Many years ago, I was first exposed to the moral and cultural rot of suburbia – “the tragic sprawlscape of cartoon architecture, junked cities, and ravaged countryside” – in James Howard Kunstler’s book Home From Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World For The 21st Century:
“Calthorpe had the floor. Lean and urbane, Calthrope, forty-five, was in a humorously expansive mood. He proposed two theories. The first was The Stroke Theory. World War Two, he said, was so traumatic that it had caused the same kind of damage to western civilization that a cerebral hemorrhage can wreak on a human mind. It had made the advanced nations of the world lose some of their most important abilities, to forget their own history and culture, as a stroke victim loses his powers of speech, his memories, the particulars of his education. All the ghastly office buildings, banal dwellings, crappy commercial structures, and other common architectural garbage of our everyday world, Calthrope proposed, were like the inchoate squawkings and bleatings of a stroke victim who had lost the ability to express himself. This theory met with such general approbation that Calthrope went on to propose a second.
This was The Stupor Theory. World War Two, he said, was the high-tide of our fathers’ generation. All these American men in the full bloom of youth had marched off to a terrible war against manifest evil and won a decisive victory for democracy and decency. In the process, many of them had the adventures of a lifetime – moments of heroism, romances with grateful foreign girls, days and nights enjoying the spoils of liberated castles, profound friendships with army buddies, and, finally, the worshipful reception of the folks back home, with a sweet package of emoluments upon return to civilian life, including free college tuition and low-interest home mortgage loans.
These young men, Calthrope went on, were immediately absorbed into postwar corporate life, fitting well into large hierarchical organizations. Corporate life was familiarly regimented like the army, where so many of them had lately enjoyed their heroic exploits. They knew how to give and follow orders, and patiently await promotion.
The downside was that their greatest adventures were over, that life on the commuter platform with hundreds of other guys in gray flannel suits was in some elemental way an awful comedown. What was there to look forward to? Selling ten million units a month of Oaties breakfast cereal for decades to come? How did this compare to drinking seventy-year-old cognac in an Alsatian castle with a pistol strapped to your left and a seventeen-year-old French cutie in your lap, having spent the day slaughtering Nazis? Of course, there would be the compensations of family life, a nice house in those new suburbs, a shiny new car, the fabulous panoply of washers, driers, Mixmasters, TVs, hi-fi’s, and power mowers, autumn days teaching Princess dance in her toe shoes, summer evenings presiding over the backyard barbecue and … wait … was that all? Is that where it ended? Flipping hamburgers and wieners in a joke-bedizened apron and a clownish chef’s hat?
Well, yes, for a lot of them. This was what life had to offer after the stupendous adventure of World War Two. A whole generation of heroes slipped into a permanent semicoma, soothing their boredom and anomie with heavy doses of hard liquor – their beloved martinis – and living out the rest of their days in an alcoholic fog. This, Calthrope said, explained why the world they built for us – the suburban sprawl universe – was so incoherent, brutal, ugly, and depressing: they didn’t care about what they were building. They were drunk most of the time, in a stupor. (This also, he added with wicked parenthetical glee, explained feminism: a whole generation of daughters raised by emotionally remote, perpetually plastered fathers.)
These theories admittedly veer into burlesque, but there is still much to admire in them. The Stupor Theory especially comports with the phenomenon known among histories as The Victory Disease, the condition in which a nation’s military triumph carries with it the demoralizing seeds of its own later destruction. In The Geography of Nowhere I argued that the building of suburbia as a replacement for towns and cities in the United States was just such a self-destructive act. I attempted to describe the tragic process. I argued that the living arrangement Americans now think of as normal is bankrupting us economically, socially, ecologically, and spiritually. I identified the physical setting itself – the cartoon landscape of car-clogged highways, strip malls, tract houses, franchise fry pits, parking lots, junked cities, and ravaged countryside – as not merely the symptom of a troubled culture bit in many ways a primary cause of our troubles.”
I was reminded of that earlier this evening while reading about the Greatest Generation and the world the Baby Boomers were born into in suburbia in the twenty years after the Second World War. It was a new kind of physical setting that had not existed before on that scale.
