Suburban literature is the grandchild of literary nationalism, a 19th century movement in which writers attempted to create and celebrate distinct place-based literary traditions using the nation-state as their framework. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, literary nationalism birthed literary regionalism, a style of writing that prioritized the setting, dialect, customs, and landscape of a particular region. Suburban literature arrived with the suburbs in the mid-20th century.
This course examines the richness and complexity of suburbia’s multi-ethnic, -linguistic, and -cultural literary traditions from the mid-20th century to the present. We will encounter novels, tiktoks, HOA-approved-paint chips, music videos, and more on topics such as suburban aspiration and realism, the white flight movement, suburban gender tropes, and global suburbanization. However, suburban literature lacks the clear spatial boundaries of earlier place-based literatures. The suburbs are amorphous, sprawling, and globally dispersed.
What, then, ties the genre together?
It could be that the story takes place in a suburban setting. It might require the inclusion of suburban themes. Perhaps it’s dictated by suburban identity, of author, audience, or character. It might have to be written in the suburbs, or at least in the language of the suburbs. Does author intent or reader perception take all?
There are no prerequisites to this course beyond a willingness to consider the fallacies of categorical construction.
When did you learn that you could disagree with something you read? Some students claim they always knew; some learned as children. Others reached the realization as teenagers. As for myself, I didn’t realize I had the right to disagree with the teachers and texts I encountered until my early twenties. According to Oxford Languages, integrity is “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.”1 This includes being honest with oneself. In this course, and in all your future courses, hold fast to your academic integrity. Assess your reactions to what you encounter. If you disagree, don’t be afraid to admit it to yourself and don’t be afraid to communicate your thoughts to others. And don’t forget to cite your sources.
Part One: Setting
How does one recognize suburbia?2
- “Why So Many Suburbs Look the Same” (link)
- Homeowners Association Color Archive (link)
- ‘Fig. 6. A commuter flow-based regionalization of the United States’ from “An Economic Geography of the United States: From Commutes to Megaregions” (link)
- “How I Think About Map Design: Rural/Suburban/Urban Map” (link)
- Ross Racine’s Aerial Drawings (link)
- “A Defense of the Suburbs” (link)
Are place-based literatures more than their setting?
- Chang-rae Lee, My Year Abroad
- John Green and David Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson
Take note of the visual markers of suburbia in the following music videos. Though the footage spans nearly three decades, the architecture, clothing, and consumer products of white American suburbia work to create a cohesive and recognizable look. Consider how the lyrics convey different visions of the suburbs, despite the similarity of setting.
Rush 1982 Subdivisions
Ben Folds 2001 Rockin’ the Suburbs
Arcade Fire 2010 The Suburbs
Part Two: Structure
Can Suburban Literature escape the page?
- Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
- John Cheever, The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories
- “Non-literary Analysis: Textual Analysis” (link)
- Robert Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” (link)
- Assignment: Analyzing the landscape as a text, take a journey through your local suburbs. If a physical journey is inaccessible, meander through the streets of American suburb Chesterbrook, PA via Google Streetview (link)
Locate 3 analytical elements within your experience: purpose, audience, medium, tone, mood, motif, imagery, etc.
How do these elements shape your reading of the suburbs?
Part Three: Theme
Angst, Aspiration, Conformity, Consumerism, Domesticity, Girlhood, Gothic, Whiteness
- Ira Levin, The Stepford Wives
- Stewart O’Nan, Last Night at the Lobster
- Amy Bennet, “Neighbors” (link)
- Angela Strassheim, “Left Behind” (link)
- Tiktok, multiple contributors, “Suburban Black Girl” (link)
- Megan Abbott, The Fever
- “Dirt: TikTok and Suburban Gothic” (link)
- Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
- Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese
- Assignment: Choose one theme of suburban literature. Compare and contrast representations of that theme in the previously assigned readings. What additional themes do you notice?
Part Four: Character
Beyond the white American middle-class, property-owning heterosexual couple
- Jordan.ric, “Black Suburban Kid Jeopardy” (link)
- Gloria Naylor, Linden Hills
- Alejandro Cartagena, “Suburbia Mexicana” (link)
- Louise Hawson, “52 Suburbs Around the World” (link)
- Tom Perotta, Little Children
- Nick Vaughan & Jake Margolin, “A MARRIAGE: 1 (SUBURBIA)” (link)
- Michelle Cahill, Vishvarūpa
- Aaron Maier-Carretero, “Actually, I’m from the suburbs; I just say DC because it’s easier” (link)
- Assignment: What identities do you associate with suburbia? Reflect on the ways your prior conceptions limit or advance distinct character tropes within the genre.
Part Five: Intention
Created by the suburbs, for the suburbs. Literature?
- Meredith O’Brien, A Suburban Mom: Notes from the Asylum
- Library of Congress “Consumer Advertising… A Research Guide” (link)
- Amherst Police Report (link)
- A Short Discussion of Urban graffiti vs Suburban graffiti (link)
- HOA-USA Newsletter Archive (link)
- Resource of Outdoor Advertising Descriptions (ROAD) (link)
- Lemonade Stand (link)
- Assignment: Explore Duke University’s Ad*Access Project (link) Locate one advertisement addressed to a suburban audience. What markers indicated the audience of the piece?
- Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences
1 Oxford Languages, “Integrity,” accessed December 13, 2021, https://www.google.com/search?q=define+integrity&oq=define+integrity&aqs=chrome..69i57j0i512l9.2514j0j1&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8
2If only the suburbs had a mapping initiative as wonderfully visual as the Rural Indexing Project!
Suburban Literature cites the Rural Indexing Project, who have also contributed to Syllabus.