressing" is babyish; he simply wrote things as he saw them, as symphonies of misery, in all their mundane, hopeless glory.

As in real life, rarely anyone gets saved by a last-minute cheque from a generous uncle; that boy who's been messing that girl around all her life doesn't come good and change his ways; lonely old people drink and smoke until they die – and that's pretty much it.

"If my work has a theme," Yates said, "I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy."

In Yates's own life there was no reprieve from disappointment, loneliness and thwarted ambition: he had had an appalling childhood; his two marriages ended in divorce and his three daughters went to live with their respective mothers, leaving him completely alone; his endless submissions to The New Yorker, which had described Revolutionary Road as "meaningless characters leading meaningless lives", were all turned down.

Yates recovered from the disaster of A Special Providence with the publication, in 1976, of The Easter Parade; the book, about the misfortunes of the Grimes sisters, received the best reviews of his career. He freely admitted that it was almost entirely autobiographical. "Emily Grimes is me," he said. "I mean, it was all there lying around. Peter. My poor pretentious mother." He barely even bothered to change names in the book, refashioning Dookie as "Pookie" and leaving his nephew Peter in as he was.

Yates never quite managed to translate the revival of interest in his work into greater success, or happiness. He had inherited a serious mood disorder from his mother. He drank heavily to manage his manic and depressive episodes but had a nervous breakdown at 34; he recreated his temporary incarceration in a men's "violence ward" of an institution in New York at the beginning of his 1975 novel Disturbing the Peace. He had approximately 10 breakdowns in his lifetime, all of which are described in Blake Bailey's 2003 biography, A Tragic Honesty.

"The frequency of Yates's breakdowns increased as he became more solitary and miserable," says Bailey. "Again and again he'd drink too much and stop eating, subsisting on coffee, cigarettes and alcohol until he became ill and disorientated."

Yates's last four books, A Good School (1978), Liars in Love (1981), Young Hearts Crying (1984) and Cold Spring Harbor (1986) were all well-received, but none sold more than 12,000 copies in hardback. His drinking had alienated him from his peers and he was a liability: he accidentally set fire to his apartment with a neglected cigarette, passed out in a snowdrift having forgotten to take his medication, started fights and got thrown out of restaurants. By the mid-Eighties he was broke, ill and something of a pariah.

Yates was 66 when he died, not from the four packets of cigarettes he smoked a day, which had given him emphysema, nor from the vast quantities of alcohol, but from complications during a minor hernia operation.

His work fell quickly out of print, only creeping back into bookshops at the turn of the century. The movie version of Revolutionary Road may well serve to widen Yates's new, small fanbase; modern audiences, now so attuned to misery-lit, may be less inclined to dismiss Yates as merely gloomy. But it is equally possible that Yates will, after a brief glimpse at the big time, just like one of the doomed characters in his books, slide back into obscurity.

'Revolutionary Road' opens on 30 January

Cult reading: Books by Yates

Revolutionary Road (1961)

A husband and wife struggle with the crushing boredom of life in a Connecticut suburb.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962)

A collection of short stories.

A Special Providence (1969)

The unhappy relationship between a mother and son at the end of the Second World War.

Disturbing the Peace (1975)

Yates describes his own breakdowns in this story about a delusional salesman who moves to New York.

The Easter Parade (1976)

The life and romantic misfortunes of two sisters, Emily and Sarah Grimes.

A Good School (1978)

Yates was inspired to write this about a New England prep school following conversations with a psychiatrist about his childhood.

Liars in Love (1981)

More short stories.

Young Hearts Crying (1984)

A look at the gradual, 30-year, disintegration of a marriage.

Cold Spring Harbour (1986)

More martial gloom in Long Island.

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