Historical Context

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R. W. Flint notes that Simpson once told an interviewer that “[i]t’s the timidity of suburban life that is so limiting.” Timidity aside, Simpson has become a poet of the middle class, at times even heroizing the characters that people his poems. These characters shop, gossip, commute, and go on summer vacations. It is a life Simpson knows well. While contemporaries like Allen Ginsberg were composing loud, often surrealist, poems that screamed out against the conformity of middle-class, mid-century suburban American life, Simpson was busy crafting quiet poems of understatement and wit. At the time Simpson was writing the poems that make up At the End of the Open Road, the United States was in the midst of a post-war economic expansion.

Beginning in the late 1940s, returning World War II veterans flooded the country and helped to create a new market for inexpensive housing. The overwhelming majority of these veterans wanted their own land and their own new house. Using less than top-shelf materials, developers such as William J. Levitt began building on the outskirts of large cities, converting farmland into sprawling housing tracts. Levitt factored the cost of elementary schools into the price of the houses, helping to create genuine communities. Built on fifteen hundred acres of potato fields on Long Island, the first Levittown is often credited with being the model for thousands of suburban developments of the 1950s and 1960s. The uniformity of these developments helped to create the image that many Americans have about suburban life: that it is a place of conformity and blandness, devoid of the rich cultural opportunities and diversity that define many big cities.

A certain conservative ideology also came to be associated with the suburban mindset. As American cities fought poverty, crime, congestion, and general unrest, more and more people fled to the suburbs for peace and security. Historians and social critics termed this phenomenon “white flight” because most of those fleeing cities for the suburbs were Caucasian. Popular television shows of this period, such as Ozzie and Harriet, Dennis the Menace, and, later, The Brady Bunch, underscore the mainstream middle-class values that came to be associated with the suburban life.

The conservative nature of the suburbs stood in stark contrast to what was taking hold in America’s cities in the early 1960s. In 1960, John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, was narrowly elected president. Though remarkably passive at first—considering that Kennedy received more than 70 percent of the Black vote—the Kennedy administration helped to further the cause of civil rights, creating the Com- mission on Equal Employment Opportunity in 1961 and ending segregation in interstate travel and in federally funded housing the same year. In 1963, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council began a sustained campaign against racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Sit-ins and marches antagonized white leadership and law enforcement, and Birmingham police chief “Bull” Connor unintentionally helped galvanize protesters by turning loose police dogs, fire hoses, and his force on the peaceful demonstrators. In August 1963, a quarter million protesters marched on Washington D. C. to urge Congress to pass Kennedy’s civil rights bill and to hear King deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Literary Style

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Analogy
“In the Suburbs” is one short analogy, comparing middle-class life to a form of unconscious devotion. Analogies are similar to similes (they both may use “as” or “like”) but often extend the terms of comparison. They also frequently attempt to explain the abstract in terms of the concrete. In this case, the middle-class is the abstraction, and people walking to the temple singing is the...

(This entire section contains 164 words.)

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concrete term.

Tone
The tone of the poem is both accusatory and despairing. The speaker establishes the accusatory tone through the use of the second person “you,” and he establishes the despairing tone through his insistence that nothing can be changed and that belonging to the middle class is only the most recent form of self-imprisonment. Underlying the tone is the image of the last stanza, an image Simpson critic Ronald Moran would argue belongs to the “emotive imagination.” According to Moran, such an image creates “a muted shock effect insofar as the reader’s expectations are concerned.”

Compare and Contrast

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1963: United States unemployment stands at 6.1 percent.

Today: A decade-long economic expansion lowers the United States unemployment rate to 4.1 percent.

1961: In the United States, 87.5 percent of all families are married couple families, and 10 percent are headed by females.

Today: Married couple families account for 79.2 percent of all families in the United States, and 16.5 percent of all families are headed by females.

1967: In his book The Medium Is the Message, writer Marshall McLuhan introduces the idea of the Global Village, claiming that advances in transportation and communication enable people to live as if time and space had vanished. People now communicate as if they lived in the same “village.”

Today: The World Wide Web collapses time and space even further, enabling people simultaneous, ubiquitous and, for those in economically developed countries, inexpensive communication with others throughout the world.

Media Adaptations

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Watershed Tapes released an audiocassette, titled Physical Universe, of Simpson reading his poems in 1985. Watershed Tapes are distributed by Inland Book Company, P. O. Box 120261, East Haven, CT 06512.

In 1983, New Letters on the Air released an audiocassette of Simpson reading his poems on National Public Radio. To obtain a copy of this tape, contact New Letters at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, 5100 Rockhill Rd., Kansas City, MO 64110.

Wonderland, released in 2001, is director John O’Hagan’s documentary of Levittown, Long Island. The film explores the idea that 1950s suburban developments were part of the baby boomers’ quest for middle-class bliss.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Bradley, Sculley, and Harold W. Blodgett, eds., Walt Whitman: “Leaves of Grass,” Norton, 1973.

Dickey, James, Review of Selected Poems, in American Scholar, Vol. 34, Autumn 1965, p. 650.

Ellman, Richard, and Robert O’Clair, eds., The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 2nd ed., Norton, 1983.

Flint, R. W., “Child of This World,” in Parnassus, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall/Winter 1983–Spring/Summer 1984, pp. 302–17.

Gans, Herbert, The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community, Columbia University Press, 1982.

Hirsche, Edward, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, Harcourt, 1999, pp. 4–5.

Horowitz, David A., Peter N. Carroll, and David D. Lee, eds., On the Edge: A New History of Twentieth-Century America, West Publishing Company, 1990.

Howard, Richard, Alone with America, Atheneum, 1961, pp. 451–70.

Hungerford, Edward, ed., Poets in Progress: Critical Prefaces to Thirteen Modern American Poets, Northwestern University Press, 1967.

Klinkowitz, Jerome, The American 1960s: Imaginative Acts in a Decade of Change, Iowa State University Press, 1980.

Lazer, Hank, ed., On Louis Simpson: Depths beyond Happiness, University of Michigan Press, 1988.

Moran, Ronald, Louis Simpson, Twayne, 1972.

—, Review, in Southern Review, Spring 1965, pp. 475–77.

Rosenthal, M. L., The New Poets: American & British Poetry since World War II, Oxford, 1967, pp. 323–24.

Simpson, Louis, The End of the Open Road, Wesleyan University Press, 1960.

—, North of Jamaica, Harper, 1972.

—, Ships Going into the Blue: Essays and Notes on Poetry, University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Stitt, Peter, The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets, University of Georgia Press, 1985.

Wright, James, Above the River: The Complete Poems, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

Further Reading
Baxandall, Rosalyn Fraad, and Elizabeth Ewen, Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened, Basic Books, 2000. The authors, academics who commute from Manhattan to Old Westbury, Long Island, explore the stereotypes of suburban life, concluding that it is not the cultural wasteland or place of privilege that others have often described.

Lensing, George S., and Ronald Moran, Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination: Robert Bly, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and William Stafford, Louisiana State University Press, 1976, 2000. Moran and Lensing argue that these poets constitute a school of poetry in that their work is defined by what they call the “emotive imagination.” Their poetry relies on associative leaps of logic and is linked to deep image poetry.

Simpson, Louis, The King My Father’s Wreck, Story Line Press, 1995. Simpson’s memoir recounts the poet’s childhood in Kingston, Jamaica, his expectations in coming to America, and the reality of living in the United States.

Stepanchev, Stephen, American Poetry since 1945, Harper, 1965. Stepanchev’s literary history is a highly readable account of the aesthetic and ideological movements in American poetry after World War II.

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