Yesterday’s Burdens: America’s Forgotten Ulysses

Robert Coates

by Jack Mearns

James Joyce’s Ulysses is the Mt. Everest of modern literature.  It perennially tops tallies of the greatest English language novels of the twentieth century.  And just like Everest, it is virtually insurmountable.  Although that venerable bastion of the Western canon Harold Bloom (no relation to Leopold) claimed to read Ulysses several times per year, only a fraction of ordinary mortals who begin Ulysses ever reach the novel’s end.  And for those who do stagger to the pinnacle, how much can even a highly discerning reader take away?  The book’s profound opacity makes reading it an arduous, baffling trek and has spawned a cottage industry of Ulysses companions, literary Sherpas to guide lost readers to the summit.

Primary responsibility for Ulysses‘s impenetrability rests with Joyce’s obsessive, recursive writing style.  He revised the novel’s nearly 800 pages up until the last minute—adding as much as a third of the text of some chapters, in handwriting the book’s printers could barely decipher, in the margins of galley proofs—cramming in layer upon layer of word-puzzles, obscure allusions and a host of untranslated foreign tongues.  The only thing that kept Joyce from expanding the novel indefinitely was the self-imposed publication deadline of his fortieth birthday.

Without question, Ulysses‘s release in Paris one hundred years ago announced a new era of modernist literature, as Joyce pioneered a raft of innovations and expanded possibilities for what a novel can contain.  Like his contemporaries Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust, Joyce set the reader adrift in characters’ minds, in the thoughts and impressions that wash over them.  Joyce also alternated among multiple narrative voices, including newspaper-like headlines, play-based dialogue, and—most famously—stream-of-consciousness.

However, although Ulysses is undeniably modernist, it is not a modern book; rather, it is solidly of the nineteenth century.  The novel’s plot unfolds over a single day in 1904, in a Dublin full of horse-drawn carriages.  Like a time-traveler, the author sought to preserve on paper the vanished Ireland of his youth, down to the smallest detail.  But even beyond the subject matter, for all of Joyce’s stylistic innovation, the language of Ulysses is largely Victorian.  Full of obscure vocabulary and foreign words and phrases, Ulysses becomes at times more philological treatise than novel.  For a book reputed to be beautifully written, there is precious little felicitous phrasing.  Beguiling sentences are few and far between, the loveliest not appearing until later chapters.  “He walked by the treeshade of sunnywinking leaves” is in Chapter X, and “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit” is in the penultimate chapter, which is otherwise chockablock with math and science.

Joyce’s approach to Ulysses is often like that of an engineer or city planner.  For example, Chapter X–The Wandering Rocks is contrived like a clockwork mechanism.  Joyce wrote this chapter with a map of Dublin and a ruler to plot out characters’ intersecting paths, with wordcount serving to time their transits through the city.  It is an impressive achievement…though one more of surveying than of storytelling.  Chapter XIV–Oxen of the Sun is an utterly impenetrable mélange, an aping of dozens of literary styles, from the archaic to the merely passé.  Oxen adds almost nothing to the novel in terms or plot or character, except for showcasing Joyce’s immense versatility as a literary mimic.  For the reader, this chapter is a grueling slog.

Finally, what is most lacking in Ulysses is the human element.  This nostalgic novel is more about bygone Dublin than about its denizens.  For all the glimpses Joyce provides into characters’ thoughts and impressions, there is little intimacy, little feeling in the book; the novel is superficial.  Do we really know these people, or are the minds we peer into simply reflections on the surface of a pond rather than glimpses into the depths?  All told, Ulysses is a very long, cold and distant book, even when the narrative is ensconced in the minds of its protagonists.  The author’s own brother Stanislaus concluded Ulysses “lacked sincerity and warmth” because Joyce “played with words too much.”

Critic Richard Hughes wrote in the introduction to the British edition of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, another very challenging high point of modernism:

A method involving apparent obscurity is surely justified when it is the clearest, the simplest, the only method possible of saying in full what the writer has to say….  Too often [obscurity] is used, not because of its intrinsic necessity, but to drape the poverty of the writer.

