The thumbnail social history of the United States, as Godfrey Hodgson (the author of America in Our Time) once phrased it to me, is as follows: agrarian population moves as soon as it can to the cities, and then consummates the process by evacuating the cities for the suburbs. More Americans now live in the suburbs than anywhere else, and more do so by choice. Anachronisms of two kinds persist in respect of this phenomenon. The first is the apparently unshakable belief of political candidates that they will sound better, and appear more authentic, if they can claim to come from a small town (something we were almost spared this year, until the chiller from Wasilla). The second is the continued stern disapproval of anything “suburban” by the strategic majority of our country’s intellectuals. The idiocy of rural life? If you must. The big city? All very well. Bohemia, or perhaps Paris or Prague? Yes indeed. The suburbs? No thank you.
The achievement of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road was to anatomize the ills and woes of suburbia while simultaneously satirizing those suburbanites and others who thought that they themselves were too good for the ’burbs. It is also the reason why the novel can seem, and in the literal sense is, dated. Published in 1961 and set in 1955, this psychodrama of an ambitiously named development in Connecticut (the source of Yates’s superbly misleading title) recalls us to the period that saw the publication of David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), the pop sociology of men like William H. Whyte and Vance Packard, whose critiques The Organization Man (1956) and The Hidden Persuaders (1957) made American business seem impersonal and cynical, and—if this isn’t too fanciful—Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Malvina Reynolds’s song “Little Boxes,” both of which made their debut in 1962. Pete Seeger had a huge success of his own with the song, which ridiculed the harmless citizens of Daly City, California, and gave us the word ticky-tacky. No less a man than Tom Lehrer was to say that it was “the most sanctimonious song ever written,” but this insight would be buried by later developments in the ’60s, when removal to the suburbs became a polite synonym for “white flight” (see the mythscape of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Detroit). When Bertrand Russell published his first short-story collection, in 1953, there was something predictable in the fact that it was titled Satan in the Suburbs and Other Stories. Hollywood has since had considerable fun with that trope, and bids fair to do so again when Revolutionary Road comes to the screen, starring the Titanic duo of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.