Jurca, Catherine, Publication Information:. Princeton, N.
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Physical Description:. Subject Term:. American fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism. Suburban life in literature. Segregation in literature. Suburbs in literature. Whites in literature. Race in literature. Electronic books. Added Corporate Author:. ProQuest Firm. Electronic Access:. Staff View. Yavapai Library Network. Summary This is the first book to analyze our suburban literary tradition. Choice Review Jurca California Institute of Technology analyzes and gives meaning to novelists' and sociologists' depiction of white middle-class flight to homogeneous, isolating suburbs.
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On the one hand, Babbitt, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and The Corrections trace a path of progress away from suburban exclusion based on sexuality and, to a far lesser degree, race. But the house-and-yard basis for the middle-class suburban identity remains, as does its hunger for more space at the metropolitan edge. Such empty space on the map represents a blind spot in the suburban imaginary: inequality.
Recognizing the space between suburb and city—both narratively and as a critical reading strategy—makes it possible to understand the history of suburban discourses and to challenge the inevitability of the current sprawling, stratified suburban way of life in America. Detour: The Trouble with All-Consuming Babbittry Babbitt and Babbittry have become shorthand for the equation of suburbia with consumption and conformism of thought. If we take consumption habits as a given, Babbitt and other suburbanites still depend on the continued expansion of the transportation infrastructure—the network of interstate highways and passenger rail lines—to link them to the shops that stock the family split-level ranch.
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Suburban fictions like Babbitt, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and The Corrections represent not only the forces of consumerism but also the development of in-between spaces that drive real-world sprawl through the century, from the pre-war inner-ring suburbs to the post-war interstate highway system, GI Bill, VA housing loans, and late-century urban decentralization. Continually bullseyeing the stationary target of consumption neglects the moving target of the substantial time suburbanites must spend in the spaces of transit, a target that continually seeks out the edges of metropolitan regions.
Are We There Yet? Hitting the Roads The experience of the space and time between origin and destination is never empty or insignificant in its planning or its use, even in goal-oriented realistic narratives. Mitford describes a rural setting where little work is done: her city readers understand the country as vacation space for them, not agricultural land for farmers.
My interest in twentieth-century novels of the suburbs is similarly cartographic. Maps, by making visible the space between suburban origins and destinations, can reveal what more than eighty years of suburbanization has rendered discursively near-invisible. Barbara Eckstein and James Throgmorton locate a spatial critique of American urban discourse embedded in Invisible Man in the passage of the man with a cart full of blueprints through the literal physical space of a sidewalk amid public housing projects: [This man] acts as a metonym for the burden borne by the poorest chronically, minority urban residents, who disproportionately have carried the weight of all the social reforms and urban renewal projects meant to manage their lives, and of all the wasteful economies designed to benefit other people elsewhere.
By reading both the first, literal, layer of spatial representation, and the second layer of representations about space, Eckstein and Throgmorton and Moretti provide signal examples of how literal space encodes spatial discourses in literature. I will walk a mile—two—to work or wait with equanimity for a bus, train, or plane, but I will not take a job, home, or vacation that puts me in an auto traffic jam Setting aside that buses—a distinctly class-marked form of public transit in America—use the very same roads and so also get stuck in auto traffic jams, Eckstein and Throgmorton make a very bad trade: rather than make their case with the kind of perceptive literary analysis evident in their reading of Invisible Man, they settle for smug personal virtue.
Suburban fiction, like the suburbs themselves, does not set aside much space for pedestrians. To get anywhere in suburban fiction, you need to travel a fair distance— halfway to everywhere, as one writer puts it.
But the suburbs, throughout the twentieth century, have never been as boring or as predictable as their critics believe. Home, for Babbitt, and for suburbanites in general, is not the house in Floral Heights, nor even the office in Zenith, but rather the in-between space of the roads and highways. Babbitt pulls out of his driveway thinking about his neighbour, Samuel Doppelbrau, then pauses to chat with his other neighbour, Howard Littlefield, PhD, about politics. The experience of transit even occupies conversation within the narrative, as when Sylvester Moon at the service station chats amiably with Babbitt about the local street car line.