Whereas The Sound and the Fury passes Hughes’s obscurity test, Ulysses does not, because Joyce obfuscates instead of illuminates while flaunting his writerly prowess.  How much of Ulysses‘s acknowledged greatness is due to its unintelligibility?  Mustn’t it be brilliant if almost nobody can understand it?

Despite the novel’s shortcomings and self-indulgent excesses, there can be no doubt about Ulysses‘s gargantuan effect.  Any ambitious literary novel written between the wars could not help but be influenced by Ulysses…just as Joyce himself was haunted by Shakespeare’s ghost.  In America, some authors could not escape Joyce’s shadow.  For example, Conrad Aiken’s early novels—particularly his first, Blue Voyage—were, perhaps unfairly, derided as inferior derivatives of Ulysses.  Then there is Robert M. Coates’s second novel, 1933’s Yesterday’s Burdens, which is unjustly as forgotten as Ulysses is fêted.

This essay argues that Yesterday’s Burdens represents America’s Ulysses—not merely a simulacrum of Joyce but a thoroughly modern and natively American reply to Joyce’s landmark European epic.  Gertrude Stein, in her inimitable way, stated: Yesterday’s Burdens “is a modern book…and I say very definitely [Coates] is the first young American who has [written one].  The very first…and it is so exciting because it is modern.”  Just as Joyce wanted to revivify the sights and sounds of turn-of-the-century Dublin, Coates sought to capture the clamor and bustle of New York City and its environs at the advent of the machine age, which bombarded people’s senses with stimuli, to evoke the vibrancy of twentieth century American life.

Like UlyssesYesterday’s Burdens is a challenging read, due to its boundary-pushing structure, typography and technique.  But unlike Joyce’s opus, Yesterday’s Burdens passes Hughes’s test, with flying colors.  Yesterday’s Burdens‘s difficulty is wholly in the service of making manifest for the reader the characters’ experiences—the thoughts, feelings and sensory impressions that flow through different levels of their awareness.  Influential New York Times critic John Chamberlain lauded Yesterday’s Burdens as “ostensibly a novel, but…in reality everything under the sun…like looking down endless facing mirrors…a rare elixir.”

Although Robert M. Coates is virtually unknown today, he was an admired, adventurous stylist in the mid-twentieth century.  He was a mainstay at The New Yorker, from its very early days.  Ben Yagoda, in his history of the periodical, About Town, speculated that nobody wrote more words for The New Yorker than Coates did, shaping its aloof, ironic editorial voice of the sophisticated urbanite.  Coates was also in the vanguard of the so-called New Yorker-style short story that portrayed a quick moment of crisis, rather than a traditional broad story arc.  And, though lacking formal training, Coates was The New Yorker‘s art critic for thirty years.

Over his nearly fifty-year career, Coates published five novels, three collections of stories and four non-fiction books. A new edition of Yesterday’s Burdens, published by Tough Poets, enables current readers to imbibe this extraordinary novel’s rare elixir.

*          *          *

Robert Myron Coates was born April 6, 1897, in New Haven, Connecticut, a birthdate he would lend to Yesterday’s Burdens‘s elusive protagonist.  Coates’s childhood was dominated by his father’s roaming.  Frederick Coates was a toolmaker and inventor, who crisscrossed the United States with his wife and son in pursuit of new ventures, which typically ended in failure.  These rambles included stints in Springfield, MA, Seattle, Portland, OR, and Cincinnati, as well as prospecting for gold in Cripple Creek, CO.  The family finally settled in Rochester, NY, where Robert wrote for the high school literary magazine.  Coates’s itinerant youth—always the shy new kid in school—would infuse much of his 1930s writing with a mood of lonely, melancholy alienation.

Coates returned to New Haven to attend Yale University, where he staffed the Yale Literary Magazine.  With him in the class of 1919 was Stephen Vincent Benet; Thornton Wilder was a year ahead.  When World War One broke out, Coates interrupted his studies for flight training in seaplanes with Naval Aviation on Long Island Sound.  The war ended before Coates obtained his wings, but not before the nascent pilot nearly died by carelessly putting his biplane into a stall. Only the sure hand of his trainer in the forward cockpit kept the craft from spiraling into the sea.  One reviewer called Coates’s recounting of this brush with death in Yesterday’s Burdens “as thrillingly fine a description of…slipping into a tailspin as you are ever likely to read anywhere.”