The following excerpts come from Numan V. Bartley’s book The New South: 1945-1980:
“The same upper-middle-class people who were “intensely conscious of the place and role of their society, its economy and its culture,” were also the people most likely to “have lost – often they’ve consciously rejected – many elements of their traditional, ‘folk’ culture.” They were the population group least committed to communalism, familism, racism, fatalism, and the like. …
By 1980 approximately one-quarter of the southern work force held professional, proprietary, or managerial positions, which was probably a relatively accurate indicator of the size of the southern middle – statistically speaking, upper-middle – class. The suburbs became more self-contained, and the costlier suburbs became more insulated. People more often moved from one metropolitan suburb to another, while fewer migrated from the city to the more prestigious portions of the city’s periphery. Many of the new arrivals came from outside the region. In such ways, affluent southern suburbanites lived little differently from those elsewhere in the nation …”
By 1980, most Southerners lived in the new metropolitan areas and the upper middle class in the wealthier suburbs had become the new cultural and political elite. Power shifted away from the “small town rich man” of the county seats who had dominated the South in the previous era:
“The logic of their position – at least in its ideal form – supported the coming of a market society that further commodified both environment and people and subjected them more directly to the demands of the marketplace. The effect of modernist culture was to liberate individuals from restrictive cultural conventions and to sustain a commitment to self-fulfillment, self-achievement, and self-advancement.”
This was the ethos of the Me Generation of the 1970s who embraced the counter-culture and went from being hippies to yuppies.
“Autonomous individualism increasingly replaced the folk-culture, predominantly masculine, hell-of-a-fellow individualism of the past. The creation of a social system that upheld autonomous individualism and formal legal equality expanded the social and economic roles of women and African Americans and other minorities. It also requires the southern people to cope with perplexing social disruptions.
Southern suburbanites, like those elsewhere, were likely to be busy. Work – not family – defined identity. Educated women pursued careers as an avenue to self-fulfillment in a society that no longer accorded much deference to mothers and homemakers. …
Divorce became more common, smaller families the norm, and a declining proportion of households sheltered traditional nuclear families. Divorce and even desertion lost much of their stigma as marriage forfeited its moral and religious sanctity. In the pursuit of secular salvation through material enrichment, men and women changed marital partners far more frequently than ever before. The decimation of family was a phenomenon common to all levels of southern metropolitan society, but in the more prestigious neighborhoods it marked the erosion of elite support for the institution.”
It had not always been this way.
The change happened in the transition from the Greatest Generation to the Baby Boomer generation and primarily in the new elite metropolitan suburbs.
“The writers of the Southern Renaissance, who dominated southern literature until the midfifties and continued to influence it thereafter, had grown up before World War II. They were the products of communities in which, Louis D. Rubin has written, “all was fixed and ordered, and everyone knew everyone else, and who he was, and how and what his family was, and in which life seemed to hold few surprises. No matter how complex their narratives, William Faulkner and his generation had depicted a community-based society in which the past sat in judgment of the present. When Faulkner christened characters Montgomery Ward Snopes or Watkins Products Snopes, he did so not in tribute to consumerism but in derogation of their family lineage.
By the 1970s a new generation of writers dealt with a different region. The assumptions and perceptions upon which their works rested differed radically from those of their predecessors. Most significant was the almost complete absence of southern consciousness, historical awareness, and community and family verities. Fred Hobson, who analyzed the work of southern writers born during and after World War II, was struck by the “absence of nurturing family, community, and religion, those staples of traditional southern life and literature.” The result was “characters who inhabit shopping malls and drive-ins with no idea of and no concern for what was there fifty years before, no idea of how they fit into the whole picture, temporarily or spatially.” Insofar as communities entered the narrative at all, they were the female and black communities of Jill McCorkle, Alice Walker, and Ernest Gaines.”
Something even more tragic than the Civil Rights Movement happened to us between World War II and the Reagan era. We became these selfish, deracinated, materialistic consumers. We lost our sense of identity and our communities began to lose cohesion. We ceased to think of ourselves as being part of a larger whole with a past and a future which had been second nature to previous generations of Southerners down to the 1950s. The “mainstream” chose to fill this void with shame.