Commuter Virus

Is American literature too soft on the suburbs?


White Diaspora: The Suburb and the Twentieth-Century American Novel, by Catherine Jurca, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 238 pages, $19.95

Among the attitudes that seem required of American intellectuals, loathing of the suburbs ranks high on the list. Since they can be despised for so many (if often incongruent) reasons, suburbs offer a target for writers with quite disparate agendas: The suburbs are racist and exclusionary; their fleshpots blunt the activist impulses of minorities who move to them; they destroy families; they distract from communal concerns by making family the focus of life; their oppressive conformity stunts individualism; they isolate the individual from the community; and on and on. That many Americans of all races continue to move to them in droves—dynamically transforming suburban life in the process—is a reminder of the irrelevancy of much of this chatter to the way people decide to shape their lives.

American novelists have done their bit to swell the chorus of lamentation. As Catherine Jurca notes in White Diaspora: The Suburb and the Twentieth-Century American Novel, "As a body of work, the suburban novel asserts," pace Tolstoy, "that one unhappy family is a lot like the next, and [that] there is no such thing as a happy family." Jurca, who teaches literature at the California Institute of Technology, displays an admirable impatience with the relentlessly gloomy view of suburban life that has become the stock in trade of whole rafts of American writers. Thus one typically finds the suburb served up as "the parodic antithesis of the good life, where gratification on every level is nonexistent." She does much to expose the willful bias of the suburban novel by repeatedly and contemptuously dismissing men who in their novels insist "how tough it is to be a white middle-class male."

Jurca, however, does not make that point in order to come to the defense of the suburbs. Rather, she insists that, appearances to the contrary, the negative representation of suburbs in the American novel functions on some obscure level as an endorsement of the ideology that makes suburbs seem like acceptable places to live; beneath all the apparent critique of the suburbs in the novels she examines, she discovers a kind of complicity. In her view, then, suburban novels fall short not because they exaggerate the degree to which suburbs should be hated, but because the reasons the novels present for hating them ring hollow, and ultimately are not even expressions of hatred at all. Or at least not the right kind of hatred.

Jurca knows why they should really be hated, and for her, the tradition of American suburban writing is essentially a smokescreen whose real function, in spite of its apparent indictment of suburbia, is to preserve white privilege by presenting the lives of white suburbanites as a living hell. Hence, when she reads Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1955), whose protagonists worry about losing their identities and integrity as they are absorbed into big corporations and endlessly proliferating sub-divisions, Jurca sees a complex strategy of empowerment: "The white middle class asserts its superiority to itself in the belief that middle-classness has been devalued." For Jurca, the "privileged" in society get a charge out of seeing themselves as beleaguered, oppressed, in exile. As the sarcastic title of the study makes clear, Jurca has no patience with the ideas she sees in these novels: White suburbanites have no business thinking of themselves as a people in diaspora.

If the deep meaning of these only apparently critical novels is one surprise in White Diaspora, another is Jurca's attempt to alter our idea of which books have something to teach us about the American suburb. Most readers probably think of John Cheever and John Updike as the founding fathers of such novels, but Jurca sees them as latecomers, and not particularly innovative ones at that. Thus she disposes of this pair, along with more recent figures such as Richard Ford (Independence Day), Rick Moody (The Ice Storm), and David Gates (Preston Falls), in a brief coda titled "Same as It Ever Was (More or Less)."

So what text does she put at the beginning of the tradition that leads to Updike, Cheever, Ford, Moody, and Gates? Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes, which was originally serialized in 1912. At least one of the four other novels she examines in detail is just as surprising: Richard Wright's Native Son, whose protagonist, Bigger Thomas, never sets foot outside the Chicago city limits. What is going on here? By looking at the way Jurca makes her arguments, and at the interests those arguments serve, we can get a good idea of what is happening in one dominant strand of academic literary and cultural criticism today.

As Jurca's concerns make clear, political and historical questions sit right at the center of the kind of analysis she undertakes, a mode of criticism affiliated with the movement calling itself "the New Historicism." The New Historicism is one of several critical schools that sought to replace the New Criticism, which dominated academic writing about literature in the middle decades of the 20th century. It was the New Criticism that popularized the phrase "close reading," and its adherents ran through the entire literary corpus, producing detailed analyses purporting to show the elaborate network of meanings that made literary texts capable of being endlessly interpreted (and thus endlessly scrutinized on the pages of scholarly journals).

