Are the suburbs truly American?

The suburbs are a key part of American life: a majority of Americans live in them and they are part of the American Dream. So can we really ask whether they are truly American?

In his review of American Horror Story, which premieres tonight on FX, Slate’s TV critic Troy Patterson writes that the show’s “title carries more weight than its content can bear.” He then quotes a book review by Joyce Carol Oates of Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife:

Is there a distinctly American experience? The American, by Henry James; An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser; The Quiet American, by Graham Greene; The Ugly American, by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick; Philip Roth’s American Pastoral; and Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho—each suggests, in its very title, a mythic dimension in which fictitious characters are intended to represent national types or predilections…. ‘American’ is an identity fraught with ambiguity, as in those allegorical parables by Hawthorne in which ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are mysteriously conjoined.

But wait: Are only Americans “fraught with ambiguity”? Oates lets these titles—and, especially, the many, many lesser books she might have mentioned—off the hook too easily. Too many books—and movies, and now TV shows—use the word “American” in their titles as a cheap shortcut to gravitas and sociological importance…

Besides bullying us with their national import, these titles often reinforce the fairly exaggerated ideas we tend to have about the uniqueness of this country. There are many things particular to and remarkable about the United States, but let’s not get carried away. Capitalism is not uniquely American (sorry, American Psycho). Suburbs are not uniquely American (sorry, American Beauty—the movie, I mean; and yes, plastic bags float in the wind in other countries, too).

This seems related to American exceptionalism: we like to think we have done everything in the best way. Perhaps we have the best capitalistic system. (A lot of people might argue with this these days.) But to pick on the suburbs here seems misguided: are there really other countries in the world that can match the American suburbs? A few countries have suburbs like ours such as Australia and Canada. Most other developed nations have limited suburban developments and sometimes they are the inverse of American suburbs where the wealthier live closer to the center of the cities and the poor live more on the edges. But Australia and Canada have relatively few people compared to the United States and I’m not sure they have the same suburban culture that pervades their national identity.

Perhaps we are particularly jingoistic in our naming but the American suburbs do seem to be uniquely American.

2 thoughts on “Are the suburbs truly American?

  1. Pingback: French suburbs moving away from mainstream French culture | Legally Sociable

  2. Pingback: Why Americans love suburbs: An introduction and seven parts | Legally Sociable

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