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

Authors like Richard Yates, John Updike, and Richard Ford tap into the mythical nostalgia of American suburbia while revealing its less desirable underbelly.

Revolutionary Road
Richard Yates
Knopf Doubleday
December 2008
John Updike
Knopf Doubleday
March 1968
Independence Day
Richard Ford
Independence Day
May 1996

Suburbia is as much a fictional creation as it is a 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 its history 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 then. 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” 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 tends to reduce much of suburbia to ‘”Keeping Up with the Joneses” at the center of the suburban novel is a class-specific dilemma. Bourgeois representations of success and happiness intensify the troubles of domestic life. The popular associations of suburbia result from 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 a class-based state of mind and a force of logic built upon desire and consumer culture.

Little Pink Houses

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 that 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 resisting what they perceive as the cultural homogeneity of their environment. In United States Author Series: Richard Yates (1996), 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.

The Wheelers resent what they see as their average suburban lives, 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.

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 synthetic materials for home construction were quickly associated with synthetic lives. The local builders that marked an era of skill-based artistry were 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 they eventually buy, Frank thinks, “It did have possibilities. The gathering disorder of their lives might still be sorted out and made to fit these rooms, among these trees.” Buying a home is 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 accompanying 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 in 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.

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 the 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”. It is 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, 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 2003 book, 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.”

Hayden’s work highlights the ways in which “makers of houses have tried to emulate manufacturers of automobiles,” and the Levitt sons are a prime example. The trouble with the Fordist approach to home building is that the houses must be on a unique piece of land. Sitcom suburbs like Lakewood, California, and Park Forest, Illinois, both based on 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 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 and 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 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 fully know 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.

Trouble in (Suburban) Paradise

Updike’s Couples, as well as many of his short stories in the early part of his career, take place in the fictional town of Tarbox, Massachusetts. Couples deals with the social responsibilities and economic pressures of a suburban social class, as well as the juxtaposition between an old, small-town New England character and charm, and a new suburban everyplace, characterized by the growth of the Indian Hill housing development and the influx of new residents.

Like the unnamed town that the Wheelers move to, Tarbox is a changing community where individuality and artistry are replaced by uniformity, monotony, and predictability. Describing Tarbox, Updike writes,

The homes were mixed: the surviving seventeenth-century salt-boxes the original Kimballs and Sewalls and Tarboxes and Cogswells had set along the wobbly pasture lanes, quaintly named for the virtues, that radiated from the green; the peeling Federalist cubes with widow’s-walks ; the gingerbread mansions attesting to the decades of textile prosperity; the tight brick alleys plotted to house the millworkers imported from Poland; the middle-class pre-Depression domiciles with stubby porches and narrow chimneys and composition sidings the colors of mustard and parsley and graphite and wine; the new developments like even pastel teeth eating the woods of faraway Indian Hill.

Again, the new development, similarly described as aesthetically unpleasant, is presented as a threat to an older, more unique, and more desirable way of living. The interesting thing about passages like this one, which are present in nearly all of the suburban novels I’ve encountered, is that suburbia is presented as a force that is ‘eating’ away at one’s individuality.

Post-WWII suburban developments were the product of an economic boom in America, where housing costs were cheap, and the possibility of owning a home and a car was more attainable for the working classes. The ‘50s are typically associated with moral conservatism, and it’s still true that the era conjures up images of Cleaver-like households.

On the other hand, the ‘60s ushered in a challenging counter-culture, a student and youth movement that positioned itself against the conservative views of their parents’ generation. Whereas the ‘50s stood for traditional values, American consumerism, and ownership, the ‘60s questioned the very nature of consumer culture and suburbia itself became an icon and a symbol to reject.

