“Emily Grimes is me”: Anxiety, Feminism, and the Masculinity Crisis in Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade
Trinity College Dublin
In 1975, Richard Yates published what was widely considered to be his worst novel. Disturbing the Peace was dismissed by critics as a career-ending disaster from the writer who had published the acclaimed Revolutionary Road in 1961, and followed it up with the solid, but hardly outstanding, A Special Providence in 1969. So, when The Easter Parade was published in 1976 it took the literary world by surprise, not only for the swiftness of its appearance but also its unexpected quality.
Yates went through a number of major health crises just after he had finished writing the book, including a stay in hospital after he set his apartment on fire. He was eventually institutionalised later that year after suffering another mental breakdown. Before his hospitalisation he was still lucid enough to harangue his agent about the publishers’ intention to market The Easter Parade as that most dreaded of things, “a woman’s book” (Bailey, 457). Despite this concern, he consistently dismissed the book as too slight to be considered any good. He also dismissed it as autobiography rather than any significant creative work on his part as he scavenged his own life, and those of his mother and sister, for the events that take place in the book (Bailey, 464). The reviews were the most universally positive of his entire career but because the book had come relatively easy to him – it only took eleven months to write – he always felt the praise was undeserving.
The most startling thing about the novel though was his decision to cast two sisters, Sarah and Emily Grimes, as the central characters. Although female characters feature in his writing, it is generally men with whom Yates is most concerned. An unashamedly old-fashioned, if not at times downright chauvinistic man, he firmly believed that women should stay at home and concern themselves with housekeeping and childrearing. He took exception to the idea that his second wife might have taken up with the dreaded “women’s-libbing” movement as she slowly made the decision to divorce him (Bailey, 428). For a man who found it difficult to accept increased opportunities for women, the equality with which he treats his male and female characters is consequently most surprising.
Yates had an uncanny ability to articulate a certain malaise that had become common in middle-class American society during the 1950s, what would eventually be known as the Age of Anxiety. Despite this, his novels never sold well during his lifetime. This was in part due to his own unreliability, exacerbated by his chronic alcoholism and mental-health problems. However, a considerable factor in his lack of success is the bleakness of his vision. On the wall above his writing desk in the last apartment he would live in before he died, he pinned a quotation from Adlai Stevenson that read “Americans have always assumed, subconsciously, that every story will have a happy ending” (Bailey, 581). Challenging this idea of the happy ending, of things working out in spite of themselves, is at the heart of Yates’s vision.
Within this context, for all his own personal sexism, The Easter Parade places Yates firmly within a tradition of male writers who write sympathetically about women. Emily Grimes can be added to a group of characters such as Henrik Ibsen’s Nora in A Doll’s House, Sinclair Lewis’s Carol Kennicott in Main Street, and, Yates’s hero, Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. The women of Yates’s novels and short stories are treated with the same compassion (or lack thereof) as his men. They are prone to the same dreams and fantasies as his male characters and are also equally afflicted by the same delusional tendencies and terrible decision making. For a man who openly railed against increasing equality for women, the fairness with which he treats both his male and female characters is therefore quite remarkable. This quiet tradition of male writers creating sympathetic female characters also implies that writing female characters who share in the same dilemmas as their male characters undermines the interpretation that a crisis of masculinity is what underlies the issues at hand. The rest of this article will examine how The Easter Parade works to subvert the placement of Yates within the body of literature that documents the crisis narrative, and serves to suggest a reappraisal of the gender relations in his writing.
Why choose Yates and this novel to question the narrative of a masculinity crisis? Firstly, much of the criticism supporting the crisis narrative references literature, film, and art as proof of the dire position the American man finds himself in. Considering the predominantly male protagonists that Yates wrote about before the publication of The Easter Parade, it can be inferred that he identified a particularly masculine malaise, something James Wood noted in an essay for The New Yorker when he locates Yates as part of a “generation of male writers deeply invested in maintaining male status” (Wood). The sociologist Michael Kimmel, who is one of the most prominent scholars in the field of masculinity studies, firmly positions the battleground for masculinity within cultural representations, insisting that “nowhere have these fears been played out more fully for the past hundred years than in literature, film, and television” (Kimmel, 211). While cultural productions often present a useful reflection on society, that reflection is not always accurate and can tend to be exaggerated and repeated until absorbed into mainstream consciousness.
