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In the years after World War II, suburbs represented not just new places to live but a whole new manner of living, separated by more than physical distance from the big cities and small towns from which their residents hailed. Between the late 1940s and 1960, millions of Americans moved into raw neighborhoods containing people of about the same age, making about the same amount of money, starting families at about the same time. It was a social experiment unprecedented in U.S. history.
The first suburbanites themselves were well aware of this. Although they felt the optimism of pioneers, they shared in the widespread anxiety that the experiment might not work, an anxiety that manifested as worries about unanticipated health effects. These ranged from the daily, cumulative frustrations of a Mary Drone to more significant problems: stomach ulcers, heart attacks, anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, and juvenile delinquency.
“John Drone did not know it when he signed the deed [for his house], but appalling human tensions were a condition of the sale,” Keats wrote. The financial burdens of suburban life were thought to weigh heavily on young husbands and fathers, though not on wives and mothers; the theory of suburban pathology was profoundly gendered.
The harried suburban family man, gulping coffee each morning to catch his train into the city and returning to collapse, martini in hand, into his armchair each night, was a stock comic figure in postwar culture. Keats made his John Drone a more pitiable example of the type. Drone, a government worker, feels a “tightening, knotted cord about his temples” after moving to Rolling Knolls. He lies awake at night fretting over installment payments on the car, the TV set, the dryer. When the family trades up from the rambler to a split-level in Maryland, he takes side jobs at a liquor store and at Sears to pay the mortgage, and he leaves the house at 6:00 every morning to beat the rush downtown. Despite all his labors, there is no final reward for John Drone: the victim of chicanery, he learns at the end of the book that he is liable for the mortgage on the rambler he thought he’d sold. The Drones are left to face financial ruin. […]