Posted by: zhiv | October 30, 2011

A Good School, Richard Yates

I gave a guy that I’m working with a copy of Revolutionary Road, and he has been quickly buying into the full Yates program. We have been talking about Yates and his work and I wanted to jump in somehow. Yates expert KCJ happened to pop by after I mentioned RR in my Theron Ware post, and it seems to be a good time to review. A Good School, readable and easy, had been teed up on my shelf for quite a while, and I read it last weekend.

A Good School is hardly a necessary book, but it’s a welcome text for Yates readers, and my question is how it fits with other classic “school” texts. It’s primarily marked by the thinness and fragility of his later style, such as it is, when Yates’ ability to create finished stories amidst the wreckage of his alcoholism and ridiculous personal life was rather miraculous. AGS was written in 1978 after the shocking and harrowing triumph of Easter Parade (1976), and it has the feel of its author coasting along creatively with a sweet and easy momentum (if the word “sweet” can ever be used in relation to Yates), enjoying the discovery of a serviceable perspective and technique, the demons of doubt and ambition and perfectionism more or less behind him. Yates seems to have a number of purposes in writing this book, but one of the most important ones is to describe the formation of his earliest literary style and approach, attaching it to an exploration of the development of his dark and troubled identity.

In both Disturbing the Peace and Easter Parade Yates plays an inspired creative game with his own experience and its transformation into fiction. Here he seems to be even more directly autobiographical, but he is also reaching into a confusing and challenging epoch in the past, his adolescence, which is strange and distant enough to lend itself to a more straightforward representation.

One of the things that I’ve done in the years since my 08 Yates run was to read a good chunk of WWI Lit recently. There is a corresponding body of WWII Lit, and AGS fits neatly into that category. WWI Lit includes the postwar development of High Modernism along with a number of memoirs, and within those there is a subcategory of the pre-War idyll, a description of the innocent and less apprehensive years leading up to the shock and surprise and tumult of conflict. Some versions, including fiction from the decade before the war, contain the seeds of character and behavior that will emerge later–I’m thinking of Robert Musil’s Young Torless, which I haven’t read recently, but it would seem to make an interesting corresponding text to A Good School. Musil’s book, similar to the excellent recent German film White Ribbon, shows incipient Nazism at a pre-WWI boarding school. My question, I suppose, is whether Yates is trying to describe the source and original prototype of his generation’s post-war malaise and ambivalence, the classic detachment and fear and loathing that he was able to capture so well in Revolutionary Road.

The war increasingly hangs over AGS, and Yates’ generation, and I might not emphasize it if I hadn’t read other similar books and memoirs recently. Also significant is the way that Yates’ fictional Dorset Academy is a “funny school” that closes down and fails just as Bill Grove and his class graduates. The point seems to be that these peculiar circumstances will never be repeated, and this particular disengaged hothouse model was never sustainable, as it was all based on the whim of an eccentric wealthy woman–who, it turns out, always wanted to be a man, or at least have a man’s freedom. Yates works hard exploring the darker side of “a man’s freedom,” and the brutal and miserable elements of identity formation, which inevitably include the sexual and gender confusion that lies in the actual founding of the school. WWI Lit is saturated with similar sexual ambivalence and homosexual attraction, desire, and coupling. The pre-war experience of Robert Graves at Charterhouse, in Goodbye to All That, makes a good comparison to Bill Grove in this book. Yates is trying to merge two worlds: the source of the postwar malaise of the self-doubting, confused heterosexual of the Frank Wheeler, Gray Flannel Suit type, and the cauldron of pre-war sexual identity formation.

Yates wrote this book long after the success of A Separate Peace (1959–two years before RR), and it’s funny to remember the note that I gleaned at some point during my previous Yates work, that A Good School was mentioned in the Preppy Handbook. I have a friend who had known about Yates for 30 years, ignorant of RR, based on reading AGS from that reference. Yates wrote a novel that marginally qualified for the list of classic school and adolescent texts, but it is deeply subversive at the same time–in a genre that is subversive in its nature. My new colleague was pondering how Revolutionary Road and Catcher in the Rye (1951) stand together as classics from the same period, and Salinger’s wildly popular and seemingly indispensable, definitive postwar book makes a tidy bridge between A Good School and Revolutionary Road. Salinger, with his own war baggage more scarring than Yates’, created a disaffected hero forever suspended in adolescent crisis, with a power that can be traced back to Huck Finn. Connecting A Good School to Revolutionary Road along these lines provides considerable depth and insight. Throw in Lord of the Flies (1954), another school classic with echoes in AGS, and you have a list of readable and well-known, easy references. In typical Yates fashion, his brief and secondary, seemingly fragile book, casts the entire collection in a darker, more honest and harrowing light. If you want to freak out a classroom of teenage literature students, perhaps start with Young Torless and include Revolutionary Road and A Good School on the reading list. Sounds like fun, feels like familiar pain, reads like truth.

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Responses

  1. Okay, I’ll bite. As the aforementioned “colleague,” I’ve been lucky enough to be in the midst of a strong Yates run, directed by Zhiv himself.