Granted, Babbitt engages his surroundings as developable real estate during his commute, but he does not see his trip to work as a toll to be paid for living in Floral Heights, nor as a part of his weekly workload, but rather a pleasure greater than that he finds at home or in the office. Sociality and leisure constitute the bulk of his commute.
Babbitt loves his car not just because it testifies to his financial success, but because it allows him to move around Zenith so freely and gives him the ability to spend more time travelling. Indeed, suburbia, even in the years before the interstate defence highway system, was based on added travel time.
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In doing so, Babbitt combines an appreciation for the economic activity with a touch of aesthetic wonder for the buildings as expressive elements of the city. A similar bridging of the business world and aesthetics occurs in the smoking car of a train between Zenith and New York. On the outskirts they passed a steel-mill which flared in scarlet and orange flame that licked at the cadaverous stacks, at the iron-sheathed walls and sullen converters. If Babbitt is a typical case, then suburbanites did not yet treat their increased transit load as a sacrifice paid for home ownership; instead, a drive in the car or train ride still feels like a pleasurable activity unto itself.
The time and space between origin and destination is filled with incident, whether it is the familiar route to work, a roll down the block, or a longer trip, through less-familiar territory. I will conclude this section with two moments from Babbitt. One takes place in Zenith, one in Monarch, and both capture the ways in which Babbitt interacts— both literally and figuratively—with his surroundings during moments of transit.
A Babbitt-as-consumerism reading of this passage is so obvious as to need little elaboration. Coming on the heels of his shop-by-shop consumerist progress down the block, the conscious bracketing off of particular pieces of the trip appears to accentuate consumerism as the organizational strategy of a suburbanite behind the wheel.
During a business trip, Babbitt hopes to consume some entertainment at a higher proof than the Zenith cinema: As they drove back through the outskirts of Monarch, down streets of small brown wooden cottages of workmen, character-less as cells, as they rattled across warehouse- districts which by drunken night seemed vast and perilous, as they were borne toward the red lights and violent automatic pianos and the stocky women who simpered, Babbitt was frightened I do not want to dismiss the mass-consumption critique of the first, nor the anonymous nature of the second, but such readings seem to fit too easily into critiques of suburbia and suburbanization that have themselves become standardized.
So much attention to the readymade categories of consumption and anonymity helps space—and the inequality embodied in that space—to disappear. In both cases cited above, it is the economic distress embodied in the built environment that unsettles Babbitt, making him want to repress his awareness of its presence. Babbitt consciously puts on blinkers for the two blocks of Zenith that fail to deliver consumption-ready spaces, and the red light district that strikes fear in his comfortable middle-class heart.
That is to say, Babbitt and Babbitt fills in the spaces of the map that tend to be left as blank space with what suburban life wishes to cast out. But more than a careful and consistent image of house and office setting operates. The drive from his Reeves Building office to the Zenith Athletic Club moves him past assiduously catalogued buildings—the list goes on for two pages 46—47 —which all appear in the map Lewis drew. There could be anything there; what is in that section of Zenith for Babbitt is nothing.
Lewis plainly marks this discourse of suburban blindness to inequality through the literal presence of shabby buildings in both his prose and his map. Similarly, a poor neighbourhood in Monarch has the scary bare bones of small brown wooden cottages, a red light district, stocky women who simper, and violent automatic pianos whatever those are. Babbitt, but with the city and suburbs that he will occupy. A clear line separates the worlds of business and domesticity in Zenith: The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods.
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They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings … [A]nd on the farther hills were shining new houses, homes—they seemed—for laughter and tranquility 1. There was the isolated, best-not-remembered world in which he was a paratrooper. There was the matter of fact, opaque-glass-brick-partitioned world of places like the United Broadcasting Company and the Schanenhauser Foundation.
And there was the entirely separate world populated by Betsy and Janey and Barbara and Pete, the only one of the four worlds worth a damn. There must be some way in which the four worlds were related, he thought, but it was easier to think of them as entirely divorced from one another.