Get Alert
Please Wait... Processing your request... Please Wait.
You must sign in to sign-up for alerts.

Please confirm that your email address is correct, so you can successfully receive this alert.

Book Forum: Biographies   |    
A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates
Am J Psychiatry 2004;161:2343-2344. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.161.12.2343
View Author and Article Information
Iowa City, Iowa

By Blake Bailey. New York, Picador, 2003, 671 pp., $35.00; $18.00 (paper).

text A A A

It would be an understatement to call the life of the great American writer Richard Yates (1926–1992) a tragedy: tuberculosis, emphysema, a four-pack/day cigarette habit, severe alcoholism, and poorly regulated bipolar disorder all were combined in a man who seemed hell-bent on destroying his health and the intimate relationships he so desperately needed. It is tempting to come away from this book focusing primarily on his obvious and huge psychological disturbances. His history of failed treatments, his ambivalence toward psychiatry, and particularly his contempt toward psychotherapy are woven throughout the narrative.

Yates was a great chronicler of human misery and self-deception. His stories are so replete with self-deceiving characters, and are so bleak at times, that the term "Yatesian loser" was spawned. The real tragedy in this story, and its central mystery, is his own self-deception about his alcoholism and about his destructiveness in intimate relationships.

As the years took the predictable toll on his health and his sanity, Yates sank deep into obscurity. A once-vaunted novelist, screenwriter, and speech writer for the Kennedys, Yates spent his last years destitute, despite the efforts of former students and colleagues to provide him with writing and teaching jobs. Repeated psychiatric hospitalizations and harrowing bouts of psychosis became fixtures in his life. This is, after all, a man who once set his own beard aflame. Coughing jags often left him too weary to do anything but light up another cigarette. Along the way, Yates alienated two wives who were initially devoted to him. His relationships to younger women became so pathetic at the end of his life that the strongest reader will wince. Yet one comes away from this biography strangely uplifted.

This is not just another tale of a mood-disordered, alcoholic writer: Blake Bailey is far too good a writer to leave the reader with mere desolation. Bailey writes with compassion, affection, and even humor about Yates’s self-inflicted suffering. Yates’s quirkiness and madness are offset by a sense of his fundamental goodness. Nowhere is this goodness revealed more than in Bailey’s description of Yates’s deeply touching and affecting relationships with his three daughters.

Ultimately, this is a writer’s tale, and Yates was a man who kept writing, even as his health and sanity faded. As he entered what he himself called "the bright winter of my life," he preserved a relentless commitment to his artistic vision and to his craft. Bailey’s detailed description of the manuscript found in Yates’s freezer after his death should be required reading for anyone who ever said, "I want to write a novel," or anyone who wonders what it really takes to be a great writer.

Perhaps few fields demand as much of their practitioners, with so little prospect of reward, as does writing. Frank Conroy, the head of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, has said that writing is a test of character. If so, then Yates clearly passed this test, even at the expense of nearly all other areas of his life.




CME Activity

There is currently no quiz available for this resource. Please click here to go to the CME page to find another.
Submit a Comments
Please read the other comments before you post yours. Contributors must reveal any conflict of interest.
Comments are moderated and will appear on the site at the discertion of APA editorial staff.

* = Required Field
(if multiple authors, separate names by comma)
Example: John Doe

Related Content
Gabbard's Treatments of Psychiatric Disorders, 4th Edition > Chapter 50.  >
Textbook of Psychotherapeutic Treatments > Chapter 3.  >
Gabbard's Treatments of Psychiatric Disorders, 4th Edition > Chapter 7.  >
The American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Psychopharmacology, 4th Edition > Chapter 67.  >
Topic Collections
Psychiatric News
APA Guidelines
PubMed Articles