The Introduction to Jo Gill’s The Poetics of the American Suburbs starts with a question and conclusion from a 1989 essay by Philip Nicholson:
“Who sings the song of suburbia? Where is its poet?” In his conclusion he answers his own question firmly and in the negative: “There is no official school or philosophy of suburban culture; just as there is not poet, artist, or sculptor to present its voice, its face, or the dimensions of its imagination” (206, 208). (Gill 2013:1)
Before I go on to read the entirety of Gill’s text, these are provocative questions about who speaks for the suburbs and whether there is a specific suburban culture. I will offer a few thoughts on these questions today and then in subsequent posts highlight several scholars whose work I appreciate in helping to answer these questions regarding cultural products and suburbs.
The question of who speaks for the suburbs is a fascinating one. Particularly in the postwar era, the suburbs are often discussed as a mass of largely white residents flocking to new subdivisions. Is there anything interesting about this mass? Later academic works help explain important variations across suburbia – like Andrew Wiese’s Places of Their Own or My Blue Heaven by Becky Nicolaides – but it was relatively rare to even get in-depth studies of suburban life – such as The Levittowners by Herbert Gans or The Moral Order of the Suburbs by M. P. Baumgartner – as it was happening. This mass was critiqued from numerous sides for its conformity, consumerism, and exclusion, among other issues.
There is indeed a specific suburban culture. The particular way of life connected to the American suburbs involves single-family homes, an emphasis on family life, driving, exclusion, middle-class expectations and lifestyles, a preference for local government, and proximity to nature. See my seven posts on Why Americans Love Suburbs. But, I suspect this is not the target of Nicholson’s question. What great cultural works have come out of the suburbs or what ideas and works have been created with a suburban ethos? A typical look at this might instead emphasize the consuming nature of suburbs where suburbanites take in culture from elsewhere rather than focusing on what is produced in suburban settings. And if culture is produced in the suburbs, is it worth considering or is it tacky and low-brow?
Tomorrow, I will continue the discussion of academic work that examines cultural products and suburbs by focusing on works that I have drawn on in my own research on this topic.