- Writing Systems: Richard Yates, Remington Rand, and the Univac
Few works of fiction have offered as searing an indictment of postwar American conformity as Richard Yates’s first novel, Revolutionary Road (1961). In Yates’s book, married couple Frank and April Wheeler aspire to escape from their constricting suburban neighborhood and Frank’s dull corporate job by moving to Europe, where they expect to find a more creative and rewarding life. But unable (or unwilling) to carry out their plan, they find themselves resigned to producing and maintaining a fragile distinction between their selves and their mainstream American environment. The plot of the novel could be read as an allegory of the fate of literary experimentation in postwar America. The Paris of Hemingway is the Wheelers’ stated destination (131), but they are realistic about what is possible and remain merely suburbanites with a heightened sense of their own refined culture. In literary terms, earlier modernist and avant-garde breakthroughs in form, while still admired, are supplanted by the subtle crafting of individuality from within an existing realist style. But whereas the Wheelers eventually fail to remain distinct from their peers and environment (resulting in the novel’s tragic, or perhaps just melodramatic, ending), Revolutionary Road succeeds in its performance of [End Page 550] a singular “writerly writing,” a feat that Yates never quite repeated. The novel was a staple of the MFA programs then emerging and their quest for literary craftsmanship, and Yates would eventually go on to teach writing at a series of such programs, including the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Yates therefore might be considered a signature stylist of what Mark McGurl has termed the postwar “program era,” during which literary modernism became institutionalized in creative writing programs.
Before the success of his novel secured him a place in the halls of academia, however, Yates found himself incorporated into a different kind of institution, one at the forefront of another—perhaps far more important—program era. In 1949, Yates took a position writing and editing sales promotion and publications for the Remington Rand Corporation, the typewriter and tabulator firm that would soon release the UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer), the first commercial electronic computer.1 Yates’s decision tied his professional and literary career for the next decade to the emergence of the commercial mainframe computer industry. The resurgence of the tuberculosis he developed while fighting in World War II made Yates temporarily eligible for veterans benefits, so he quit his full-time position with Remington Rand and lived from 1951 to 1953 with his family in Europe, where he completed his first published stories. But having recovered his health, Yates returned to New York City and Remington Rand in 1953. According to his biographer Blake Bailey, from 1953 to 1960, roughly the period he spent writing Revolutionary Road, Yates worked as a freelance writer for Remington Rand (and its successor Sperry Rand). During these years, he evenly split his time each month between writing his novel and writing and editing (with the help of his wife) the firm’s promotional materials. His activities during this later period are harder to track down, since as a freelancer he did not receive any written credit in these corporate publications. Yet the tension between writing a novel and writing sales promotion is best illustrated by the fact that the earliest drafts of Revolutionary Road [End Page 551] were handwritten on the backside of Rem Rand News and Remington Rand World stationery.2 Selling the mainframe computer and narrating postwar conformity were literally different sides of the same page.
Whereas Yates successfully managed to make literature come out on top, Revolutionary Road dwells on the very real possibility of literary ambitions being buried underneath the business of computing. Yates intended his novel’s title to be an overarching metaphor for the termination of American individualism in post-war conformity, of which suburbia was merely a synecdoche. In a 1972 interview in Ploughshares, he stated, “I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the Fifties” (“Interview” 66). Revolutionary Road’s narrative does prominently display the...