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Big Rock Candy Mountains: Utopia in the Suburbs and the Sun

THE NEW AMERICAN FAME-MAKING APPARATUS could turn even a middle-aged midwestern architect into a glamorous international celebrity. At forty-seven, Frank Lloyd Wright was familiar among architects (and around Chicago for abandoning his wife to skidoo with a client’s wife), but his was not a household name. In August 1914, as the outbreak of World War I otherwise dominated the news, The New York Times made room for his (and his mistress’s) first appearance in the paper:

WILD NEGRO CHEF KILLS 6, WOUNDS 4

FORMER MRS. C. H. CHENEY OF

CHICAGO MURDERED IN COTTAGE

OF FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT.

He was instantly famous and kept getting more so (with more girlfriends and scandals and constant media coverage) during the second half of his long life. Celebrity as much as genius put Wright on the cover of Time at sixty-eight and gave him an hour of CBS prime time at ninety and, when he died at ninety-one, a Times obituary at the top of page one with another five articles about him inside.

But Frank Lloyd Wright has not barged into this book only as an exemplar of the new celebrity culture that exploded in the early twentieth century. He’s here because he was a principal author of another all-American fantasy coming to full fruition—the suburb. America’s century of wholesale suburbanization was another part of its happy fictionalization, a nation morphing into Earth’s biggest theme park.

When Wright was a little boy, not far from where he’d later live outside Chicago, the prototypical built-from-scratch American suburb appeared—Riverside, Illinois, designed and created by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Their model was explicitly nostalgic, “the more agreeable rural characteristics of a New England Village.” Before long, as the Columbia University historian Kenneth Jackson writes in Crabgrass Frontier, “detached housing had clearly emerged as the suburban style,” and “the ideal house” in America “came to be viewed as resting in the middle of a manicured lawn or picturesque garden”—as if in a pastoral landscape from a previous American century. Suburbia, apparently a conflation of the terms suburb and utopia, became a word.

For his first twenty years of adulthood, at the turn of the century, Frank Lloyd Wright lived in a bucolic Chicago suburb—then returned north to Wisconsin, where he was born and raised, to build Taliesin, his first royal residence, complete with an artificial lake. In other words, he pursued and was a primary promoter of the American pastoral fantasy, having it both ways: working in modern cities—where stature, celebrity, and big money are available—but living the pseudorustic dream of countrified isolation and independence. “Urban life [has] served its term,” he declared in 1932, the city a “monster aggregation,” a “Moloch,” a “tumor grown malignant,” and “a menace to the future of humanity.” Wright’s hatred of cities was part of what made him so American. And all of a sudden there was a lot more urban America to hate. During the first four decades of the century, U.S. population growth actually slowed, but the big cities doubled and tripled or quintupled in size.

For a people whose adoring self-conception was wrapped up in its Little House on the Prairie past—Laura Ingalls Wilder published those novels in the 1930s and early ’40s—urbanization caused some cognitive dissonance. Wright learned to despise big cities as a young architect working in Chicago for a decade. L. Frank Baum was living there at the same time when he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the world’s fair’s White City clearly inspired his Emerald City. Over the next few decades, after Baum decamped to Hollywood as soon as possible and wrote a dozen more Oz novels, the portion of the U.S. population living in central cities increased by half. America’s most fantastic urban skyline—the Flatiron, the Woolworth, Chrysler, and Empire State buildings, plus Rockefeller Center—became fully Oz-like. But of course, at the end of the story Dorothy leaves the magical city and returns to her true American home, the humble farm on the Great Plains.*1

Now, however, there was a new means for middle-class Americans to have it both ways, to work downtown in the real world but otherwise live the old dream: the suburb. As Leo Marx writes, “The psychic root of all pastoralism—genuine and spurious” is one that “our experience as a nation unquestionably has invested…with peculiar intensity. The soft veil of nostalgia that hangs over our urbanized landscape is largely a vestige of the once dominant image of an undefiled, green republic, a quiet land of forests, villages, and farms dedicated to the pursuit of happiness.”

In fact, the suburb was a twofer, fantasy-wise. Loathing cities had always been a defining American impulse, but as cities rapidly filled up with millions of black and Catholic and Jewish and otherwise not-quite-white immigrants, a lot of native-born people found cities even more loathsome. So in addition to nostalgia for the undefiled green republic, suburbs could also satisfy white people’s nostalgia for a time when they lived almost exclusively among other white (and Christian, preferably Protestant) people. Just as Americans in the 1600s and 1700s left towns where they found the dominant religious cast obnoxious and started new towns, Americans in the 1900s could leave cities where they found the ethnic and demographic cast obnoxious and move to new towns not very far down the road.