When Coates graduated from Yale, he yearned to journey to Paris and be a writer.  However his father, who had footed the bill for Robert’s Ivy League education, balked at paying for this travel.  The son briefly worked in the new field of advertising but soon quit, retreating to a shack in Woodstock, NY.  There Coates wrote while subsisting on an enormous sack of lentils he had brought.  When Frederick visited his son, the father was so dismayed by the squalor he discovered that he sprang for passage to Europe.

In Paris, Coates embraced the city’s literary life.  He found particular affinity with the Dadaists and Surrealists; he published in important little magazines like Gargoyle, Broom and transition.  In his writing, he strove to capture reality’s immediacy and subjectivity—how the world impinges on our senses.  Coates formed a lifelong friendship with fellow expatriate Malcolm Cowley and became Gertrude Stein’s favorite among the American Lost Generation writers.  Stein praised Coates as “the one young man who[se work] had an individual rhythm, [whose] words made a sound to the eyes.”

Coates played tennis, boxed and strolled the city with another newcomer, Ernest Hemingway.  Although Hemingway had a letter of introduction from Sherwood Anderson to Stein, it was Coates who first brought Hemingway to 27 rue de Fleurus.  Though Coates was soft-spoken and retiring, his size and complexion made a lasting impression in Montparnasse.  Janet Flanner recounted spotting him riding a bicycle through the streets: with his azure eyes, pale skin and mop of curly red hair, “he looked like a flag.”  Eventually, Coates’s desire for a quieter, more hermetic life led him to depart Paris for Giverny, where he befriended Jim Butler, Claude Monet’s American grandson.

Stein persuaded Robert McAlmon to publish Coates’s first novel, The Eater of Darkness, in the prestigious Contact Editions in 1926.  McAlmon recalled that Coates delivered to him a kind of illuminated manuscript—brimming with colorful marginalia—that would be impossible to set in type.  The publisher sent Coates away, with orders to return with a conventional typescript.  Still, the printed book retains a schematic diagram in Coates’s hand.

Owing to its Dadaist roots, The Eater of Darkness is a zany amalgam of science fiction, crime drama and literary satirical slapstick.  Parisian Charles Dograr travels to New York, where mad scientist Picrolas enlists him in a spree of murders committed with a fiendish X-ray weapon that destroys people’s brains untraceably from a great distance.  The pair’s victims archly include many of the day’s literary establishment.  As ludicrous as the plot is, it eerily adumbrates the Havana syndrome currently suffered by some American diplomats, which some authorities assert results from an undetectable energy-emitting weapon.

The Eater of Darkness, 1959 Edition

When The Eater of Darkness was reissued by Macaulay in 1929—after Coates’s return to America—its dust jacket copy touted the author in mythic terms: “Since Ernest Hemingway, no other writer has been as much spoken of by the literary cognoscenti as Robert Coates.”  On the rear panel, Cowley trumpeted, “No other American writer of his generation has passed so thoroughly into legend” and declared The Eater of Darkness “the first purely Dada novel to be published in English.”

Coates’s 1930 follow-up was a non-fiction account of the bloodthirsty land pirates who terrorized the American West in the early nineteenth century.  After floating their wares down the Mississippi River, people returned northward with the proceeds from their sales along the Natchez Trace, a wilderness trail paralleling the great waterway.  There they were preyed upon by “the most vicious and heartless rogues that ever went unhanged.”  The Outlaw Years vividly brought a vast array of American frontier characters to life and narrowly missed being a bestseller.

With his royalties, Coates bought land in Sherman, CT, where he built a house among writers and artists who had decamped New York City for the exurbs, making him according to the New York Times “a sort of modern Thoreau.”  The competing draws of country versus city life would be a central concern for much of Coates’s fiction for years to come.

