Why Do We Hate the Suburbs?

Suzannah Lessard on E.M. Forster, Bipartisan Snobbery, and the Language of Place

By  Suzannah Lessard

One summer day a few years ago, when the stream was brown and racing, I set out across the Hudson River to a village in the Connecticut Berkshires to visit a friend. Caroline is 20 years my senior, an interesting interval that makes us a short generation apart. Generations today are separated by vastly different experiences of a changing world, but Caroline and I share a language of place-love that can bridge that gap easily. These languages are not the same as what linguists look at but are rather skeins of references, usually to the natural world, regional or even local, that have emotional meaning to people who live there.

Paumanok, for example, is my name for a pre-suburban Long Island place language, a subcategory of mid-Atlantic, and there are Berkshire and Helderberg, which are related, belonging to the larger group I think of as Northeastern—but different, like dialects of Italian. If Paumanok speakers say, “The beach plums are ripe,” that evokes not only the dunes where they grow, not just the plums, and the sweet-sour taste of the deep red-purple jam that can be made from them, but also continuity going back, not just through human generations—certain kitchens, certain people, long gone, momentarily alive in the reference to beach plums—but the whole tapestry of a former way of life, now vanished, and, even, the longer history of the place where beach plums grow, back to prehistory as we think of the time of native tribes. (I haven’t been able to ascertain whether Long Island tribes used beach plums: they are very sour and require a lot of sugar to become palatable.)

There is a special intimacy in using place-language, usually unspoken, and the deepest level of the feeling communicated is of the way place itself transcends, connects. The associations are usually unspoken, their presence more likely conveyed with a glance or an especially tender way of spreading beach plum jam on toast. An equivalent in the Helderbergs might be “The ramps are in,” meaning a kind of wild leek that pops up in dense clusters in the forests before almost any other green has arrived, standing out spookily against the dead brown of the forest floor. I’d never heard of ramps when I came here, but knowing beach plum language I had an inkling of what they meant, and that helped me into the local landscape. When a basket of ramps was left anonymously on my porch, I knew that meant more, than, say, zucchinis. Wildness is a part of it. Place-love language can also convey a sense of uncanniness. On a mid-Atlantic coast, crows on the beach, on a windy late October day, are an unusual sight, conveying something reckless afoot, perhaps transgressive. I don’t yet know Helderberg well enough to cite an equivalent but am on the lookout.

Caroline and I are both native speakers of mid-Atlantic. Berkshire and Helderberg, respectively, are second languages for each of us: she doesn’t know Helderberg at all, while I have only a visitor’s smattering of Berkshire. So it was native fluency in mid-Atlantic that provided a language of powerful connection. Yet over time a kind of anxiety, a sense of generational alienation, had begun to undermine this, and not just with Caroline. I had begun to repeatedly have a feeling of my elders, sitting smug, safe, and oblivious in a seemingly intact world on one side of an abyss, abandoning me to horrid loss and exile on the other.

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Caroline perceives the changes in the world from a perspective that evidently does not require her to question her beliefs about the landscapes she loves, nor does she feel any necessity to engage imaginatively with the new one engulfing us. I, in contrast, feel I have no choice, and that goes deep with me, is indeed the driving force of this whole exploration, an adventure from which I do not want to turn back. But when I feel generationally abandoned, self-pity takes over. How could I be stranded in this way, and Caroline not, when there is only 20 years between us? I can find myself wanting to strip her beautiful faith in the constancy of the places she loves from her, forcing her to come with me, even as I keep that faith for myself in my pocket almost like a secret vice.

And yet, at another time, we will communicate just fine, and I know that what I really want is company. I want someone to mourn with me who knows what is being mourned, and maybe a bit of applause for my struggle to let go of attachments and step into a reimagined world from someone who understands the cost. That’s not a longing that goes well with being an explorer.

How does he get away with romanticizing feudalism while demonizing democratization, which is surely what that line of approaching sameness was?

In the week before going across the river to visit Caroline, I had been reading Howards End, a novel by the English writer E.M. Forster, published in 1910. I hadn’t read it since I was a young woman, when I loved it for affirming the value of the country landscape, though in English place-love translation. Indeed Howards End is a story written wholly in the language of place-love—and, place-hate, sometimes. The title is the name of a house and the lands around it that, while modest enough, represent the old landowning aristocracy of England that originated in feudal times.

The novel contains the phrase for which Forster is most famous: “Only connect!” It is the deep inner thought of his heroine, Margaret, an urbane person who learns from Howards End—the place, and the people who live there—the limits of cultural refinement and, above all, the supreme importance of a natural connective warmth between human beings that arises out of an older relationship to place and that was fast disappearing in a “commercial age.”

Human feelings are very much the subject of Howards End. The paragon of good in the novel is Ruth Wilcox, the aristocratic owner of Howards End when we first encounter it, who has a mystical connection to the place beyond normal language. Living on the estate, too, are people whose ancestors worked the land, still practicing customs dating from pre-Christian times. The pigs’ teeth embedded in the trunk of the wych elm that spreads over the house are the most concise image in the novel of the spiritual vitality of those roots. The foil to that spiritual vitality are Ruth’s husband and sons, unsentimental businessmen who don’t like Howards End because it has no modern conveniences. The true antagonist, however, the embodiment of the worst of the “commercial age,” is the loathsome tide of suburban sameness creeping inexorably out from London toward the house and its lands.

