There are diametrically opposed views of life in the suburbs that will never go away — and you can already guess what they are because, at the very least, you’ve watched Mad Men and reruns of Leave It to Beaver. One view expresses the dark, despairing futility of “keeping up appearances,” a façade corroded by booze, depression, and infidelity; the other embraces the bliss of domesticity accessorized by happy, well-adjusted children and Eden-like lawns and gardens.
Deep-rooted in popular culture, these retro-tropes are so imbedded in the public consciousness that they have become clichés.
The opposing team captains in this philosophical tug of war are John Cheever and Phyllis McGinley, whose writings defined the suburban zeitgeist of the postwar years, roughly between 1950 and 1970, when Westchester’s population exploded by 43%. Both lived in affluent corners of the county — Cheever in Scarborough (an unincorporated neighborhood divided between Briarcliff Manor and Ossining village) and McGinley in the Manor section of Larchmont. Both won the Pulitzer Prize (he for his heavy short stories, she for her light verse). Both were pigeonholed, with Cheever dubbed the “Chekov of the Suburbs,” while McGinley was a self-described creator of “sonnets for the suburbs.”
Cheever’s fiction is filled with flawed characters, but it would be a mistake to say that he condemned the country life. Nevertheless, this impression may persist because of a passage from an essay he wrote that is frequently taken out of context. Titled “Moving Out,” the essay appeared in Esquire in 1960, when Cheever had achieved literary acclaim and was preparing to leave New York City for a home in Westchester.
My God, the suburbs! They encircled the city’s boundaries like enemy territory, and we thought of them as a loss of privacy, a cesspool of conformity and a life of indescribable dreariness in some split-level village where the place-name appeared in the New York Times only when some bored housewife blew off her head with a shotgun.
My God, what a grim assessment! Readers of novelist Richard Yates’ brilliant but relentlessly depressing Revolutionary Road (1961) would recognize it. Actually, Cheever was trying to be funny: He was using irony to expose an anti-suburban snobbery held by him and his sophisticated Manhattan friends, who could never imagine living anywhere else. Later in the essay, he declares, “The truth is that I’m crazy about the suburbs and I don’t care who knows it.” Further on, he writes that while happily fishing in the Hudson River with his sons, he salutes the city-bound trains “without a trace of longing or envy.”
Cheever was the whitest of white men, and while he affected Waspishness, he was haunted by personal demons, all of them painfully examined by his daughter, Susan, in her 1984 memoir, Home Before Dark. “Drink,” she wrote, “was his crucible, his personal hell.”
Thematic self-destruction permeates Cheever’s short stories, and so they are seen as negative testimonials to the suburban experience.
“Cheever [was] dubbed the ‘Chekov of the Suburbs,’ while McGinley was a self-described creator of ‘sonnets for the suburbs.’”
Not so with McGinley. Using a light touch and subtle humor, she captured the suburbs through the prism of perpetual springtime. Her 1951 poem I Know a Village begins:
I know a village full of bees.
And gardens lit by canna torches
Where all the streets are named
And people visit on their porches.
These days, McGinley is a literary relic from the age of station wagons, twice-a-day mail delivery, and families sitting down to Sunday dinner. Considered out of step with the modern feminist movement, she was culturally cashiered — relegated to the nostalgia bin, alongside fellow Larchmonter Jean Kerr of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies fame.
As great as he was, Cheever also seems ancient today. There’s no Zoom in his stories, no cellphones, no internet, no social media, and no working women. In the wake of the COVID-19 virus, the suburban landscape is rapidly changing. As more and more people find it convenient to work from home, the briefcase-carrying commuter — once a reliable mainstay in the Cheever ecosystem — might well become a rare species.
Nevertheless, Cheever’s legacy endures. His journey to the dark side of the human psyche is ably carried on by Jennifer Weiner, Tom Perrotta, and many other contemporary writers who set their stories in the well-watered lawns of suburbia.
As for the poet McGinley, well, her spirit lives on, too. Or at least it should. Westchester was her home, and she appealed to its better angels.
Many years ago, she wrote that kindness is “a virtue neither modern nor urban,” but possible in a town where “one needs a neighbor on whom to practice compassion.”
The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org