Once the house was completed, Coates’s parents came to live with him.  Frederick soon died, after which Robert’s mother, Harriet, suffered a mental breakdown that made their living together untenable.  Coates arranged with an aunt in Ohio to take his mother in.  Along with his neighbor the painter Peter Blume, Coates embarked on an arduous automobile trek—in an era before highways—to deliver his mother to her kin.  However, after a harrowing week-long journey, the sister refused to accept Harriet.  Coates was forced to drive his mother back to Connecticut, where she was admitted to a state mental hospital in which she spent her remaining years.

Coates’s next book is his most deeply personal: a “roman vécu.  Nothing in it that I myself have not seen, heard, felt—or seen or felt in some other so vividly as to almost make the experience my own.”  Yet calling Yesterday’s Burdens “autobiographical” does not do justice to the uncanny tension between lived and fictional that the novel represents.  In it, Coates splits himself into narrator and subject—a writer named Coates and an elusive bon vivant named Henderson, who shares the author’s birthdate and important life events.  Coates includes his actual circle of friends and neighbors.  And in one haunting passage, narrator Coates rambles along the Bowery in Manhattan late at night and imagines every vagrant he sees to be a long-lost chum—from high school, from college, from France: “his face was the face of someone or anyone, or all, among all the friends I had once known and had forgotten….  I (knew I) had recognized him.  I knew (I knew) him.”

This melding of fact and fiction propels the novel’s central inquiry into identity, an idea inseparable from the archetype of American individualism.  Who are we?, the novel asks.  It answers that there is a cyclical relationship between the individual and the masses: we are all an aspect of the crowd; yet each of also contains a multitude.  Early on, narrator Coates surreally describes the novel he is struggling to write…the very novel readers hold in their hands:

Let me tell you about this book I’m trying to write…. It’s a novel, or rather a novel about a novel, or perhaps one might better describe it as a long essay discussing a novel that I might possibly write…. The plot, of course, is the difficulty. You know my idea about plots—pick a good lively one and then forget about it….

I have this young man, Henderson, and the process would seem be to take him to the city and there lose him, as thoroughly as possible.  Or at least to reverse the usual method, and instead of seeking to individualize him and pin him to a story, to generalize more and more about him—to let him become like the figures in a crowd and the crowd dispersing.

Malcolm Cowley marveled—in an afterward for a 1975 reissue, reprinted in the current edition—that, with the transparency of this passage, Coates “is like a conjurer laying his cards face up on the table…confident that there are enough tricks up his sleeve to keep the audience amazed.”

Further musing on identity, Coates wonders: amid this multiplicity of selves, who is the real “I”?  He answers:

Say at birth the child possesses a thousand selves….  Then, one by one, they are pared away, sloughed off, lost as if by accident or by the smooth pressure of life’s flowing are dislodged, swept away, submerged—killed off, one by one—until in the end there remains only that thin pitiful remnant which represents not ourselves, but what our fate has left us of ourselves.  Then, and only then, may a man look at himself as in a mirror and see himself—himself as the survivor: as a gaunt castaway, bare-boned and straggle-bearded, worn down to the ultimate thread of being, might stare with dulled eyes into a mirror and see himself as the sole survivor of some gallant company that had set forth on a brave sea-enterprise and had met with shipwreck and disaster.

Thus, in youth we are full of potential.  But every action we take removes us further from the former possibilities we had had:

“What do you do when you make a mistake?” he said. “You can’t go back, you know.  You can only do one thing at a time,” he said.  “But it’s worse than that.  Because each thing you do, each step you take, cuts you off forever from all the other steps you might have taken.  The other things you might, at that moment, have done.  We are always advancing,” he said.  “The only thing you wonder about is, where.”

Time and living wear our potential selves away—modern life fractures us, fate grinds us down—until ultimately we must face the single self, “that thin pitiful remnant,” that we are left with.  This is a chilling prospect because, Coates asks, “who would deliberately come face to face with himself?”