Automobiles (and electricity) enabled the suburban dream to become the new norm. Between the two world wars, cars went from rare novelties, one for every hundred adults, to one per family. In 1907 only 8 percent of American homes had electricity; by 1930, 70 percent did. Now you could drive yourself in your own dreamy roadster to your faux homestead in your simulated New England village. In the 1930s Frank Lloyd Wright was not only channeling Americans’ disgust with the big bad city—“throw it away,” he said—but grandiloquently giving his stamp of approval to suburban life. “Our pioneer days are not over,” he wrote, because our new manifest destiny was to make America a coast-to-coast suburbia, what he called Broadacre City, “the only possible city of the future,” “this city for the individual,” with no higgledy-piggledy downtowns at all, each family in its own house on its own acre, every American transformed into “landed gentry,” the Jeffersonian fantasy realized at last. “Birds sing, rain falls for him, the rain falls on his growing garden,” and he thinks great thoughts all alone. “Individuality is his.” If Wright hadn’t existed, Ayn Rand would have had to invent him.*2

The central-city-dwelling fraction of Americans reached a third—and never rose above that again. Meanwhile the suburban population more than doubled in three decades and kept on doubling. As it turned out, most Americans (and industry and federal policy makers) shared the fantastic retro vision of a nation covered by brand-new old-timey homesteads and ranches and small towns, and themselves as pioneers redux.

Suburban life was surely better than life in the city for lots of people in lots of ways—less racket and stink, more room and obvious order. But for almost everyone, in ways they seldom put into words, it also looked and felt like a dreamier, uniquely American way of life, a happy facsimile of the quiet green land of olden times. So along with America’s extreme passions and knacks for religion and show business, the suburb became yet another fantasy-driven facet of the “divergence of the American experience,” as Jackson writes in Crabgrass Frontier, “from that of the rest of the world.”

I’ve confessed to living my own version of the American pastoral fantasy, and I’m very grateful that at the turn of the twentieth century, the federal government began creating national parks and preserving wilderness. But it is telling that the first director of the national parks was a Barnumesque former New York Sun reporter who’d made his fortune inventing the pioneering pioneer-nostalgia brand 20 Mule Team Borax. And no less than Sigmund Freud saw such parks as the perfect metaphor for fantasy in a psychiatric sense. “The creation of the mental domain of phantasy,” he wrote in A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, published in 1916, “has a complete counterpart in the establishment of ‘reservations’ and ‘nature parks’ in places where the inroads of agriculture, traffic, or industry threatened to change the Earth rapidly into something unrecognizable….The mental realm of phantasy is also such a reservation reclaimed from the encroaches of the reality principle.”

A few years later, in the 1920s, over in a different part of the emerging fantasy-industrial complex, a singer-songwriter called Haywire Mac recorded the great ballad of American utopian pastoral fantasy: “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” That was the place of “cigarette trees” and “lemonade springs” and hens laying soft-boiled eggs, where “the handouts grow on bushes” and “you can slip right out” of jail. It rose to number one on Billboard’s Hillbilly Hits chart, and a subsequent cover version made it a fixture in the folk music canon. The lyrics I learned and loved as a child in the 1960s had “a lake of stew and ginger ale too”—not Haywire Mac’s original “lake of stew and a gin lake too.” But the most radical revision was the deletion of the last verse. Rather than ending on the hobo’s happy-happy reverie, a younger hobo undercuts it all with a funny reality-based finale:

I’ve hiked and hiked till my feet are sore

And I’ll be damned if I hike any more

To be buggered sore like a hobo’s whore

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

In fact, America was starting to bowdlerize in various ways at the time, trying to make everything not just more fantastic but nicer. Suburbanization was partly that, as were Hollywood’s new codes to make sure movies weren’t too salty or salacious. You can see it in our very language—particularly where it comes to discriminating between the actual and the unreal and ridiculing fantasies purporting to be authentic. For a century, Americans had a wide-ranging, well-established vocabulary for this, talking about suckers falling for hogwash. After the 1920s, however, we invented fewer and fewer such disparagements. Soon words like balderdash, humbug, and bunkum were shoved to the back of the language attic and semiretired or eliminated, along with hooey, claptrap, and malarkey.We also did a strange thing to a certain set of older words. For as long as they’d been English, incredible, unbelievable, unreal, fabulous, and fantastic were either derogatory or neutrally descriptive, different ways of calling claims unlikely, imaginary, or untrue. But then they were all redefined to be terms of supreme praise, synonyms for wonderful, glorious, outstanding, superb. It was a curious linguistic cleansing and a convenient prelude to the full unfettering of balderdash, bunkum, hooey, humbug, and malarkey later in the century.

EXACTLY ONE PIECE of the Big Rock Candy Mountain’s paradise was becoming real: the narrator is “bound to go where there ain’t no snow” and “the sun shines every day.” Earlier migrations to and within America were inspired by visions of religious liberty, financial possibility, and self-reinvention. In the twentieth century, those reasons still applied. But now, as the fantasy-industrial complex expanded, millions of Americans picked up and moved simply because everyday life elsewhere looked prettier, easier, dreamier. That could mean a short hop to one of the new suburbs. And now it could also mean moving to suddenly urbanizing southern California or South Florida, both invented in the first few decades of the century as real-life Shangri-Las.