Secondly, the dominant concern of this crisis narrative is one that focuses on a very specific group – white, middle-class American men. It is difficult to find a writer who is more concerned with white, middle-class America than Richard Yates. In all of his work there is one black character – a minor player in one of his short stories, ‘A Really Good Jazz Piano’. Even Revolutionary Road is set in 1955, right on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement, so he could concentrate on his very white, very conformist corner of American suburbia without having to deal with the advent of desegregation and the Civil Rights movement. The men’s movement, and much of the literature on the crisis narrative, is so restricted to the kind of middle-class white men that Yates wrote of that there is a certain neatness in appropriating a writer who should be an exemplar of the crisis narrative in order to subvert it.
Nonetheless, it must be borne in mind that, as social scientists Stephen Whitehead and Frank Barrett have warned, “it is important not to fall into the trap of equating changes in men’s experiences and opportunities with a crisis in masculinity” (9). Despite this cautionary note, the vast majority of criticism on the crisis narrative accepts it as a given. Indeed, Sally Robinson states in her book Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis that, “[t]he question of whether dominant masculinity is “really” in crisis is, in my view, moot: even if we could determine what an actual, real, historically verifiable crisis would look like, the undeniable fact remains that in the post-liberationist era, dominant masculinity consistently represents itself as in crisis” (11).
The use of the word “crisis” is also problematic. It implies something that can be solved, or a process that should reach a definite conclusion. But it increasingly seems that masculinity studies as a discipline is engaged in a perpetuation of the crisis narrative rather than in an attempt to resolve it, or even to interrogate its validity. This results in vaguely hysterical declarations such as Michael Kimmel’s assertion that “American men have no history of themselves as men” (1) and “I’m universally generalizable. As a middle-class white man, I have no class, no race, no gender. I’m the generic person!” (3)
I would therefore suggest that this narrative of a crisis in white, middle-class American masculinity is mistaken, or at the very least too narrow to be accurate. Through the fiction of Yates, and others such as Sinclair Lewis, John Updike, and Sylvia Plath, we can continue the re-examination of the validity of the masculinity crisis narrative. It is entirely possible to read this narrative as a piece of a larger national identity question in American culture, one that affects both men and women.
The very foundation of the state was the pursuit of an idea rather than a natural evolution over time. Diverse and divergent philosophies and opinions were all bound up into the idea of the nation of the United States without ever really resolving what America itself actually meant. In a sense, this allowed the idea of America as an unfinished and ultimately unfinishable project to emerge and persist. It might very well be whatever you wish it to be, but it can similarly be whatever anyone else wishes to be as well. What this means, however, is that reconciling the differences between the various visions of acceptable national identity is problematic in the extreme. The constant pursuit of more and better things fosters an uneasy restlessness that cannot be explained by the masculinity-crisis narrative, especially when this restlessness can be shown to be an issue that can affect anyone across the gender divide.
Seymour Martin Lipset encapsulates the contradictions inherent in American identity in his book American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword when he notes:
American values are quite complex, particularly because of paradoxes within our culture that permit pernicious and beneficial social phenomena to arise simultaneously from the same basic beliefs. The American Creed is something of a double-edged sword: it fosters a high sense of personal responsibility, independent initiative, and voluntarism even as it also encourages self-serving behavior, atomism, and a disregard for communal good. More specifically, its emphasis on individualism threatens traditional forms of community morality, and thus has historically promoted a particularly virulent strain of greedy behaviour (268).
The belief that it was just American men who were experiencing a struggle that was difficult to define has come to seem the hallmark of the crisis narrative. The feminist movement empowered women and gave them a sense of identity; that it was an identity marked by lack of opportunity and oppression did not matter, apparently. The Civil Rights movement gave African Americans a cause to unite in support of, but again, the fact that this was a movement borne out of a denial of rights and systemic racism did not register high on the scale of importance for proponents of the masculinity-crisis narrative. So where did that leave the apparently lost and overlooked middle-class white man? James Gilbert suggests that the sheer volume of work claiming a crisis resulted in the crisis narrative being accepted as a compelling way to “retell the story of American social development” (11).
Essentially, the crisis narrative provided a rallying cry for those who would seek to maintain the prominence of men and masculinity in society. Even Betty Friedan, pioneer of the second wave of feminism, got in on the act, saying, “More and more young men in America today suffer an identity crisis for want of any image of man worth pursuing, for want of a purpose that truly realizes their human abilities. But why have theorists not recognized this same identity crisis in women?” (69)
Claiming that hegemonic masculinity was under attack and in the grips of a desperate crisis served to draw attention to it, to reinforce its position, and to reclaim some of the spotlight from those pesky oppressed minorities. Somewhat paradoxically, it also created a sense of unity in the face of supposed reverse discrimination.