Yesterday’s Burdens also suggests that, just as we are estranged from ourselves, neither can we really know others.  Our social lives are dominated by chance and coincidence—”that intricate mechanism of circumstance which governs your relations with your friends…that vast clock-work, the city.”  Anticipating the mid-century preoccupation with the alienation engendered by modern life, Coates writes: “Who has not at some moment recognized, with a start of almost dread, that the life of even his dearest friend is involved in mystery…how much of his life must forever remain a secret, even from you?”  Here is how Coates’s alter-ego, Henderson, is described:

He was a young man, as I remember him in those early days, alone and lonely in the city: you would have seen him, long past midnight, walking in Times Square—the yawning dawning the street a doomed emptiness and the rain voicelessly inquiring, and he wonderingly watching each belated passer-by.

Hours-long solitary ambles through the city are integral to Yesterday’s Burdens.  In fact, Coates titled the novel’s final chapter “Tonight I Will Follow Strangers.”

These peregrinations are a vital autobiographical element of Yesterday’s Burdens.  In them, there is an aspect of the flaneur, the Decadent movement’s watchful man-about-town: “Up Broadway slowly strolling and slowly down again: not lonely but isolated—a being stripped of self, nameless and voiceless but with vigilant observant eye.”  But also, there is a darkness: the walker is compelled to tramp the pavement, as in Robert Frost’s 1927 “I Have Been One Acquainted with the Night.”  Coates writes:

At three A.M. all footsteps sound the same….  At three A.M. all cities sound the same….  In the yawning dawning the street a doomed emptiness and the rain voicelessly inquiring.

What specter was Coates—both author and character—trying to shake in these nocturnal rambles?  Yesterday’s Burdens suggests not a soul will ever know; in fact, we cannot know.

The paradox of Yesterday’s Burdens  is how unabashedly revealing it is of its author, while at the same time maintaining the ultimate impossibility of truly knowing others, even our closest friends.  Cowley, in his afterword, comments on Coates the author:

I was his friend, sometimes his neighbor, for more than fifty years.  But did I really know him?  Open to friendship as he seemed to be, always ready to explain himself, there was in him something inaccessible. It was as if, in his travels through the world, he carried with him a portable, unwindowed room into which he sometimes retired, and locked the door….  After fifty years of companionship, and affection too, I feel that he still eludes me.

Robert M. Coates embodied this fundamental tension of modern life—the hungering for contact, but also its isolation, its lack of connection.  In its “shadowy reflections of my own loneliness,” the legacy of Coates’s rootless youth, Yesterday’s Burdens incarnates twentieth century American anomy.

Another thoroughly modern theme of Yesterday’s Burdens is the vibrancy of city life—the sensory overload that the twentieth century induces in urbanites.  In this passage, Coates depicts how city lights overwhelm one with stimulation:

Emerging from the Grand Central Terminal, I must plunge in the midst of these dazzling constellations, striving as I go to recognize the various clusters, to differentiate between motor car headlights and street lamps, to disentangle the lettering of one electric sign from that of another.

Throughout the novel Coates inserts brief, impressionistic interludes of urban life, which most clearly display his Dada influence.  “The Cries of Old New York” describes exiting a subway car:

But the girl with the pink hat, her legs vanish deliciously up the EXIT TO MADISON AVENUE, and: all the others briskly (as if on the deck of an ocean liner (the long planked walk the iron handrail the stiff steel stanchions, as) their volleying footsteps briskly) marching to East Side Subway QUEENS.  Thinly, through the clamor (re-echoing bluntly) winking pinkly over everybody’s head the long-drawn syllables:

Follow the red line.

      Who’ll follow, follow?

Follow the long red line?

The implication of these passages is that, in the modern age, consciousness is less a flowing stream than a jumble of successive fragments that we are challenged to unify and make sense of.

Another aspect of contemporary urban life is how cities have eclipsed the natural world.  Though the nation was carved out of the wilderness, for most modern Americans the only wilds they experience are man-made.  In an interlude called “Sunday Morning” Coates writes:

Let this be our chamber, then, this endless avenue: this pavement our couch and this stony firmament our sky, wide and starry with:

         [Here Coates typographically arrays electric signage across the page, like a map of the constellations spread across the heavens.]

         Let BAYUK CIGARS be our flaming sun.

         Let LUNA HOSIERY shed its brooding light upon us.

