Jo Giles’ book The Poetics of the American Suburbs is the first academic study I have seen of poetry about or influenced by the suburbs. And the questions posed at the beginning of the book are worth considering – see Part One.
At the same time, the study of other cultural products or works about the suburbs is alive and well. Today, I will profile several academic studies involving novels and the suburbs. Poetry and novels might be very different forms of writing yet there is some overlap in themes. Additionally, writing and reading a novel might be more similar to poetry than other forms of cultural products – like television and film – which I will address tomorrow. (On Thursday, I will address a fourth category of works – music – that some commonalities with poetry.)
Two scholarly books, in particular, are great introductions to examining novels about the suburbs. In the 2001 book White Diaspora: The Suburb and the Twentieth Century American Novel, Catherine Jurca looks at how such works discuss the homelessness of suburbanites even as they have succeeded by acquiring the suburban single-family house and the representation of suburbanites as a whole – “empty white people” – as a sociological fact. In the Introduction, Jurca puts these two narrative strands together:
this study examines the tendency in twentieth-century literary treatments of the American suburb to convert the rights and privileges of living there into spiritual, cultural, and political problems of displacement, in which being white and middle class is imagined to have as much or more to do with subjugation as with social dominance.
Robert Beuka’s 2004 book SuburbiaNation: Reading Suburban Landscape in Twentieth Century American Film and Fiction emphasizes the important role of place and how fictional works addressed both fixed ideas about suburbs and variation within suburbia. From the end of the introduction of the book:
For the authors and filmmakers I discuss, the suburbs present a reflection of both the values and the anxieties of dominant U.S. culture. Their various gazes into the heterotropic “mirror” of suburbia reveal a landscape both energized and compromised by manifold cultural aspirations and fears.
These two books cover a lot of literary ground: there are a number of novels that explicitly address suburban life. Additionally, their analytical lenses help shed light on important themes and patterns. There are lived suburban experiences and then there are narratives about suburban life. Both are important and influence each other – both facts and interpretation matter for a full understanding of suburban life.
More broadly, novels are important. Long, important books are signs of culture and sophistication. I am thinking of sociologist Wendy Griswold’s work on the development of a reading culture that requires a number of elements to come into place for producers to create novels and a reading public to consume them. Perhaps it is not surprising that a number of novels and the suburbs converged given the significant social change of suburbanization as well as the development of the American literary scene. For novels and fictional works to coalesce around certain themes involving suburbia matters.
Tomorrow, several of the important scholarly works I have drawn on that analyze television and film representations of the suburbs.