Literature Response Focusing on Suburbia Thesis

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¶ … Suburbia

The fulfillment of the "American Dream" was supposed to be there, and millions of Americans certainly tried to find it in the suburbs. Like the participants in a gold rush, though, although some Americans managed to find their dream in suburbia, many others ended up disillusioned, deceived, divorced and broke - or worse. In not a few cases, suburbanites living their lives of quiet desperation ended up taking their own lives as well as the lives of others in the process. In the readings, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir by D.J. Waldie, the Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, and Welcome to the Dream House by Lynn Spigel as well as the classic motion picture, "The Swimmer" directed by Frank Perry, suburbia is often portrayed as a problematic, even dangerous environment for American men. This response paper provides a review of these readings and an analysis of the movie to determine if this was in fact the case, together with supporting rationale.

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Thesis on Literature Response Focusing on Suburbia Assignment

Following the end of World War II, millions of Americans flocked to the suburbs in an attempt to secure their piece of the American pie as well as to avoid the floods of African-Americans teeming into the northern cities in a process that has been termed "white flight." Consequently, the suburbia of the post-World War II era was one characterized by certain segments of the population seeking to avoid other segments of the population by sequestering themselves in what were intended to be utopian pockets of existence. According to Spigel, "Despite the Civil Rights movement and fair housing legislation of the 1960s, from 1960 to 1977, 4 million whites moved out of central cities, while the number of whites living in suburbs increased by twenty-two million. During the same years, the inner city black population grew by 6 million" (2001, p. 16). It would seem reasonable, then, to characterize the suburbia of the latter half of the 20th century as primarily a white American experience that was profoundly different from life in the big city. In this regard, Spigel adds that, "Postwar America witnessed a significant shift in traditional notions of neighborhood. Mass-produced suburbs such as Levittown, New York, and Park Forest, Illinois, replaced previous forms of public space with a newly defined aesthetic of prefabrication" (2001, p. 33).

These upscale but mass produced suburbs welcomed everyone, so long as they fit the intended American dream mold: "At the center of the suburban space," Spigel writes, "was the young, upwardly mobile middle-class family; the suburban community was designed to correspond with and reproduce patterns of nuclear family life" (p. 33). Other Americans who failed to meet these criteria, including "older people, gay and lesbian people, homeless people, unmarried people, and people of color" were simply not welcome and were "relegated back to the cities" (2001, p. 33). This is not to say, though, that the suburbs were squeaky-clean white places in their entirety. It is to say, though, that the suburban experience was largely relegated to white people. According to Spigel, "Although the attempt to zone out 'undesirables' was never totally successful, this antiseptic model of space was the reigning aesthetic at the heart of the postwar suburb" (p. 34).

In the process of this suburbanization, some young, upwardly mobile middle-class - which is to say white -- American families apparently managed to overcome the ugly downsides of suburbia and succeed in shaping new lives for themselves that were typified by a happy family life and meaningful professional careers. Others, though, who likely outnumbered the successful and happy ones by far, found that the move to the suburbs was a definite mistake, and their lives ended up far different than that promised by the American dream. The several readings and motion picture identified in the introduction would appear to confirm that suburbia was not only a problematic place to live, it could be downright dangerous as well. For example, an old saying suggests that "you can never go home," and this adage was borne out in the 1968 motion picture, "The Swimmer," where the "Lucinda River," named for his wife, appeared to represent a novel and fun way for Ned Merrill to return to his former apparently happy life in suburbia.

In fact, Merrill was well and enthusiastically received by his old friends at the top of the hill where the idea first occurred to him. As he proceeded to swim the series of pools back to his formerly stately residence, his several encounters with former friends and associates convinced him that the idea might not have been so good after all. This metaphoric descent into the depths of despair was poignant evidence that Ned had been deluded into a certain way of thinking and his slow-but-sure recognition of what was reality was apparent as he moved from swimming pool to swimming pool. Indeed, despite Merrill's assertions that "I knew we would encounter lots of friends on the way," the level of friendliness and receptiveness diminished the farther down the hill he traveled until his receptions became outright hostile.

Indeed, Merrill began his sojourn happy as a lark, and ran and jumped like a school kid full of energy at first. After five pools and five cocktails, though, things began to turn dark for the swimmer and his penultimate visit to a public pool, where he was compelled to borrow 50 cents for admission, provided Merrill with the epiphany he was searching for, even if it was not the one he wanted. Upon learning what his daughters truly thought of him, Merrill ended up in a sobbing ball on the front porch of his former residence, which was not vacant of his belongings and his family. Merrill's financial difficulties are only alluded to, but is becomes apparent that the relationship between Ned and his wife was not good, and he had experienced some financial setbacks in the recent past. For example, the exchange between Ned and the nudist couple, the Hallorans, lounging by their pool making snide comments about their neighbors is indicative of the mutual contempt in which many suburbanites held each other, and Ned's financial setbacks were alluded to by the husband who lamented to Ned that he was sorry he could not have helped him out during his time of crisis. Ned's response, that he did not recall asking for his help, apparently surprised both Hallorans but did not convince them that Ned would not be back for a loan in the future. Clearly, the "Lucinda River" provided Merrill with a way to get home, but it was a dangerous trip and did not provide him with his desired outcome. It would seem that for this well-intended but misguided individual, suburbia was a truly dangerous place in which to try to live.

Likewise, in his book, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, Waldie reports the experience of another suburbanite on a river. According to Waldie, "The San Gabriel River is paralleled by a trail maintained by the county for joggers and bikers. The trail goes from Long Beach to Whittier, a distance of about fifteen miles.... There have been robbers on the trail. One involved a father and his infant son. The man was jogging, pushing his son in a light aluminum-and-nylon stroller. They were confronted by three teenage boys. They demanded the man's wallet" (2005, 113-114). These teenagers picked a poor target for their mugging attempts, though, and the man turned out to be an off-duty policeman. When one of the teenagers threatened his infant son with a knife, the officer pulled a handgun from his backpack, shot one of the teenagers twice, with one of the shots splitting his spine. Although the author does not elaborate on the wounded teenager's ultimate fate, he does note that, "Paralyzed, the boy fell backward and over the edge of the path. He slid down the sloping levee wall to the floor of the river, which is nearly always dry" (Waldie 2005, 114).

Like Ned Merrill, Frank and April Wheeler also live in a Connecticut suburb in Richard Yates's book, Revolutonary Road. It is clear that the Wheelers, though, resemble the nudist couple in "The Swimmer" more than Merrill's own initially naive views about his so-called friends. For example, Frank is enthusiastic about the move to suburbia at first: "You know what this is like, April? it's like coming out of a Cellophane bag. it's like having been encased in some kind of Cellophane for years without knowing it, and suddenly breaking out" (p. 97). After he gets some firsthand experience with suburbia, though, Frank's views take a 180 degree turn and he becomes clearly contemptuous of his fellow suburbanites: "It's all the idiots I ride with on the train every day. it's a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity" (Yates 1961, p. 44). A similar emotion is voiced in "The Swimmer" where Ned's friends… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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