The glory of man’s artifices has supplanted the wonders of Nature.

And yet, in opposition to this estrangement from the natural world, Coates also portrays another prototypically American theme—Americans’ inchoate connection with the land.  The first chapter of Yesterday’s Burdens, “The Days Go By in Strict Procession,” contains a gorgeous rendering of a year’s seasons in the countryside.  One example is:

The nights grow more intimate, more caressing.  The morning sun—its gentle, soft-born, measureless light—has radiance like that of dreams: the world becomes dreamlike and our dreams our world; neither waking nor sleeping has either end or beginning….

         My outhouse door (seen from within, of course) frames in winter a Breughel, in summer a Pisarro.

Contemporary reviewers justly hailed this section as reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.  Coates depicts Nature not just as scenery; he allows the landscape to become a sentient character, with its own—almost animistic—whims and needs.  An example: “The grass along the roadway, every blade rising crisp and bristling as if startled by the glare of our headlights.”

The fields that Coates bought in Connecticut had once been farmed.  But under Coates’s ownership, the idle land is being reclaimed by native flora.  Coates wonders whether his neglect violates some environmental ethics, a moral obligation of stewardship:

I sometimes feel a strange uneasiness: the trees look hostile, the very grass seems to regard me with a venomous air.  I have bought these fields and doomed them to sterility.  Can you tell me if there is anything in the common law concerning the rights of the soil to expect careful husbandry on the part of its owner?

These lines anticipate the environmental movement of nearly a half-century later.  And they have particular poignancy for the current era, in which man-made climate change threatens the integrity and viability of the natural world.

Yesterday’s Burdens anticipates the post-World War Two departure of America’s city dwellers for the suburbs and the crucial role of the automobile in that migration.  One of the novel’s most typographically bold passages is in “The Journey Down,” which portrays a commute from country to city, with parkway signage spatially entwined with the narrative.  Yesterday’s Burdens embraces Americans’ love affair with their cars, revels in the thrill of driving: “motor humming high, tires oilily skirling, the rear deck of the roadster making a dancing glitter.”  Years later, Time Magazine would harken back to “Coates’s lyric descriptions of driving in Yesterday’s Burdens.”

Beyond Yesterday’s Burdens‘s subject matter—its thematic elucidation of modern American life—the novel’s modernism is also manifested in its adventurous structure and narrative technique.  Yesterday’s Burdens is less about the broad strokes of life—its big events—than about the immediacy of life’s swirl of minutia, whose construal into reality entails a fundamental uncertainty.  In a post-modern twist, even the novel’s ending is not definitive.  In the penultimate chapter, “A Gesture in Conclusion,” Coates impartially suggests three possible fates for Henderson, including death by murder and suicide.

A writer-friend of Coates complained to him about Yesterday’s Burdens‘s absence of typical novelistic structure and plot, apparently implying Coates’s method was a mere affectation—unnecessary obscurity for obscurity’s sake.  Coates defended himself: “I still don’t see how a true story can be written nowadays in the straight-away, stick-to-the-point technique of the nineteenth century.  Life just isn’t like that anymore.”  To capture accurately the tumult of modern life, Coates needed to forge a new narrative style.

First, Coates structured Yesterday’s Burdens symphonically: primary chapters are major movements, identified by a “Topic Sentence” that conveys its overriding mood; then there are shorter interludes that bridge between the main chapters.  Throughout the novel, thematic phrases repeat, as they would in a musical composition, weaving the novel into a whole.

Within this overriding broad structure, Coates sought to portray the phenomenology of experience—how reality strikes people at multiple mental levels, from consciously to impressionistically to sensorily, all at once.  To do so, he used a narrative voice, which he had been honing since his Parisian Dada days, consisting of nested sets of parentheses and colons.  For example:

She turned to him…and there was a moment when he (seeing the often-seen face above the (till now unknown and hardly guessed at: startlingly, the) bright nudity. For a moment he) felt a bridegroom shyness: as if he hardly dared.

This technique captures the fractured nature of consciousness, in an almost cubist way.  It portrays the simultaneity of how people think, feel and react to the world around them on a moment-by-moment basis.