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Forster was a humanist and progressive in ways that were daring for his time. And yet for these poor suburbanites he has so little love that he does not even bother to imagine them on the page. When I first read the book, and this second time, too, the question pressed at the edges of my enjoyment: How does he get away with romanticizing feudalism while demonizing democratization, which is surely what that line of approaching sameness was? What struck me this time was the longevity of the attitude. It seems not to have budged one bit in a century, our having passed into an entirely new era notwithstanding. But I saw something else, which I might not have seen had the era not changed: that I loved the village landscape because it was country, but also because of what it wasn’t—because it wasn’t suburbia, and that not being suburbia had, over time, become a part of the definition of “country” for me. Since I would be spending the night across the river I took Howards End, which I had not quite finished, with me.

Soon after my arrival we set out to meet Caroline’s friend Kate for lunch at a restaurant in a nearby village. Kate was about 12 years Caroline’s junior—that is to say, between us in age—and deeply fluent in Berkshire. Somehow suburban development cropped up in the conversation: how awful it was, and why it is that “Americans”—as if Caroline and Kate and I were not American—feel they have to have a freestanding house on a piece of land.

Off they went, the two of them, both with their beautiful old houses and even more soulful gardens, on the emptiness of the suburban dream. All about what a crime the destruction of the countryside was, and not one word about what those houses, those small plots of land, might mean to those who owned them, let alone the fairness of distributing a little to many rather than sticking with a lot for a few.

Of course I knew what they meant; they were speaking to my deepest springs of place-love. And yet, wrestling, as I was, with the paradox of Howards End, I felt I would blow my top any minute. We were in one of the most fashionable parts of the Berkshires, pastoral though it appeared to be. Didn’t they realize that the “countryside” they loved was really a kind of picturesque park, an amenity, a redoubt of privilege? Didn’t they see that they hated suburbia because it was an intrusion on that comfortable and exclusive bastion?

“Suburbia is an English invention,” I said, as a way to catch them off guard in their righteousness—a clever strategy because I knew Englishness had cozy associations of landscape authenticity for them. But then I faltered. I knew from experience that there is no winning against suburbophobia. That night I finished Howards End, closing it, for all my quibbles, with satisfaction. Illogical as Forster’s assumptions might be, his book had survived the crossing into our new era.

What is lost for us with the suburban development of the landscape?

Raymond Williams was a Welsh literary critic who came along a couple of generations after Forster, and who took as his subject the meanings with which we infuse landscape and place. He invented the excellent phrase “structure of feeling,” for those powerful combinations of emotions and ideas that we attach to landscape— among other aspects of culture—to the point that we don’t even notice them because they have become a part of our emotional and intellectual lives. A structure of feeling to which he paid special attention is the idea, to be found in much literature, of a golden past, as embodied in the memory of an idyllic landscape, in comparison with which the present is degraded.

He then showed what the supposedly golden ages really were: never golden. Williams’ focus was on landscapes of the past, both real and mythical. The one venture he made into 20th-century suburbia was coining the trenchant phrase “mobile privatism” for that way of life—but not, as far as I know, examining our contemporary attitudes toward suburbia, or our sense of an earlier golden age, which I find interesting, given that, coming two generations after Forster, he lived well into the period of the suburbanization of England. But that, perhaps, reflects the scholar’s wise caution about wading into one’s own time. Still, we can surely use Williams’s wonderful conception to say that the opinion that country is good and suburbia is bad—which the tone of the phrase “mobile privatism” might be said to reflect—is a structure of feeling deep set in the progressive mind of our times.

Something I admire about Williams is that, despite his commitment to bursting bubbles of illusion with facts, he doesn’t mistake his scholarly debunking for the last word. He is engaged with a range of ways of knowing landscape, of which scholarship is just one. For example, he wrote a two-volume novel that begins in geological time, and in which, I have been told, the mountains of Wales are a major character. I confess I have not rushed to read this novel. But I love the way giving the mountains an important part in the novel implicitly acknowledges the ultimately strange yet intimately powerful presence of landscape in our lives, that there is always more to the meaning of landscape than service as a stage set for our doings; that it is always a bit beyond us.

What is especially puzzling to me about the suburbophobic structure of feeling is that it is as rampant in progressive circles as it is among the upper class, especially “old money” landowners who have a natural interest in preserving landscapes not only steeped in family tradition but representing a society in which their position has long been one of privilege.

Suzannah Lessard
Suzannah Lessard
Suzannah Lessard is the bestselling author of The Architect of Desire, a New York Times Notable Book. A founding editor of The Washington Monthly and a staff writer at The New Yorker for twenty years, she is a recipient of the Whiting and Lukas Awards, and has received fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and George Washington University.





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