American Literary History 15.2 (2003) 409-421
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American Suburbia and the Classless Middle Class
When I was a college girl, I used to like to smoke cigarettes with my friends. And one of my friends would always light her matches from a particular brand of matchbook that featured the drawing of a woman holding an airborne little boy as she stretched out her body at a breakneck speed. This, Karen explained, was a picture of going nowhere fast. I had grown up in a series of upper-middle-class suburbs, each one almost completely white, and I had no idea that this phrase had an existence that preceded the specific flair and ache of my friend Karen. I thought it was an excellent phrase, one that explained absolutely everything about my whole life.
Three recent books make variations on the theme of going nowhere fast central to their analyses of the American white middle class and its twentieth-century habitat of choice, the suburb. In Around Quitting Time: Work and Middle-Class Fantasy in American Fiction, Robert Seguin focuses on literary texts written between 1900 and 1955 that help to illuminate a liminal state of "imagined mobility fuse[d] with stasis" that he views as key to the historical emergence of "middle-classlessness" (11, 4). In White Diaspora: The Suburb and the Twentieth-Century American Novel, Catherine Jurca examines best-selling novels from roughly the same period to understand why suburbanites feel homeless at home, trapped in lives which provide material comfort at the cost of "spiritual, cultural and political problems of displacement" so intense as to redefine the nation's most privileged citizens as "transients who will never get to move" (4, 147). A focus on the suburban domestic space as "a vehicle for transport" (2) caught up in media-inspired fantasies of global and intergalactic travel links several of the essays in Lynn Spigel's wide-ranging collection Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs. All three books concern themselves with the politics of location even as they each identify a distinct way in which something peculiarly [End Page 409] dislocated or unlocatable typifies both the American middle class and the suburban experience. At the same time, these books mark out the contours of a new convergence: literary critics, long engaged in the study of nineteenth-century discourses of bourgeois domesticity, join media critics in scrutinizing the home ground created by and for the American white middle class in the last century. 1 While the very overlap in their analyses points us to the first fruits of this convergence, each book also presents a carefully constructed and original argument that demands to be read on its own terms.
Seguin's focus on the "socio-semantic structure" of middle-classlessness in Around Quitting Time is motivated by a desire to "catch class at the moment of its disappearance" (3, 16). The fact of this disappearance becomes a crucial source of concern for a scholar who posits wage labor as "the central mediation that grounds social organization and through which this last might be changed" and thus continues to endorse "the unique historical vocation of the working class" (7, 122). For Seguin, the moment "around quitting time" is "a fleeting period when labor and leisure effectively interpenetrate one another" and when it is thus possible to imagine "a transfigured work and a transfigured leisure" (22, 33). Textual inscriptions of this moment recombine features of both the frontier and the pastoral and, in doing so, join a series of other liminal spaces, states, and statuses that share the same contradictory and unstable fusion of motion and stillness. As documented in the texts Seguin has selected, this series includes the classless middle class (94...