In response to the friend who disliked Yesterday’s Burdens, Coates explained that this innovation was:

designed primarily to get a more poetic and more immediate sense in prose…permitting lavish use of imagery and still keeping things compact and tight…[with parentheses] occasionally nested inside other[s]…to describe a moment in which a character might have several ideas or impressions…simultaneously.

Coates defied the friend “to rewrite any section where they’re used in the book, getting the same ideas across, in less than double the amount of words.”

Finally, Yesterday’s Burdens is rich with beautiful phrasing and imagery.  Just as John Sanford pushed the boundaries of language—such as using nouns as verbs and verbs as nouns—always questing for a unique and striking expression, so too does Robert M. Coates continually strive for inventive and evocative phrases.  “Dark faces spattered with laughter” is redolent of Ezra Pound’s imagist “In a Station of the Metro.”  Some other examples are:

  • There will be a girl at another table…a girl whose face is turned from me, but whose beauty I can see reflected, sun-like, in the moon-face of the man seated opposite her.
  • the trickling glitter of Times Square…a flutter of faces as the crowd swarmed…the sun a bright sweet sadness on the onrush of the avenue
  • his head masked murderously by the gun sights, and the round venomous eye of the rifle barrel
  • the cavernous silences of a boy’s mind
  • the long fingers of dawn slowly hollowing out the sky

The language of Yesterday’s Burdens is sublime.

When Yesterday’s Burdens came out, some reviewers were baffled by the novel’s complexity; however, most expressed admiration for it.  In addition to John Chamberlain’s enthusiastic praise, another critic noted the novel’s “original and poignant beauty…[its] tempered and disciplined Dada,” calling it a “subtly and delicately balanced novel.”  The Chicago Sun pronounced Yesterday’s Burdens “one of the finest, most sensitive and most deeply moving novels of the last two decades.”  Unfortunately, Yesterday’s Burdens suffered the same fate as Coates’s friend Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, released the same year—critical laurels that did not generate sales.  Since then, unlike West’s acknowledged masterpiece, Yesterday’s Burdens has been forgotten.

Yesterday’s Burdens deserves a place in the pantheon of great modern American novels, beside Miss Lonelyhearts and The Sound and the Fury.  So inventive is the language, the novel still feels startlingly new and fresh nearly ninety years after its first release.  As a modernist text, Yesterday’s Burdens passes Richard Hughes’s test: whatever obscurity there is in the novel is in the service of conveying the daunting challenge faced by modern Americans—to make sense of the myriad stimuli flung at them.  Unlike Ulysses, there is no excess in Yesterday’s Burdens; it is a lean novel of less than 300 pages.  And unlike Joyce, who was continually adding to Ulysses, Coates’s approach to writing, in the words of Malcolm Cowley, was paring down, “grinding and polishing with the hope of achieving some ultimate invention.”

Yesterday’s Burdens importance also rests on its portrayal of a range of themes key to twentieth century America: the nature of individual identity, the relation of the individual to society, the experience of modern urban life rife with overstimulation, the centrality of the automobile to American lives, and the tug-of-war between the entrancing drama of city life and American’s pastoral connection with the land.  Most importantly, unlike the cold Ulysses, there is a passionate heart to Yesterday’s Burdens that throbs with angst and exhilaration.  John Chamberlain accurately captured howYesterday’s Burdens indeed embraces “everything under the sun.”

Tough Poets’ republication offers readers a chance to redress this remarkable and unique novel’s unjustified neglect.  This edition reprints Cowley’s afterword, from the novel’s previous reissue in the Lost American Fiction series, as well as an informative new introduction by Coates scholar Mathilde Roza, author of the excellent critical biography Following Strangers: The Life and Work of Robert M. Coates.  Robert M. Coates’s deeply beautiful, moving and thought-provoking masterpiece has earned a place in the pantheon of literary modernism—as important to American literature as Ulysses is to Europe’s.


Jack Mearns is a professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton.  He is the author of John Sanford: An Annotated Bibliography (rev. 2nd ed., 2022, Cutting Edge).

Categories: Essay/Commentary

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