In an American context, rather than recognise the emphasis that the American dream of exceptionalism placed on the concept of continuous achievement, theorists fell into the easy and comfortable trap of constructing the narrative of a masculinity crisis fuelled by a larger gender crisis. This idea of the exceptionalism of America as a nation, and the individual self-absorption engendered in its citizens as a result, is something that is referred to repeatedly in discussions of the American dream, but it is something that is rarely engaged with in studies of the masculinity-crisis narrative, which is regularly framed in the context of increasing gender equality and economic pressures. Wiley Lee Umphlett takes the idea of self-absorption and observes how it creates an almost insurmountable difficulty for Americans attempting to pursue the fabled dream: “the development and proliferation in this century of an increasingly visual and fantasy-inspired popular culture reflect both a gradual takeover of the individual’s will to interpret for himself what he sees and the individual’s impaired capability to see himself in relationship to his environment” (16).
This inability to relate to other people, or even to society at large, is a recurring theme for many characters in the work of Richard Yates. His characters repeatedly struggle to know themselves as individuals while at the same time trying to find a place for themselves within a culture that demands a certain amount of conformity. What makes The Easter Parade stand out from his body of work is his deliberate decision to bring the female characters to the forefront. Where previously his work had focussed on men, with the occasionally significant supporting female character, this novel was a significant departure from his usual approach in addressing the malaise he identified at the heart of some Americans’ experience.
In doing so, the novel provides the opportunity to examine some of the tropes that are regularly positioned as elements of the masculinity crisis, such as lack of direction, inability to articulate ambitions, and the stifling pressure to conform to the expectations of society. We can clearly see these issues at play throughout the novel, affecting each of the Grimes women in turn. Yates described it as “trying to live well, within their known or unknown limitations, doing what they can’t help doing, ultimately and inevitably failing because they can’t help being the people they are” (Clark). He was obsessed with honesty, repeatedly stating that “the most important thing is not to tell or live a lie” (Bailey, 36).
Yet his characters consistently delude themselves, and are relentlessly punished for these delusions. The rest of this essay therefore examines the three Grimes women as classic Yatesian characters. They are women who challenge the conception of the masculinity-crisis narrative by embodying the elements of that same narrative in a way that suggests it is a broader American trend rather than a gender-based conflict which is at the heart of their problems.
Esther Grimes, who likes to be called Pookie, is the mother of the two sisters of the novel. She is based on Yates’s own mother, who called herself Dookie, and his depiction of her is cutting to say the least. The first detailed description of her goes straight to the heart of the delusions and dishonesty Yates was so focussed on:
Esther Grimes, or Pookie, was a small, active woman whose life seemed pledged to achieving and sustaining an elusive quality she called “flair”. She pored over fashion magazines, dressed tastefully and tried many ways of fixing her hair, but her eyes remained bewildered and she never quite learned to keep her lipstick within the borders of her mouth, which gave her an air of dazed and vulnerable uncertainty. She found more flair among rich people than in the middle class, and so she aspired to the attitudes and mannerisms of wealth in raising her daughters. She always sought “nice” communities to live in, whether she could afford them or not, and she tried to be strict on matters of decorum (Yates, 7).
Pookie is repeatedly shown throughout the novel to be obsessed with appearances to the detriment of all else. She moves with her two young daughters, Sarah and Emily, to a stylish but shabby apartment on Washington Square in New York City because of its fashionable high ceilings and the certain amount of “flair” she finds in the fact that passers-by could look in its ground-floor windows. But the expensive rent means that “they bought no new clothes and ate a great deal of spaghetti” (18). It is more important to Pookie that visitors to the apartment will remark on its character rather than it being a suitable home for her family.
There is, therefore, a constant retreat to delusion and fantasy in The Easter Parade. The three Grimes women are all guilty of it to varying degrees. No detail, big or small, is beyond the realms of embellishment. Pookie allows the girls to believe from a young age that their father was a well-educated man with a college degree and a good job at a newspaper. When he reveals to Emily, just as she is about to begin her studies at Barnard, that he only spent a year in college before starting work on a local paper, he remarks “Well, your mother has her own way of dealing with information” (32). However, Emily never confronts her mother about this, resigning herself to the fact that “there was no hope of changing Pookie” (43).
Fantasy has taken over Pookie’s entire persona to the point that even when she is institutionalised with dementia, she is still obsessed with flair and image. She hallucinates that Sarah is a princess and that Emily is married to John F. Kennedy. She demands a mirror to apply her lipstick, but she ends up scrawling a bright red mouth on to the reflection in the glass instead of her own lips, referring back to Yates’s original depiction of her sloppily applied makeup. Her obsession with perception has so consumed her that she can no longer distinguish between herself and the image she desperately tries to conform to and project to others.
