The Pursuit of Happiness in Postwar Suburbia
Email this review


An urban planner defends the suburban aesthetic—and life—in an ambitious and unconvincing critical discussion of suburban development.

Martinson sets out to defend the suburbia of both his youth and adulthood from the closed-mindedness of urban intellectual elites. These "Gentry" critics (with whom Martinson contrasts the "Yeomen" of suburbia) have failed to consider the possibility that life in the suburbs is good. They ignore the fact, Martinson claims, that there is a quiet bliss in the world of minivans, shopping malls, and six hours of television a day. It is, however, no wonder that this rift exists—it's as old as America itself. Martinson casts Jefferson as the archetypal suburbanite (apparently Monticello had a two-car garage), and Hamilton as the intolerant city-slicker. Over the next 40 pages, he pulls others into the fight, and it turns out that all the good guys were in the anti-urban (and therefore suburban) corner: Thomas Cole, Thoreau, Emerson, Melville, Henry James. Indeed, urban interests could not claim victory until the defeat of William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 presidential election. The interpretation is plausible enough, but the execution is so riddled with fallacies and anachronisms that by the time Martinson gets to the work of defending postwar suburbia he has undermined the very common-sense credibility he hoped to establish. Sweeping claims, such as "The Yeoman's life is interesting and fulfilling—to him, if not to the Gentry presuming to judge his lifestyle," just seem buffoonish—especially since Martinson offers neither qualitative nor quantitative evidence to support his view. Only the discussion of suburban architecture borders on having insight, but it too is undone by Martinson's penchant for impossibly broad claims and reductionist interpretation.

An interesting idea poorly executed. (89 b&w photos)

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-7867-0771-2
Page count: 288pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2000


NonfictionTHE END OF THE SUBURBS by Leigh Gallagher
by Leigh Gallagher