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Modern American poets, including Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and Louis Zukofsky, reacted in their poetry to the massive effects of suburbanization on American space and culture. As historians such as Sam Bass Warner, Robert Fishman, John R. Stilgoe and Kenneth T. Jackson have shown, suburbanization fundamentally altered the U. S. landscape in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (1) Multiplying streetcar lines increasingly led away from urban centers and into suburban environments and, as Jackson remarks, by 1900, "railroad commuters lived in houses that sprawled in ample yards, thick with trees and shrubbery behind iron or wooden fences" (137). These houses, distinctive in their placement and architecture, "set a suburban standard rather than an urban standard for achievement-oriented Americans" (Jackson 137). Suburbanization entailed the annexation of peripheral towns and agricultural areas. Modern poets, raised under earlier conditions, confronted anxieties over the loss of spaces that seemed to preserve the nation's pre-industrial past and agrarian character.
In his 1930 sequence The Bridge, Hart Crane portrays suburbanization as a destructive force on American history and identity. Section VI of the sequence, entitled "Quaker Hill," decries the ruin of a grand New England hotel--"Mizzentop, palatial white / Hostelry"--and the surrounding landscape. The historic setting now hosts "Weekenders avid of their turf-won scores, / ... the Czars / of golf, by twos and threes in plaid plusfours" (Crane 92-3). In short, Quaker Hill has become the site of a golf course. The poet proclaims:
This was the Promised Land, and still it is To the persuasive suburban land agent In bootleg roadhouses where the gin fizz Bubbles in time to Hollywood's new love-nest pageant. (93)
The nouveau-riche businessmen who sport in this landscape foretell the arrival of a "suburban land agent," who will subdivide and market the region to them. This eager capitalist is in the next stanza revealed to be Powitzky, a Jew whom Crane compares to a woodlouse in his ravenous desire to consume Quaker Hill. Following this character's appearance in the poem, Crane experiences a crisis of national identity. He asks, "Where are my kinsmen and the patriarch race?" To find ancestors, he must "descend as worm's eye to construe / Our love of all we touch." In other words, he must visualize the history of the landscape well before the golf course, and even prior to Mizzentop. Crane transposes himself back to the French and Indian War, when "Dead rangers bled their comforts in the snow." However, even this image does not occur far enough in the past to fulfill the poet's search for American roots. He continues, "But I must ask slain Iroquois to guide / Me further than scalped Yankees knew to go" (93). In "Quaker Hill," the suburban land agent is juxtaposed against American identity, conceptualized as cooperation between Iroquois guides and a pioneer--Crane himself. With notable anti-Semitism the poem classifies Powitzky, a representative of suburbanization, as a quintessentially un-American character. Crane suggests that suburbs can never really transform the nation, but instead must remain an alien phenomenon that supplants American space. (2)
Crane's antipathy participates in a typical cultural critique that views suburbanization as inherently depersonalizing. In his 2008 article "Suburban Aesthetics Is Not an Oxymoron," John Archer summarizes the association between suburban space and the loss of individuality. He writes, "the standardization and commodification of the house led many to doubt its capacity to serve adequately as a register of individualized American selfhood" (137). (3) Archer observes that the watershed exploration of this association occurs in Sinclair Lewis's 1922 novel Babbitt. Catherine Jurca argues in White Diaspora: The Suburb and the Twentieth-Century American Novel (2001) that George T. Babbitt inhabits the imaginary suburb of Floral Heights with a limited awareness of the reasons behind his discontentment (52-7). According to Jurca, Babbitt exemplifies "suburban house owners as emotional casualties of the proliferating comforts and conveniences achieved and represented by standardization" (56). For Babbitt, to "possess these commodities is to be dispossessed by them" (Jurca 56). She further points out that Babbitt's victimization is only rhetorical, and that his sanctimonious suffering features centrally in Lewis's satirical portrait of the suburban middle class. Babbitt, as Jurca remarks, "did not inaugurate a critique, polemic, or debate; rather, it further explored the discrepancy between material sustenance and spiritual malnourishment that had already framed objections to the American middle class since before World War I" (48). Among cultural critics who linked suburbanization to individual beleaguerment and the loss of selfhood are Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank and Lewis Mumford (Jurca 48). (4) Jurca's discussion of these writers, and her analysis of Babbitt, emphasize the prevalence of anti-suburban commentary prior to the postwar era.
