- Richard Yates in Iowa
Richard Yates came out to Iowa in the fall of 1964 soon after the great critical success of his first novel, Revolutionary Road. The book had received resounding, near universal praise just three years earlier: everyone from Dorothy Parker to William Styron to Tennessee Williams hailed it as a modern American masterpiece. But, by the time Yates showed up in Iowa City that fall, the roar had begun to subside and a slightly harrowed look had crept into the eyes of the young author. It was the look of a man who knew he had to come up with a good encore, and at the time the effort, a new novel-in-progress called “A Special Providence,” wasn’t going well. Moreover, despite all the critical acclaim, Revolutionary Road had sold poorly; and, with bills to pay back East, Yates would probably need money beyond his academic salary.
None of this kept him from being a star of the first magnitude in the eyes of his students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, however. I was one of those, having come up from south Texas that fall with my wife and two small children in a Hillman Minx and a U-Haul truck. I’d been working for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and living in nearby Kingsville. There I had met a young college instructor named William Harrison, who had recently been at the Iowa workshop and soon would have his first short story published in the Saturday Evening Post. It was Harrison who got me into Iowa. When he [End Page 422] heard I’d been accepted he exclaimed, “Hey, you’re in luck! Richard Yates is going to be teaching there this year!”
“Who’s Richard Yates?”
“The author of Revolutionary Road!”
I had never heard of it, but I didn’t say so. By the time I got to Iowa, though, three months later, I’d bought and read the novel and was duly impressed. Yes, indeed, here was a man who knew his way around a story. There was a scramble to get into Yates’s writing section—everybody, it seemed, wanted to study under the man who had written Revolutionary Road—and I had to wait until my second semester to get in. It was like being admitted to a good fraternity, as I recall. Everybody envied you.
Yates for those days was tall—at least six feet four or six feet five—and slender and physically imposing. He had dark hair and brooding, near movie-star good looks. In the classroom he was a study in informality. In addition to his workshop classes, he taught, as part of his contract, a course in the modern novel. His method was to sit on the desk at the front of the room, his long legs dangling, a cigarette in one hand and a much-abused paperback edition of the novel under discussion in the other, and hold forth. He was a man of strong opinions. He knew what he liked and what he didn’t like. What he liked was The Great Gatsby, for example, about which he stated, memorably, that although it was a little book it managed to “gain range as it gathered momentum”—an observation that was not only accurate but beautifully put. That was Yates in the classroom. He had the ability to couch his opinions in language that was quotable and hard to forget. Another novel he liked was James Jones’s From Here To Eternity, which, superficially at least, would appear to be the polar opposite of Fitzgerald’s finely crafted effort. About the Jones book Yates said that despite its eight hundred-plus pages it boasted “the narrative pull of a locomotive.” And of course once again he was right, the pull resulting from Jones’s brilliant strategy of shaping his story toward the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as its climax.
Yates, who’d been born in Yonkers and brought up in a series of small towns above Manhattan, spoke with what I have come to think of as a classic New York accent. He sounded like a sensitive indoor version...