We see the same retreat to fantasy with Sarah in her marriage to the violent Tony, a Laurence-Olivier lookalike with an affected English accent that becomes increasingly ridiculous as the novel progresses. Their marriage seems initially to be perfect. They live in a country house on his parents’ estate, and have three sons in quick succession. This alarms Pookie for its apparent lack of class, to the extent that she remarks “Oh dear, the way they’re breeding. I thought only Italian peasants did things like that” (43). But for all the ostensible upper-class trappings that Pookie loves so much about the Long Island estate, and that Sarah tries just as hard to buy into, in reality the main house is practically derelict, the grounds are overgrown and unkempt, and Sarah’s cottage is most definitely not the “house at Pooh corner” that she welcomes them to (45).
When Emily brings her new husband Andrew to visit her sister, they are greeted by the perfect pastoral scene of a young family, sitting on a blanket outside their home in the summer sunshine. The image Yates presents is so soft-focus that the writing on the page almost blurs and Emily remarks that they “make a lovely picture” (72). It is an echo of the newspaper photograph of Tony and Sarah had taken years before as they walked in the Easter Parade. Frozen in the picture as a young, beautiful couple in love, this image literally hangs over them as it is proudly displayed on the wall in their home. The façade only begins to crumble when Tony reveals his true nature in an offensive remark that shows him to be the exact opposite of the sophisticated, Anglo-American gentleman he pretends to be.
Throughout the novel, Sarah’s delusions are the only thing that keeps her going. She clings to the fantasy of a happy marriage, in spite of the increasing abuse she suffers at the hands of Tony, the disappointment of her own stifled ambition to be a writer, and her escalating alcoholism. In spite of all the physical abuse she endures, Sarah never leaves Tony. She makes a half-hearted attempt to do so after one particularly brutal beating but ends up going back to him because she claims her marriage is “sacred” to her (154). In one of the rare moments of honesty between the sisters, Emily challenges this assertion and suggests that Sarah is more worried that Tony will be the one to leave her, thereby destroying her safe image as a happy housewife. As this indicates, Sarah’s is the typical behaviour of a Yates character, male or female. She is beholden to her fantasies and incapable of releasing them, even to the detriment of her own wellbeing.
While much space is given over to exploring both Pookie and Sarah, Emily is the central character of the novel. Yates commented despairingly after its publication that “Emily fucking Grimes is me” (Bailey, 465). Yet, we can also see elements of Yates in the men Emily gets involved with, be it the impotent, rage-filled Andrew, or the depressed, clingy writer Jack. Yates, the author, haunts the narrative just as much as any fictionalised version of himself inhabits it. The narrative revolves around Emily, around her relationships with her family and a seemingly endless stream of men. She is a single career woman living in the city, the exact opposite of her sister Sarah, but remarkably similar to Yates’s male protagonists in his other work. She is just as deluded and anxious as her sister and mother before her, but she also follows in the long line of male characters Yates wrote about almost obsessively, who seek some form of exceptionalism in their lives without ever developing the ability to articulate their desire with any coherence. Emily drifts from one failed relationship to another, searching for a kind of fulfilment she can never properly identify. Her one marriage to Andrew Crawford ends in acrimonious divorce after he bluntly tells her “I hate your body” (76).
Andrew is the stereotypical anxious male, and like all Yates characters, more inclined to play a fantasised role than face up to his own inadequacies. Despite being slightly pudgy and describing himself as a “physical wreck” (50) Emily notes with slight bemusement that he “always moved with the demeanor of an athlete at rest” (60). He spends a year in therapy to try and cure his impotence, but when he calls Emily after this self-imposed exile and asks her to marry him, she tells him “I don’t know what love is” (68). His response is a typical Yatesian delusion, insisting that “I do know what love is, and I’m going to work on you and work on you until you do too” (68). To combat his own anxieties, he constructs a fantasised image of Emily that he convinces himself he loves and can easily make love him. But this fantasy does not allow for the reality of Emily and her thoughts. The reality of their situation, as Yates presents it to us, is typical of all his writing: everyone, men and women, are set at crossed purposes, unable to communicate with each other, constantly missing connections, and pursuing a false dream of entitlement.
