In 1956, the sociologist David Riesman studied a series of lengthy interviews commissioned by Time magazine that sought to determine how college seniors imagined their lives would look in 1970. Without clairvoyance, they couldn’t foresee the divorce and the reinvention, the yurts among the redwoods, the sex and self-help. Riesman, of course, had no idea how dramatically the world would change either, but still he was struck by the students’ tightly circumscribed collective vision. Members of the class of 1955 did not see themselves in demanding jobs and penthouse apartments. Unlike the skyscraper fantasies of his fellow Depression-era graduates, Riesman observed in his essay “The Found Generation,” theirs lacked a careerist, urban spirit. (“No life in the ulcer belt for me,” as one student put it.) The subjects were male, but Riesman noted that a survey of college women conducted by Mademoiselle in 1954 had yielded similar results. “The civic-minded life, the gregarious life,” he remarked with measured astonishment, is “anticipated as a pleasure and an end in itself.” What surprised him was the extent to which so many bright and seemingly discerning young people yearned for Westchester over Washington Square, regardless of the contemptuous view of suburban life mounting among the literary and intellectual class.

Phyllis McGinley would have surmised the results and needed none of the inquiry. By the time Riesman’s essay appeared, she had been living contentedly for a number of years as a wife, mother and well-known poet in Larchmont, N.Y., writing reverentially of lush lawns and country-club Sundays in The New Yorker, Harper’s and elsewhere. A devotee of convention in nearly every respect, she committed herself to form, which during the high moment of the confessional poets seemed anachronistic enough to count as new-fashioned. McGinley’s light verse sought to convey the ecstatic peace of suburban ritual, the delight in greeting a husband, in appointing a room, in going to the butcher. Anticipation pervades her work, the feeling of something quietly joyful about to happen — beloved friends coming for dessert, perhaps, as in these lines from “June in the Suburbs”: “Through lupine-lighted borders now / For winter bones Dalmatians forage. / Costly, the spray on apple bough. / The canvas chair comes out of storage.”

The poem is from “The Love Letters of Phyllis Mc Ginley,” a slim volume published in 1954 that went into seven printings in hardcover, eventually selling close to 150,000 copies. Seven years later, McGinley, who died in 1978, received thePulitzer Prize for poetry for “Times Three,” which spanned her work over 30 years. In his foreword, W. H. Auden praised her dexterous, unostentatious rhyming and found in her familial sensibility a likeness to Austen and Woolf, yet also a singular, accessible voice. “I start a sentence: ‘The poetry of Phyllis McGinley is . . .,’ and there I stick,” he wrote, “for all I wish to say is ‘ . . . is the poetry of Phyllis McGinley.”

McGinley is almost entirely forgotten today, and while her anonymity is attributable in part to the disappearance of light verse, it seems equally a function of our refusal to believe that anyone living on the manicured fringes of a major American city in the middle of the 20th century might have been genuinely pleased to be there. McGinley received her Pulitzer the same year that Richard Yates’s “Revolutionary Road,” the basis for Sam Mendes’s new movie, made its debut. To Yates, Connecticut wasn’t dull; it was tragic, the end of something. Since the ’60s, versions of the same idea have prevailed almost without interruption — in fiction, in film, on television, in the countless illustrations of grinning fathers presiding over barbecues, kitschy images in which we are meant to see portraits of mournful delusion. From Cheever to “American Beauty,” we have tended to read mythologies of suburban lament as if they were reportage.


Ginia Bellafante
New York Times