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

by Dean Blumberg

15 April 2010

Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road 

Little Pink Houses

If one’s home is to be a physical manifestation of oneself, then homogeny in structure challenges the individuality of Americanism.

Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road is an exemplary novel of suburban malaise. Yates entered his professional writing career with the publication of Revolutionary Road in 1961, a novel which has at its center the aspirations of Frank and April Wheeler. Frank and April are a young couple living in suburban Connecticut in the mid-‘50s, struggling between the pressures of conforming to the suburban American dream while simultaneously trying to resist what they perceive as the cultural homogeneity of their environment. In United States Author Series: Richard Yates, author David Castrovano sums up the character of Frank Wheeler best:

“The trouble with Frank, however, is that his disaffection leads to neither writing, nor action, nor creative ways of turning life around. He remains an unconventional man who is too cool to be involved with American life and too sheepish to live against the grain” (42-43).

The Wheelers resent what they see as the average suburban lives that find themselves in, yet they are too scared to change when an opportunity presents itself. Their feelings of discontent are mirrored in their understanding of the geographic and social landscape around them.

This correlation between landscape and identity is best exemplified in the young couples’ interaction with Mrs. Givings, the realtor who eventually sells Frank and April their suburban Connecticut home. Mrs. Givings is a voice from the past, a stable presence in a changing environment as the old neighborhoods off of Route 12 are being increasingly surrounded by new construction and development. Mrs. Givings says to the home-seeking couple,


“…eventually it leads on up and around to a perfectly dreadful new development called Revolutionary Hill Estates—great hulking split levels, all in the most nauseous pastels and dreadfully expensive too, I can’t think why. No, but the place I want to show you has absolutely no connection with that. One of our nice little local builders put it up right after the war, you see, before all the really awful building began.” (29)


cover art

Revolutionary Road

Richard Yates

(Knopf Doubleday)

The dreadfulness of the expensive split levels is representative of shifting modes of production in post-war America. The result is the absence of artistry, community and beauty. The ‘50s saw the advent of quick-to-produce vinyl siding, and the synthetic materials for home construction were quickly associated with synthetic lives. The local builders that marked an era of skill-based artistry were being replaced by large development-based construction with assembly-line production methods. The new “cookie cutter” homes were symbols of mass-produced, corporate living, and more importantly, that symbol was projected upon the individuals and families that inhabit them.

When the Wheelers first view the home that they eventually buy, Frank thinks to himself, “It did have possibilities. The gathering disorder of their lives might still be sorted out and made to fit these rooms, among these trees” (30). The process of buying a home is very much the practice of seeing oneself and one’s family in a structure. By purchasing this home, the Wheelers see possibilities in themselves. The disorder of their lives is both the clutter that accompanies a family with two small children, and the psychological clutter involved in finding one’s place in life, despite unfulfilling jobs and feelings of “settling” for something other than expected.

Revolutionary Hill Estates is not simply a threat to a more local, individual, and artisan-based method of construction, it’s a threat to the individual identity of the homeowner and others inhabiting the nearby region. The narrator of Revolutionary Road is closest to Frank, exposing his inner thoughts and criticisms to the reader, often depicting the ways which Frank struggles with the threat that Revolutionary Hill Estates represents. Frank thinks,

Intelligent thinking people could take things like this in their stride, just as they took the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were (20).

Frank must remember who he is, but the problem is that he still isn’t quite sure what that means because who he is is inexplicably tied to where he is. Additionally, his sense of self is based completely upon negation. Frank knows that he is not his job or his home—he is certainly beyond those things—yet the oppressive force of the idea of Revolutionary Hill Estates and surrounding community is that you are what you do and you are where you live. The new development represents uniformity, and while the uniformity of suburbia is now recognizably ‘American’, it ironically contradicts the very ‘American’ ideal of individualism.

The idea that suburban housing developments stifle individualism was the basis for Malvina Reynolds’ 1962 song “Little Boxes,” recognizable to contemporary audiences as the theme song for Showtime’s television series, Weeds. The song opens:

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.

The second verse makes the apt transition from the houses to their occupants. The people, too, are all the same, with their lives similarly contained. It’s a fearful protest against suburbia, but more importantly, it’s a protest against thoughtless conformity.

While Reynolds’ song is a reaction to the then-new Daly City suburbs in California, the fictional Revolutionary Hill Estates has closer geographic ties to the most famous post-war suburb, Levittown.  Levittown began as a suburban bedroom-community for urban workers in Long Island, a massive undertaking by the Levitt and Sons firm. Dolores Hayden’s Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth 1820-2000 provides a fascinating history of Levittown and the ways in which housing and community became a commodity for mass production. Quoting one of the Levitt sons, Hayden writes,


Using a single design could lower the cost of houses. Alfred Levitt said, “As in your car, the parts in a Levitt house are standardized; each part will fit any house of the same model… the Levitt factory… is the land on which we assemble our houses.” (133)

Hayden’s work highlights the ways in which “makers of houses have tried to emulate manufacturers of automobiles,” and the Levitt sons are clearly a prime example. The trouble with the Fordist approach to home building is that the houses must be situated on a unique piece of land. Sitcom suburbs like Lakewood, California and Park Forest, Illinois, both based off of the Levitt model, are noteworthy for leveling the hills and incongruities of the landscape to make building easier.

The flatness of the terrain and the uniformity of homes mirror a perceived uniformity of identity for many of the characters in suburban literature, and this omnipresent force of conformity is definitely a source of tension and conflict. If one’s home is to be a physical manifestation of oneself, then homogeny in structure challenges the individuality of Americanism. The inherent contradiction in the suburban neighborhood is that its sameness represents both an ideal sense of American community as well as a threat to American individualism. For Updike and Yates’ characters, who live in the late ‘50s and onward, uniform suburban communities have already become commonplace. For today’s readers, it’s nearly impossible to segregate the reality of the suburban experience from the mythic lives of suburban sitcoms like Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, and The Donna Reed Show.

Moving to the suburbs is much more than moving to a new town or home. It’s moving to a new lifestyle. American consumer culture quickly saw suburbia as a product to be sold, a persuasive argument to purchase the life that a new neighborhood and home can provide. Suburban developers sell more than homes and lots. They are selling photoshopped images of a nostalgic past. Their products are compelling because what we are often buying is a persona attached to place. Perhaps most extreme and frightening is the creation of Disney’s Celebration, Florida, an all too serious construction of a mythic past under the guise of a suburban development.

Celebration, Florida is eerily similar to the iconic images of Normal Rockwell, and Disney’s town straddles the bridge between real and unreal, fantasy and reality, and life and entertainment. An advertisement selling homes in Celebration reads: “There was once a place where neighbors greeted neighbors in the quiet of the summer twilight. Where children chased fireflies… The movie house showed cartoons on Saturday. The grocery store delivered… Remember that place? It held a magic all its own. The special magic of an American hometown” (as qtd in Hayden 213-214). Disney and potential homebuyers are fully aware that what they are selling, and possibly buying, is not a home but a fictional identity.

Yet in the suburban literature of writers like Yates, Cheever, and Updike, the place that “held a magic all its own” is always undercut by the reality of experience. Updike’s novels and short stories offer readers a similar view of the suburban experience, where the surface appearances of suburban life are ultimately revealed as a decaying façade.

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