Emily marries Andrew not out of a sense of duty or even much affection but because, for all her distaste of Pookie’s quest for flair, she seeks the same things. Andrew is an educated intellectual. This appeals to Emily’s own pretensions to intellectualism, which she uses as a way to rewrite the narrative of her life into something more acceptable:
She had never heard the word “intellectual” used as a noun before she went to Barnard, and she took it to heart. It was a brave noun, a proud noun, a noun suggesting lifelong dedication to lofty things and a cool disdain for the commonplace. An intellectual might lose her virginity to a soldier in the park, but she could learn to look back on it with a wry, amused detachment. An intellectual might have a mother who showed her underpants when drunk, but she wouldn’t let it bother her. And Emily Grimes might not be an intellectual yet, but if she took copious notes in even the dullest of her classes, and if she read every night until her eyes ached, it was only a question of time. There were girls in her class, and even a few Columbia boys, who thought of her as an intellectual already, just from the way she talked (48).
The importance of how other people perceive them is central to all of Yates’s characters in all his work, not just The Easter Parade. Emily is able to affect the appearance of an intellectual without really being one, much like Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road. Similarly, Sarah is able to affect the image of a happy housewife while being nothing like it at all. Pookie is so consumed by her delusions that the thought never crosses her mind that she might be anything other than a stylish, sophisticated woman with “flair”. The desire to be better than they are creates a cycle they can’t break out of. They fantasise about success and achievement, and project this image out to the world despite the lack of substance behind it. This in turn creates pressure and anxiety when they fail to become the perfect people of their dreams, leading them to cling ever more desperately to the facades they construct. Towards the end of the novel, Emily acknowledges that she “lived in memories all the time” (212).
For Emily, anxiety and chronic self-awareness plague her from early childhood. Even when her father dies, she stops “crying abruptly when she realized that even that was a lie: these tears, as always before in her life, were wholly for herself – for poor, sensitive Emily Grimes whom nobody understood, and who understood nothing” (42). But she is so good at deluding herself, like everyone else in the novel, that she is able to project a carefree image of herself that everyone believes. Sarah proudly tells one of her sons that Emily is a “free spirit […] [She] doesn’t care what anybody thinks. She’s her own person and she goes her own way” (201).
In this way, she comes to represent an extreme retreat into the self and private life. When she finds herself unemployed, single and approaching fifty – the exact opposite of everything she had ever imagined – she retreats further and further into herself, becoming a virtual recluse, unable to see anything around New York but reminders of her past, utterly consumed by her self-absorption. Even at the risk of her own mental and physical health, Emily cannot surrender her attachment to the fantasy of being seen as independent and self-reliant by those who know her.
The desire to achieve wonderful unspecified things generates an anxiety that Yates’s women and men constantly fail to deal with. Instead they retreat further and further into a world of fantasy and delusion, scared to be satisfied with life in case they miss out on something better. The fact that he insists on cursing both his male and female characters with these delusions suggests a theme that cannot be explained in terms of a masculinity crisis or a gender crisis of any kind. It is the struggle to reconcile the one with the many, that enduring American idea of pursuing endless improvement at the expense of personal contentment, that destroys the characters who populate this novel.
The Grimes women are classic Yates characters – unfulfilled, unsatisfied, and searching for a dream existence that is as tenuous as it is destructive. However, despite the crushing inevitability of every choice they make, at no point does the novel judge them. The matter-of-fact style Yates employs in The Easter Parade led one friend to remark that the book works so well because of how “very, very, very sad” it is (Bailey, 465).
This leads us to the novel’s conclusion, where a sad and defeated Emily Grimes finally admits that “I’ve never understood anything in my whole life” (226). Considering Yates’s personal beliefs about feminism and increased opportunities for women, one could expect him to champion the masculinity-crisis narrative. However, he never blames his characters’ lack of understanding and the anxiety that ensues on a gender-based crisis. The Easter Parade, and indeed all of Richard Yates’s fiction, serves as an example of an alternative narrative that doesn’t buy into the masculinity-crisis concept. Unquestionably, his men and women often fail to understand each other, but in his narratives there are no winners – and certainly none who lose more than anyone else either. Instead, Yates focuses on individuals who have been disappointed by their own delusions of grandeur, and subsequently seek to absolve themselves of any responsibility by shifting the blame on to forces over which they have no control.
The Easter Parade, then, stands out in Yates’s body of work for several reasons. It is arguably one of his finest pieces of writing. However, its foregrounding of female characters afflicted with the same malaise and anxiety as his long line of male characters is the most significant element of the work. It suggests that perhaps the gender-based crisis narrative that is pinned on to so many men is, in fact, something borne out of an American obsession with an unattainable dream, something that has complete disregard for the narrowly prescribed gender roles that have so thoroughly dominated readings of American literature.
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