    Today, I was at my parents’ house, sitting in the morning sun and mowing through the Collected Short Stories (finished both ‘Eleven Kinds of Loneliness’ and ‘Liars in Love,’ and I’m going through the previously unpublished stories). My old man popped out on the deck to check the ocean for signs of waves, and he started talking to me about Yates. Mostly, I tried to work a form of pressure that only a son can pose on his father (“Wow, you haven’t read it yet? That’s criminal.” “Yikes! Okay, I’ll read it. I’m sorry.”), but I also started to think about the rest of Yates’ work and, despite it being precise, there isn’t a whole lot of new ground broken with regards to his characters. The Bill Groves and Jack Fields and Frank Wheelers (and and and) all start to blend together. Same with the mothers (Oh, another failing sculptor mother!) and to some extent the wives. And despite my semi-critical tone–don’t get defensive, let’s be real here, I love Yates, I’m devouring his oeuvre–my old man seemed to be even more enraptured with Yates, more likely to read his work. His reasoning was that he is attracted to writers that have “curiosity with their own life.” I used my go-to counterpoint of DFW, and my dad briskly dismissed DFW as being someone who wrote as a form of distraction of life and not a curiosity of “himself.” Drove me insane, but–and here’s where I begin to make the point in this blustery and definitively non-Yatesian paragraph–I thought about the solipsism in Yates’ work was a huge reason why “Revolutionary Road” stood so well with Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” Yates must have endured so much to write about these recycled character types and situations, and maybe this is why Salinger refused to publish his work for so many years: he didn’t want to publish his own “recycled” material.

    Here’s a link to Salinger’s last published interview.

    http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/09/13/specials/salinger-speaks.html

    While the illegally published Salinger stories predated “Catcher in the Rye,” I do think his attitude towards them betrays an unwillingness to publish his lesser works. He knew that he never was going to match “Catcher,” just like Yates’ was never able to recapture the magic of “Revolutionary Road” (though I’ve still yet to read “A Good School,” “Young Hearts Crying” and “Cold Spring Harbor”). But I am so glad that Yates continued to publish because even if he never matched “Revolutionary Road” the continued development and nuance, as Zhiv says, “feels like familiar pain, and reads like truth.”

  2. Read “A Good School” now, so I feel a bit more qualified to spew on topic.

    One of the things that strikes me as funny in a paradoxical way, is the fact that this is the only book that I’ve read that seemed clearly autobiographical, and yet it felt like one of the most ‘creative’ works. Yates wrote a foreword and afterword that largely referenced the characters in the book as real people, but the “Bill Grove as Yates” character was only of minor importance in this work about the stages of adolescence and adulthood and what it means to be a man in the face of the inevitable crumble and failure of institutions around us.

    I guess this aides Zhiv’s discussion about the connections between AGS and “Catcher in the Rye” and “Revolutionary Road”. I think what ultimately makes this book a “reach” in terms of teaching it in schools, is the lack of plot that pulses through “A Separate Peace”, “Catcher” and “Lord of the Flies.” The most coherent plot is the inevitable decline of the school, but that only provides a reference point for all the characters.

    I must say, though, that all the posturing and pretending to be a man while never quite being one really resonated with me (I particularly liked the very adult dialogue with the undercurrent of overall unimportance of its worth). I’m a graduating grad student who interns for Zhiv, so while I’m doing ‘adult’ stuff, the fact that I’m doing such thing in a safety makes me not actually an adult. I’m like Bill Grove, a developing manboy, because I don’t have the real life consequences that seem to be destroying those around ‘us.’ Maybe that’s what I’ll need to escape this purgatorial zone, and like Yates/Grove, I’ll probably always look back on this time with that mixture of anguish and pride that often accompanies turning points in our lives.

  3. Wish I could hop on a plane and join in the Yates conversation you guys are having. I have problems with AGS in that it’s most naked autobiographical elements render it LESS, not more, creative for me. There are some great bits – the highly-charged father son relationship for one is captured brilliantly, especially the idea that emotional response and duty are disturbingly entwined – but for the most part I don’t think this is up there with his short stories and RR.

  4. I would in no way disagree with you that RR and the short stories are “better.” What I meant by creative is that Yates takes much more risks than he does in other books. The biggest issue is that the main character isn’t really a character at all, but the school, with the plot (in the loosest sense of the word) centering around its demise. The characters vignettes give the story the arc, and not the more volitional, Yates-traditional Bill Grove (as Jack Fields as Frank Wheeler as…) character. It’s a huge risk for Yates. And the minds that he takes over are much different than the secondary characters like the sculptor mother, dramatic wife, etc. (not necessarily for better or worse). He has to go into the heads of popular and unpopular schoolboys, the headmasters and teachers and their spouses (and their lovers). That’s pretty new terrain for him.

    I think one of the reasons that this book doesn’t have the same resonance is that there is a sense of inevitability that’s much more exterior world oriented (the war, the lack of funds for the school), rather than character driven inevitability of say, Revolutionary Road, where Frank’s and April’s own short-comings and neuroses cause their demise. It seems that on the whole, stories are more likely to resonate when the character is responsible and active (though there are exceptions–DFW’s “The Pale King” comes to mind). I get the feeling Yates knew this (which explains the pro- and epilogue), and took a huge chance regardless.


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