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Disturbia

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Why midcentury Americans believed the suburbs were making them sick 

Curbed, May 25, 2016

Picture a suburban housewife of the 1950s. Her name is Mrs. John Drone (Mary), and she lives in Rolling Knolls Estates, a new development of what the salesman calls “California Cape Cod Ramblers” on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. Whatever knolls might have rolled gently over the land at one time have been flattened for muddy streets of two-bedroom houses, named after famous conflicts of World War II.

One rainy morning on Bataan Boulevard, Mary hangs her washing on a clothesline in the living room and knocks her shin on her son’s tricycle. Pain shoots up her leg and she bursts into tears. Then the front door blows open, and she starts shouting:

‘Watch out, can’t you see the wash is up? You’re getting the wash all dirty.’ Mary very nearly screamed.

‘I’m sorry dear,’ a familiar, monotonous voice said.

‘Oh, it’s you,’ Mary said.

And it was. John Drone, master of all he surveyed, had returned to his castle and to the bosom of his admiring family. He closed the door.

Mary and John are the unfortunate (fictional) protagonists of The Crack in the Picture Window, published in 1957 by John Keats, a journalist at the now defunct Washington Daily News. A lacerating (and very funny) indictment of postwar suburbs as “fresh-air slums,” Keats’s polemic sold millions of copies in paperback. It revolves around the tragicomic story of the Drones, a nice young couple gulled, first, into buying a box at Rolling Knolls Estates, and then into thinking a larger, more expensive box in a different suburb could cure what ailed them.

When, near the start of the book, Mary hurts her leg and yells at her husband, Keats blames her agitation on her inadequate living space. If the house had had a basement, he notes, she could have hung the washing there rather than in the living room. If it had had more storage space, the tricycle wouldn’t have stood in her way. If it had had a separate dining room, rather than a rudimentary “dining alcove” off the kitchen, she wouldn’t have struggled to converse with a friend over the shouts of their children, which had frayed her nerves earlier the same day.

The problem was not Mary. It was her house:

[S]omewhere deep inside her she knew perfectly well that the house she inhabited had helped spoil her day; that it was harming her marriage and corroding her life. In fact, the corrosive process was well under way, for the Drones had lived in their new rambler for six months. The pattern of their lives was bearing out the truth in Winston Churchill’s dictum: ‘We shape our dwellings, and then our dwellings shape us.’

The shape of Mary’s dwelling was vile.

The Crack in the Picture Window was just one in a raft of books about suburban life that appeared steadily through the 1950s and 1960s. A few of these have become cultural touchstones: Richard Yates’s novel Revolutionary Road(1961) still disturbs with its portrait of a corroded marriage, dramatized in a 2008 film starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. John Cheever’s stories of gin-soaked afternoons filled with longing and regret still telegraph upper-middle-class suburban anomie.

But the books that didn’t last—forgotten volumes of pop sociology and psychology like Keats’s, and pulp fiction—can also tell us a lot about the preoccupations of midcentury Americans. Most strikingly, they reveal deep and widespread concern over the stability of mental and physical health in the new suburban environment. This was not confined to popular reading material; at academic conferences, speakers struck worried notes about the “one-class community” and the “filtered experience” of children growing up in a suburban setting.

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Photograph by Max Touhey