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Dismembering the American Dream

The Life and Fiction of Richard Yates

Kate Charlton-Jones

Publication Year: 2014

Since his death in Alabama in 1992, the work of American writer Richard Yates has enjoyed a renaissance, culminating in director Sam Mendes’s adaption of the novel Revolutionary Road (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet). Dismembering the American Dream is the first book-length critical study of Yates’s fiction.
Kate Charlton-Jones argues that to read Yates’s tales of disordered lives is to uncover not misery, though the lives he describes are sad ones, but a profound, enriching, and humorous understanding of human weakness and vulnerability. Yates’s narratives absorb his readers so entirely, mirroring their own emotional highs and lows with such skill, that reading becomes recognition. Yates demonstrates his ability to tease powerful human drama out of the most ordinary, quotidian moments. At the same time, Yates’s fiction displays an object lesson in the art of fine prose writing, so it is no surprise that many early fans of Yates were also established writers.
Charlton-Jones explores how Yates extends the realist form and investigates three main recurring themes of his fiction: observations about performative behavior, which are at the heart of all his fictions; his conception of the writer’s role in society; and how he envisages the development of social and sexual relationships. Furthermore, Charlton-Jones illustrates how Yates incorporates some of the concerns and methods of postmodernist writers but how, nevertheless, he resists their ontological challenges.
Drawing on the author’s personal papers and with a foreword by DeWitt Henry and an afterword by Richard Yates’s daughter Monica, Dismembering the American Dream provides an extended critical examination of the often neglected but important work of this gifted and accomplished author. 

Published by: The University of Alabama Press

Title page, Copyright, Dedication, Quotes

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List of Illustrations

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DeWitt Henry

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pp. xi-xii

This admirably thorough and well-balanced critical study is corrective and, more broadly, instructive. Yates and his oeuvre of seven novels and two collections of stories remain underappreciated. Kate Charlton-Jones’s work brings to mind two of my favorite studies of novelists: F. R. Leavis’s...

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pp. xiii-xiv

I’ve had long enough to think about what to say here but, even so, it isn’t an easy task when so many people have contributed, directly or indirectly, to my work. Years ago, at the University of Cambridge, the late Margot Heinemann taught me to value words and have confidence in my opinion; I’ve always...

The Published Works of Richard Yates

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pp. xv-xvi

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pp. 1-15

Every sensibility has its canon of indelible encounters, perhaps more deeply personal than explicable. My own list includes The Secret Garden, the poems of Robert Frost, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, King Lear, Middlemarch, “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens, and Revolutionary Road...

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1. Revolutionary Road

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pp. 16-29

Revolutionary Road took five years to complete. It is an acute and painful study of the pretensions of a group of young middle-class couples, and one couple in particular, living a suburban life with dreams of escape. Richard Yates’s clarity of expression and his understanding of the hidden preoccupations...

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2. Richard Yates and Hollywood

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pp. 30-48

How Richard Yates related to Hollywood demands more than just a few cursory phrases; it was a difficult relationship and reflected the complexity of the role Hollywood played in relation to the nation. Throughout his fiction Yates makes ample use of cinematic metaphor as a way of pointing out the...

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3. Theories of Selfhood

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pp. 49-63

It is axiomatic that we all perform all of the time, whether onstage, in a social situation, or even in the home; we invent a version of ourselves not just once but to suit every situation we encounter. Performance is routinely understood to be part of human existence. We shield ourselves behind masks, knowingly...

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4. Disrupting the Facade

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pp. 64-74

In sharp contrast to the number of inauthentic and self-absorbed individuals in Richard Yates’s work—the high self-monitors, as Mark Snyder refers to them1—the reader only rarely encounters a low self-monitor, and they stand out as people apart. However, such characters are not exempt from the caustic...

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5. Influences and Contrasts; Change and Continuity

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pp. 75-94

In John Barth’s novel The End of the Road, published a year after Revolutionary Road, the reader is immersed immediately in an unrecognizable world, a world without definite contours. While Richard Yates’s work attempts to describe the world as he knows it, Barth makes it clear, with his subtle repositioning...

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6. The Writer/Character

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pp. 95-119

In Richard Yates’s fiction we see a recurring fascination with the role of the writer in American suburban society. He is fascinated by the promise of status, independence, and material success as much as he is frustrated by the writer’s inability to deliver any of those things in spite of hard work and commitment...

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7. Realism, Form, and Technique

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pp. 120-150

It is well documented that by the early 1960s, the literati—the scholars and editors of literature—regarded realist fiction as passé. Sharon Monteith describes a sense of the shift away from realism when she examines “the turn in the literary tide”: “The emphasis on individual awakening and rebellion...

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8. The 1950s and Gender Roles

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pp. 151-169

As is evident from all Richard Yates’s work, his writing is never overtly political or polemical, but it makes fascinating reading as it reflects the turmoil and contradictions about gender roles and relationships that were evident at the time he came of age. Yates lived through a period of enormous political...

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9. Parents and Sex

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pp. 170-192

In contrast to the largely sympathetic treatment Yates gives his younger women, the mothers of his fiction are treated harshly. Esther Grimes, or Pookie, in The Easter Parade, Alice Prentice in A Special Providence, and Gloria Drake in Cold Spring Harbor provide three of many examples in Yates’s fiction of...

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10. America in the Postwar Years

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pp. 193-206

Richard Yates’s published works span the period between 1961 and 1986. His writing life began in his teenage years and continued until his death in 1992. Nevertheless, he is very much a writer of the fifties, where the term fifties is expanded to include the early part of the subsequent decade. His work is predominantly...

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pp. 207-220

It has now been a few years since the film Revolutionary Road1 was released, and the attention it brought anew to Richard Yates’s work has understandably waned. However, his fiction is no longer languishing in second-hand bookshops, unread or admired by only a distant few. The film brought so...

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Afterword by Monica Yates

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pp. 221-226

I’ve never doubted my father’s work. My first real reading of Revolutionary Road came when I was twenty. It took my breath away. As Kurt Vonnegut Jr. put it years later, eulogizing Richard Yates and addressing his entire life’s output, “I did not find even one paragraph which, if it were read to you today...


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pp. 227-260


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pp. 261-270


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pp. 271-279

E-ISBN-13: 9780817387488
E-ISBN-10: 081738748X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817318253
Print-ISBN-10: 0817318259

Page Count: 296
Illustrations: 14 illustrations
Publication Year: 2014