Backyard Fiction a.k.a. the Great American Myth of Suburbia

by Dean Blumberg

15 April 2010

Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road 

Suburbia is as much a fictional creation as it is a very real geographic place. The idea or myth of suburbia is just as real as the municipalities, shopping centers, living rooms, and schools that represent that idea. My reading of suburbia is framed by the history of suburbia in television, film, literature and music. I think of the Cleaver family, Serial Mom, Edward Scissorhands and The Simpsons.

For the three literary works that follow, the representations of suburbia are extremely familiar to me—I’ve seen them played out thousands of times before. Although I was not alive in ‘50s America, I have a pretty good idea of what the suburbs looked like at that time. Or at least what the myth looked like. The suburb has become an archetype and a fixture in American literature.

Frank Wheeler. Piet Hanema. Frank Bascombe. These are a handful of the suburban men in the fiction of Richard Yates, John Updike, and Richard Ford. These writers all display certain characteristics of the suburban novel in the post-WWII era: the male experience placed at the forefront of narration, the importance of competition both socially and economically, contrasting feelings of desire and loathing for predictability, and the impact of an increasingly developed landscape upon the American psyche and the individual’s mind.

Many critics have referred to suburban novels from this era as works of fiction characteristic of the ‘Age of Anxiety’ the time when men (since males are often the main protagonists) felt like the world was slipping out of their hands. I would argue that every generation feels this. It’s nothing new or significant. It’s just that the anxiety of these characters is deeply connected to a rapidly changing geographic and cultural landscape.

As humans, we look for cultural value shifts in their physical manifestations. The expanding suburban landscape, built upon homogenization of style and structure, represents a cultural need. For a nation in the aftermath of the Second World War and the dawning of the atomic age, it’s a need for control and predictability.

While popular culture has the tendency to reduce much of suburbia to ‘Keeping Up with the Joneses’, at the center of the suburban novel is a class-specific dilemma. The troubles of domestic life are intensified by bourgeois representations of success and happiness. The popular associations of suburbia are the result of a society that attempts to find itself in the external, material world. ‘Cookie cutter’ neighborhoods symbolize cultural homogeneity, middle-class morals and values, nuclear familial structure, and attention to appearance. Suburbia is commonly portrayed as class-based state of mind, and a force of logic built upon desire and consumer culture.

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