Updike’s Couples is a suburban novel trapped in this cultural conflict. What makes the novel so engaging is that its characters both equally loathe and desire suburbia bourgeois trappings. In one of the most memorable passages in Couples, Piet Hanema confronts an angered Ken after Piet’s affair with Angela is publicized:

He stood to tell Ken, “She’s your wife, keep her in your bed. You had lost her before you began. A man with any self-respect wouldn’t have married her on the rebound like you did. Don’t blame me if flowers didn’t grow in this” — at the mouth of the hall, following Angela out, he turned and with whirling arms indicated to Ken his house, the Cambridge furniture, the empty bassinet, mirroring windows, the sum of married years – “test tube.”

This passage is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it places Ken at the center of responsibility. As much of the novel shows, the male-dominated suburban household is challenged by “liberated” housewives. When things begin to crumble—both relationships and the landscape are rapidly destroyed by the novel’s end—Piet reverts to the “older”, more patriarchal way of seeing the household. Thus, Ken is responsible for “keep[ing] her in [his] bed”, even though the ‘open relationship’ lifestyle was initially embraced as a way of challenging the more conservative ideologies of generations past.

Secondly, the passage is significant because it shows how commodities and places have become linked to social relationships. Piet’s criticism of Ken and Angela’s home as a test tube puts forth an image of suburbia as just that—an engineered fiction. As Piet takes an increasing presence in the construction of Indian Hill, the new housing development on the block, he becomes more aware of the ways in which corporations and individuals attempt to replace identity with commodity. Possessing all of the things that represent a happy suburban life does not necessarily provide one with that life.

Place Is a State of Mind

Although Richard Ford’s Independence Day takes place during the housing bubble of the late ‘80s, the novel is reminiscent of the suburban angst and disillusionment found in the literature of the ‘50s and ‘60s. In the novel, the main character, Frank Bascombe says,

What I feel rising in me now is… that I really ought to be somewhere else. Though where? Where I’m wanted more than just expected? Where I fit in better? Where I’m more purely ecstatic and not just glad? At least someplace where meeting the terms, conditions and limitations set on life are not so front and center. Where the rules are not the game.

Bascombe’s insight, emblematic of the suburban male experience, is characteristic of a pursuit of self-discovery, which begins with recognizing suburbia as limiting and oppressive.

Independence Day complicates the idea of suburbia and the quest for identity. Whereas Yates’ and Updike’s characters all long for something beyond the possibilities presented by suburbia, Ford’s character Frank Bascombe, a suburban realtor, has already come to accept suburbia’s inability to adequately define the human psyche. The novel takes place over a long weekend in 1988, with the Dukakis-Bush presidential election campaign and Fourth of July celebrations providing the backdrop. Frank exhibits similar qualities to Piet Hanema and Frank Wheeler with his penchant for assessing and predicting the experiences that suburbia offers.

As a realtor, Frank Bascombe is already acutely aware of the way in which he sells imagined lives in addition to houses. During his experience showing homes to the Markhams, Bascombe laments,

I have now fashioned the Easter Egg, filled it with the right sweet stuff, made the hole and put their eye right to it; and yet I’m afraid they’ll never see inside, after which their lives will be worse—my belief being that once you’re offered something good, you ought to be smart enough to take it.

At this point, suburbia is completely enveloped in utopian and dystopian language. For Frank and the reader, it is all a mirage, a grand fiction many are willing to believe. For Frank’s clients, he sells them the dreams that the ‘50s bedroom communities promised, but even they know that what they are buying is the idea, that they are in love with it more than anything else. Unlike Wheeler and Hanema, who truly find an antagonist in what they see as a homogenizing suburban identity, Bascombe is a postmodern anti-hero, able to see suburbia as a powerful concept that can be analyzed and employed without consuming him completely.

The suburban myth is so embedded in our collective consciousness that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. I am nostalgic for the idyllic suburban communities I’ve never lived in. Recollections of childhood seem strangely tainted by sitcom families and summer camp movies. Authors like Yates, Updike, and Ford can tap into that nostalgia while revealing its less desirable underbelly. Although their stories are typically focused on the middle and upper-middle-class male experience, they more broadly reflect how we use place to represent who we are and what we value.