Modern American poetry exhibits a particular set of concerns within early twentieth-century critiques of suburbia. Specifically, modern poets ask whether, in the midst of suburbanization, pastoral remains a viable mode of self-expression. By asking this question, modern poetry explores the degree to which suburbs can permit the individuality of their residents. In "Quaker Hill," Crane recoils at the appropriation of rural space for economic gain. He supposes that the loss of historic countryside to suburbanization deprives him of American identity and attendant possibilities to articulate selfhood. The ruined landscape of Quaker Hill was a pastoral landscape, and the poem itself is a variety of pastoral invective. One reason behind Crane's scornful tone is obvious: the poet can no longer withdraw into the countryside. Pastoral is, as Raymond Williams writes, "the poetry of rural retreat" (18). However, in American literature, pastoral writing conveys a more specific meaning, which Crane also evokes in "Quaker Hill." American authors working in this mode must confront the encroachment of urban development into rural spaces. In The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Idea in America (1964), Leo Marx theorizes that pastoral is for American writers the imaginative reconciliation of natural landscapes with technological progress. Marx delineates how writers fashion images of rural repose especially within urban environments. In "Pastoralism and the Urban Ideal" (1982), James L. Machor revises Marx's argument, using Whitman and Hawthorne to show that American writers have questioned this reconciliation and have "clarified both its value and limitations" (331). Machor claims that American realists such as Stephen Crane and William Dean Howells deployed "an ironic version of urban pastoralism" that illuminates the "relationship of that ideal to actuality" (340). In other words, like Hart Crane in "Quaker Hill," these writers use pastoral to critique the deleterious effects of urbanization on the nation and its residents. Maria Farland's 2007 article "Modernist Versions of Pastoral: Poetic Inspiration, Scientific Expertise, and the 'Degenerate' Farmer" argues that modern poets--Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams and Jean Toomer--locate the degradation of rural spaces actually within those spaces themselves (911). Farland shows how these poets portray the incursion of ostensibly urban problems, "immigration, crime, disease, and immorality," into the countryside (911). Crane's rapacious character Powitzky seems to threaten the contamination associated with such "urban" problems. (5)
Other modern poets have been more optimistic than Crane about the capability of suburbs to sustain sincere, un-ironic versions of the pastoral. The chief proponent of this capability is William Carlos Williams, who explores a fantasy of suburban identity in which individuality can thrive. His volumes Sour Grapes (1921) and Spring and All (1923) signally demonstrate that Rutherford, a bedroom-suburb of New York City, furnishes access to nature and rural repose. In Sour Grapes this access remains situated within the grid of suburban streets and yards. Williams's pastoral, which he theorizes most explicitly in Spring and All, maintains that the suburban poet must understand how to recognize nature's presence within such a proscribed residential environment. "The pure products of America," perhaps the volume's most famous individual piece, critiques the degeneration of rural communities while at the same time expressing Williams's longing for an American countryside that Rutherford provides only in fragments. Although Wallace Stevens lived in Hartford, Connecticut, an established city quite different from Rutherford, he also meditates on the spread of the suburban grid. Oxidia, the imaginary "banal suburb" of Stevens's 1937 poem "The Man With the Blue Guitar," appears crisscrossed by power lines that seem to represent marionette strings (Stevens, Collected 182). However, in Stevens's imagery these cables, at first a symbol of the suburban resident's social constraints, become the poet's connection to the wellspring of human imagination. The figurative transformation of Oxidia to the pastoral utopia of Olympia conveys Stevens's optimism that suburban America can furnish the inspiration made available by more poetic landscapes.
By contrast, Louis Zukofsky's 1945 poem "A Song for the Year's End" criticizes suburbs in a tone reminiscent of "Quaker Hill." Zukofsky determines …