It was gold, the possibility that any lucky knucklehead could get rich overnight, that first sucked people to California and allowed America to fulfill its manifest destiny. But the remarkable climate and fecundity were also part of the original appeal, a dream-come-true whether or not you’d hit pay dirt (yet). The place might as well have been the Garden of Eden—warm, fertile, soft, fragrant. Anything could grow there, and California after the Gold Rush, filled with hundreds of thousands of uprooted seekers, became a place for cultivating every sort of wishful fantasy. Maybe it wasn’t inevitable: San Francisco’s early bohemia, Pentecostalism, Hollywood, and all the various wellsprings of utopianism and lifestyle perfectionism—as well as, still to come, the Beats, Scientology, Big Sur, Disneyland, Ronald Reagan, the Summer of Love, and Silicon Valley. But what other place on Earth has been more congenial to believers and promoters of mad dreams and schemes of so many kinds? California is America squared.

Between 1900 and 1930, the population doubled every decade—and Los Angeles grew even faster, ballooning from a hundred thousand to more than a million. For everyone rushing in, movie moguls as well as random try-anything wildcatters, southern California had a fundamental American quality—it was a blank slate, culturally as well as physically. “In Los Angeles,” the New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael once wrote, “you can live any way you want (except the urban way); it’s the fantasy-brothel, where you can live the fantasy of your choice.”

Back east at the turn of the century, the Coney Island amusement parks were built adjacent to America’s largest city. In southern California in the early 1900s there was no huge existing city, so an ambitious new entertainment zone instead became urban protoplasm: just southwest of Los Angeles, by the beach, a real estate developer (and eccentric utopian) named Abbot Kinney built an amusement park around an artificial lagoon, with canals and gondoliers, calling it Venice of America. Other developers extended the conceit, building more canals; the whole storybook confection quickly started becoming an actual town, Venice, and in the 1920s officially part of Los Angeles.

If amusement parks could morph into cities, why not vice versa? Coca-Cola, until recently a patent medicine for headaches and impotence, had been rebranded around looser dreams of refreshment and fun, so in the 1930s its downtown L.A. bottling plant was refashioned to look like an enormous cruise ship, with portholes and a catwalk. A five-minute walk away was one of two remarkable giant local cafeterias that featured artificial indoor streams, waterfalls, rain, rock formations, and groves of redwoods and palms.

The movie tycoons invented studio lots, towns within a town—offices, workshops, restaurants, and bungalows, but inhabited by celebrities—that also contained full-scale reproductions of fragments of other cities and towns. These promptly provided a de facto model for domestic life in Los Angeles, gated stage-set neighborhoods where the movie people could live: the Malibu Beach Motion Picture Colony, Beverly Crest, its entrance marked by a pair of “medieval” “English” stone “castle” towers, and Laughlin Park in Los Feliz, where the houses let you pretend you were living in Italy or France or seventeenth-century England or the nineteenth-century American Midwest. The new American dream home became a small private back lot for enacting one’s lifestyle fantasy of choice.

South Florida was the other warm, sunny, mostly empty piece of America where the extended fantasy-industrial complex manufactured a large-scale paradise. Miami and Palm Beach had come into being in the 1890s as a citrus-business hub and resort, respectively. Miami was still a small town when promoters started calling it the Magic City, then started marketing the whole region as an idyllic place for living as well as vacationing. A real estate boom and building frenzy started around 1915, with swamps drained to make buildable land. Miami Beach was created by a developer who dredged up sand from the ocean and imported thousands of tons of soil. Addison Mizner—who’d grown up in an old California Gold Rush town and taken off for the Klondike during its gold rush—was South Florida’s defining architect, and picturesque fantasies of European glamour were de rigueur: imitation Côte d’Azur and Costa del Sol, faux Paris and Venice.*3

One way to track the nation’s transmutation into Fantasyland is to look at where Americans moved during the twentieth century. In 1900 only two of the twenty largest cities, New Orleans and San Francisco, had temperatures that seldom got below freezing. Today, fourteen of the twenty largest cities are places where there ain’t no snow and the sun shines every day.

*1 Another moral of the Oz story, what the con man/wizard teaches the lion and scarecrow and tin man, is an underlying theme of this book: for Americans, wishfully believing that something is true, even when it’s false, makes it effectively true.

*2 Actually, she sort of did. “I am writing a novel about the career of an architect,” Rand told Wright in a 1937 letter, megalomaniac to megalomaniac, which will be the “story of human integrity….That is what you have lived…the only one among the men of this century who has lived it.” That turned into The Fountainhead, her first bestselling fantasy of a glorious superindividualist, which became a foundational text for American libertarians (see Chapter 40).

*3 One such Mediterranean fantasia was Mar-a-Lago—built at the height of the first Florida real estate bubble in the 1920s by the daughter of the founder of Post cereals (see Chapter 11), now owned by a high lord of Fantasyland and president of the United States (see Chapter 46).

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