Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Deeply rooted suburban fantasies maintain resonance

It's easy to get puzzled by the Trump-driven narrative shoring up his reelection prospects. As used as we think we are to the perspective that he has also imposed on the Republican Party, there are new swerves in his rhetorical aggressiveness. It's hard to keep up with them all.

A recent one was the inclusion of a prediction that Joe Biden, if elected, would destroy the suburbs. What was that all about, I wondered, until I saw Trump's tweeted warning to "suburban housewives of America."

"Housewives"! Were they twisting their hands nervously in immaculate aprons as they looked out the kitchen window at a perfect lawn and a white picket fence? It fell into place: the Trump slogan "Make America Great Again" focuses squarely on the dream of a pristine suburbia.

Suburban dreams in the makIng: Levittown under construction
And that means solidly white enclaves, the heritage of the Levittown developments that followed World War II, the metastasized suburbia enabled not only by the mass transit around a few metropolitan areas, but by the proliferating cross-town expressways that promised quick access to cities where white-collar work was concentrated and back again to a haven purposely designed to put people among their own kind.

Prejudice — the othering of minority groups — was built into the triumph of the American suburb. Today, the perceived disaster of a Biden victory is presumed to carry with it the completion of racial and ethnic integration. Typically Trump casts his mind into a way-back machine picturing a suburbia not anywhere as diverse as it has become. It's a world where it's OK to think of the women whose votes he is likely to lose in November as housewives.

In big cities, competing ethnic groups have learned to sort of get along over the past century or so. They have to mingle somewhat in the conduct of daily life. There have been dramatic flare-ups, of course, but these have also served as warnings to suburbanites. And urban strife, along with federally designed escape routes and legal exclusions, has been pictured as something the suburbs can avoid.

Big-city irony would shift to suburbs
But it's not easy: A party of black teenagers in a Dallas suburb leads to a police officer wrestling a bikini-clad girl to the ground. Scary, yes, but worlds away from the 1919 race riot in Chicago sparked by a black swimmer crossing into water considered exclusive to whites. That event is among the markers of the prejudice that warps the maturation of the hero of James T. Farrell's "Studs Lonigan." And the lines are fiercely maintained: Though Studs and his gang include, with some disparagement, a Jewish pal, the neighborhood slut draws the line at accommodating him in the bedroom. She has her standards.

In the large cities, the inevitable meltdown of ethnic purity creates dream worlds that Philip Roth, in the heavily ironic title of one of his best novels, called "American Pastoral." Trump's suburbia is still populated by the legacy of the American diaspora, and he suspects it's kind of a last stand. His housewives and their commuting husbands ("Honey, I'm home!") are the shepherdesses and swains updated from the classic pastoral.

Roth was writing about his hometown, Newark. In the nearby city of Paterson, Allen Ginsberg grew up. The Jewish middle class of which they were a part had a place in the big cities that their people  did not easily find in the suburbs. One of those north New Jersey towns was home to my paternal grandfather, who once told my mother that he would never sell his home to a Jew. When I told his sister, my great-aunt, that I was headed to Harvard to begin graduate school, she replied crisply: "I don't like Harvard — too many Hebrews."

It was a world of casual bias, radiating from the WASP establishment out through the Jewish populace and into black and brown communities. Towns that were wealthy enough to keep their independent character could morph into suburbs of the metropolis and remain white havens.

Ezra Pound nailed a prejudice he linked to the suburbs.
In a  1967 conversation with Ezra Pound in Venice, Ginsberg heard this confession from the older  poet, who had slid out of the charge of treason for incendiary World War II broadcasts into a mental hospital, which, unpleasant though it was, eventually yielded to an old age in calm Italian exile: "The worst mistake I made," Pound said, "was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism."

Why "suburban"? Pound's  admission fingers the culture that sustained prejudice. If rural America was hostile to outsiders, it rarely had to be inconvenienced by them. And the big city allowed groups to self-segregate socially while keeping commerce uneasily, and unequally, integrated. Suburban anxiety was unique, built upon the fear of loss, hopefully a remote nightmare. To keep the fear at bay, the illusion of suburban purity, of households headed by June and Ward Cleaver, had to be maintained. The fiction is still powerful, Trump hopes. Suburbia is the fulcrum.

"The commuter towns and leafy developments circling Philadelphia and other U.S. cities — areas with increasing racial diversity and a growing number of college-educated voters — have been a clear source of trouble for the president and his party," says a July 25 Associated Press article, headlined "Trump plays on fears in campaigns for suburbs."

In his Paris Review interview, Pound told Donald Hall that tales of his post-frontier origin in Hailey, Idaho, could offer little explanation of his iconoclastic ways. "I grew up  near Philadelphia. The suburbs of Philadelphia." The adjective "suburban" was thus wisely chosen as an indicator of his notorious prejudice. Later in the interview, Pound said truly: "We suffer from the use of language to conceal thought and to withhold all vital and direct answers." That's one of many possible answers that could be put forward to explain the attractions of suburbanism.

And the suburban mindset might well be universal. In his expansive 1940 poem "New Year Letter," W.H. Auden describes humanity as "The children of a modest star, / Frail, backward, clinging to the granite / Skirts of a sensible old planet, / Our placid and suburban nurse."

The image is one that hints at desperation, an unavoidable dependence that we can't free ourselves from. Events may properly suggest that our earthly home is neither "sensible" nor "placid," but we are inclined to say well, let's go with that. Our suburban dreams demand it. That's what Trump and his supporters are counting on.

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