White Diaspora

In White Diaspora: The Suburb and the Twentieth-Century American Novel, Catherine Jurca has undertaken a detailed analysis of the portrayal of the American suburb in novels during the twentieth century. She illustrates how twentieth century American suburbs, though enclaves of white middle-class privilege, have been redefined in literature as rootless, hollow, even oppressive environments in which a hapless bourgeoisie struggles in vain to find meaning and anchorage. Her thesis, reflected in the title, is that the phenomenon of “white flight” from the cities to the suburbs has been reinvented in American literature as a “diaspora.” The displaced middle-class whites are spiritually “homeless,” living in culturally sterile non-communities and alienated from society and each other.

Not that Jurca sympathizes with this portrayal. Indeed, she is bemused by the patent dishonesty of privileged classes being redefined as somehow disadvantaged and persecuted. She mocks the self-pity that seems to define this genre, and which wells up within the readers of it.

Although she identifies a number of novels of the genre throughout the book (and particularly in a first chapter which surveys the literature), Jurca focuses on five works in particular. These novels, to which she devotes a chapter each, are Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan of the Apes (1914), Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt (1922), John M. Cain's Mildred Pierce (1941), Richard Wright's Native Son (1940), and Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955). In an epilogue Jurca notes a number of more recent novels of the genre, spanning the 1960's through the 1990's.

Although Jurca's treatment of the literature is authoritative, in the end the book suffers from a certain discursiveness. While race and class are central to her thesis, various forays into gender seem more gratuitous than relevant. Similarly, discussions of “spatial and social binaries” and “beneficial fluidity” can bog down a bit. Still, as an academic treatment of a narrow genre, White Diaspora is both engaging and instructive.