By the 1970s, however, writing the umpteenth article on sheet lightning imagery in The Scarlet Letter or Macbeth did not seem like a great way to make a splash or launch a career, and so a new methodology had to be generated. Now it was asserted that by focusing relentlessly on the text, the New Criticism woefully neglected the context, and further that what a text meant when it was written could be recovered only by scrupulous attention to its specific historical milieu. Thus instead of seeing a Wordsworth poem as a New Critic might—as a depiction, say, of certain universal aspects of human experience, such as memory and self-consciousness—a New Historicist would see it as a depiction of bourgeois mentality confronted with a rapidly industrializing economy. The hardheaded, often Marxist bent of such writing had the added benefit of conferring a sense of political urgency on one's musings about Alexander Pope or Henry James. Authors being subjected to analysis are often divvied up into two camps: those who subversively undermine dominant ideology (good), and those whose writing works to "contain" any conflicts that might disrupt the status quo (bad). Some New Historicists, it should be noted, disdain this separation of the sheep from the goats, since they insist that any move an author might make somehow or other fits neatly into the structure of the social system, even if he thinks he is striking out against it.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with or even new about reading literature politically and historically. Plato, after all, had Socrates ban poets from the ideal city in The Republic because of their potential to disrupt civic life. And there was a large measure of truth to the complaint that New Critics' readings often issued bland platitudes about "the human condition," flattening the real differences between authors and eras. But given her motivating concern about actual historical conditions, one might expect a critic like Jurca to be highly interested in the question of whether writing about suburbs accurately or inaccurately reflects the reality of suburban life. After all, historians have always been interested in detecting the biases of literary representations, an enterprise that requires some notion of historical reality against which to measure the representations in question.

However, in an almost offhand comment that is entirely representative of much allegedly "historical" literary criticism, Jurca announces that "the primary object of my analysis" is "the suburb as created in and through various discourses, rather than the suburb itself." In other words, she will dissect the ideological implications of texts about the suburb, but she will not delve too deeply into the historical and sociological data that provide the context historians—as distinct from some literary critics—would consider crucial for gauging their significance.

As a result, crucial facts about "the suburb itself" are in pretty short supply in this study. Although this book is centrally concerned with the way suburban writing seeks to protect the whiteness and middle-classness of the suburbs, one has to wade into the footnotes to find a reference to recent historians' discovery that the suburbs have never been as white or middle-class as often supposed. This fact does not mean, of course, that Jurca must junk her thesis about the racist underpinnings of some suburban novels, but such facts ought to figure prominently in a study purporting to show how such novels relate to their historical context.

More damning to Jurca's argument, some of the things presented as facts are instances of ideological bias par excellence, just the kind of thing she claims to be exposing. In the places where Jurca tells us exactly why the suburbs really are bad, she is relying on rumors rather than knowledge. She speaks, for example, of "the relation of white flight and freedom to black homelessness and incarceration within the city," and lauds Richard Wright for providing a "reality check" that allows us "to gauge…the real injuries inflicted on those who are denied the opportunity to become upwardly mobile in the suburbs." Everyone gathered around the coffee machine in the English department lounge may know that white flight causes urban poverty, but that doesn't mean it's true. In a painstaking study of data from the 1980s, one opponent of unregulated suburban growth was forced to admit that he could find no significant statistical relationship between suburban sprawl and urban decline. (See "Acquitting Sprawl," June 2000.)

Since Jurca is not at pains to verify some of the crucial assertions she presents as facts, the moments when she does castigate novelists for their failure to conduct "reality checks" are among her oddest and least persuasive. While poking fun at what she sees, sometimes rather unfairly, as the trivial concerns of "sanctimonious suburbanites" in Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, she even goes so far as to praise the tyrannical Robert Moses ("famed New York planner," she gushes) as an "enlightened writer" because he took time out from destroying urban lower- and middle-income neighborhoods to say some nasty things about the "fly-by-night subdivision." She somehow fails to mention that his massive highway projects enabled the sanctimonious suburbanites to get out of the city and into the suburbs in the first place. Further examples of enlightenment include others' claims that the suburbs are "'parasites' that fed off the central city but gave nothing in return." The cumulative result of such moments is a slanted, oddly unhistorical historicism, one that allows Jurca to conduct her analyses in a textual laboratory that in some ways is as wilfully cut off from the hard facts of history (in this case, "the suburb itself") as the mid-century New Criticism is said to have been.

Which brings us to Tarzan. Jurca wants to argue that what happens to Tarzan in Africa functions as an allegory for what suburban whites feared might happen to them in America, and that that is why Burroughs deserves to be thought of as a forerunner of the suburban novel. Tarzan fights to keep black Africans away from the house his British father built and from its environs (which Jurca insists on calling his "neighborhood"); white suburbanites did not want black Americans to live too nearby. Burroughs was a segregationist racist; many white suburbanites were segregationist racists. Although Jurca tries to splice Africa and suburbia together, sometimes the movement from one to the other is awkwardly bumpy. Hence, says Jurca, Tarzan of the Apes is "an African adventure story that dramatizes the awful consequences of bringing black skin and white skin together in the same neighborhood. As American cities grew more crowded and more heterogeneous, city officials, planners, developers, and house owners sought to preserve home environments."

The problem here is not that novels and poems are not in fact tied to the politics of the world from which they emerge, but that Jurca can link Tarzan to the suburbs only by describing the novel in terms so general as to detract from the historical specificity of her argument in two ways. First, if the aspects of Tarzan upon which she concentrates are sufficient to show that the novel has something to do with the American suburb, then Robinson Crusoe (1719) can be shown to be about the anxieties of turn-of-the-century American suburbanites, too, since Crusoe manages not only to repulse dark-skinned people who, as Jurca might write, want to move into his neighborhood, but also to turn one of them into his live-in help—his man Friday.

Second, if racism and white fear of being overrun by other races are the salient features of Tarzan, why does that suggest an analogy to white suburban Americans instead of, say, to white urban Americans? Perhaps more to the point, what about British imperialists in Africa (such as Tarzan's father), or American imperialists at work in the Philippines when Tarzan was published? These colonizers, after all, can be related to Burroughs' book a good deal less tortuously than can suburbanites. Ultimately, the connection upon which Jurca stakes her argument is more rhetorically than logically compelling: After Burroughs became rich and famous, he went into the real estate business by promoting Tarzana in Los Angeles—like many such developments at the time, for whites only.

Jurca is on much firmer ground when discussing novels that depict a fear not of a threat from without, but within: the alleged tendency of the suburb to induce "middle-class suffering" that is revealed in novels like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Sinclair Lewis' dissection of middle-class conformity, Babbitt (1922). She shows that Updike and Cheever do not in fact deserve credit for inventing their characteristic mode of hand wringing. Less persuasive is her claim that this kind of hand wringing actually "empowers" middle-class readers. According to Jurca, many suburban novels confer on suburbanites an ennobling self-pity by endowing these basically comfortable folk with an artificial sense of victimhood. Her analysis of Babbitt, for example, culminates in the following claim: "The challenge of being middle class, for Lewis, is to enjoy the trap, not to escape it, to feel sorry for oneself as one struggles in and benefits from it." But if empowering the middle class is what it's all about, wouldn't it have been easier just to celebrate middle-class life and jettison the self-pity?

This question leads to another. Since Jurca wants to present the "ways of thinking about and representing the twentieth-century suburb and suburban house" in "various discourses," it is particularly striking that she does not even mention the "discourse" that established the most broadly disseminated image of the suburbs during the period she examines, namely that of 1950s television. If grim renderings a la Babbitt really served the white middle-class establishment so well, then why did we never see June Cleaver track down Ward to his love nest? Why weren't Princess and Bud discovered in an incestuous knot? What happened to the episode in which Ozzie and Harriet default on their mortgage? Jurca, who has written elsewhere about film, may indeed have some interesting answers to these questions, but she gives no hint of them here.

If Jurca's ideas about empowerment are not wholly convincing, how are we to account for the irrational scorn loaded upon the suburbs and those who choose to live in them? One possible cause might be a residual strain of puritanism in American culture, an itch to deride worldly comfort or success, especially when they are judged insufficiently "communal," and an attempt to promote "the assumption that affluence and misery are intertwined." This assumption, as Jurca amply demonstrates, has certainly empowered many writers of novels set in suburbia. When considered in these terms, however, White Diaspora itself, with its suspicion of suburbs as sites of inegalitarian privilege, seems to be of a piece with the novels it dissects.