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Several works we have read thus far have criticized the prosperity of American suburbia. Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus, and an excerpt from Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem "A Coney Island of the Mind" all pass judgement on the denizens of the middle-class and the materialism in which they surround themselves. However, each work does not make the same analysis, as the stories are told from different viewpoints.
The Dharma Bums and "A Coney Island of the Mind" are critiques of materialism by people who have rejected the middle-class ideals. In Goodbye, Columbus, however, Roth makes his point via Neil, a dweller of the lower class who wants to join the prosperous rank of the Patimkin family. The difference is that Kerouac and Ferlinghetti mock the suburbanites, yet pay them little attention while several characters in Goodbye, Columbus are disdainful of the materialism exuded by the Patimkins while feeling excluded from their social class.
In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac strengthens his argument for the Zen ideal of poverty and freedom by this criticism of the conformity practiced by the middle-class:
...you'll see if you take a walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the street each with the lamplight of the living room, shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention probably on one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of wheels. You'll see what I mean, when it begins to appear like everybody in the world is soon going to be thinking the same way and the Zen Lunatics have long joined dust, laughter on their dust lips. (104)
Kerouac's point is that freedom doesn't exist in a place where everyone is watching the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time.
Kerouac also reflects on the futile trap of materialism. Japhy discusses "all that crap they didn't really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least fancy new cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume.
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Ferlinghetti makes a very similar argument about materialism. This is not surprising, as Kerouac and Ferlinghetti both belonged to the same group of poets who opposed the "New York school" of Ashbury and O'Hara. In "A Coney Island of the Mind," Ferlinghetti writes:
They are the same people
only further from home
on freeways fifty lanes wide
on a concrete continent spaced with bland billboards
illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness (131)
The billboards Ferlinghetti is referring to stand for the same cycle of mind-numbing materialism that Kerouac spoke out against in The Dharma Bums. The middle-class seem to be watching the same television shows and buying the same brands of shaving cream. Ferlinghetti and Kerouac both maintain that American suburbia has butchered individuality and freedom of thought.
Roth goes down a different path in his critique of the middle-class in Goodbye, Columbus. Three characters express their opinions of the Patimkins' life in suburban Short Hills: Aunt Gladys, Mrs. Patimkin, and predominantly Neil. All are either envious of or awed by the Patimkins' wealth.
Aunt Gladys' input, though brief, is a telling statement of how the lower class looks upon the more well to do faction of American society. She is jealous ("She did not answer and I thought I saw awe in those red-rimmed hysterical eyes" (57).), yet sneers at the middle-class. Her only response to Neil's call to tell her he is eating dinner at the Patimkins' one night is "Fancy-shmancy" (20). A women who is seemingly obsessed with not wasting a bit of food, Aunt Gladys becomes concerned about her refrigerator when Neil tells her of his plans to stay at the Patimkin house for a week's vacation. "How long you going, I should know how to shop I wouldn't buy too much. You'll leave me with a refrigerator full of milk it'll go bad it'll stink up the refrigerator - " (57). This is a sharp contrast to the refrigerator full of fruit in the Patimkins' basement.
Mrs. Patimkin grew up in Newark and doesn't like how Mr. Patimkin has coddled Brenda since the family sink business took off. Brenda explains her relationship with her mother to Neil: "She's jealous...My father's up to here with it, but whenever I buy a coat you should hear her. 'You don't have to go to Bonwit's, young lady, Ohrbach's has the strongest fabrics of any of them.' Who wants a strong fabric! Finally I get what I want, but not till she's had a chance to aggravate me. Money is a waste for her. She doesn't even know how to enjoy it. She still thinks we live in Newark" (25-26). What Brenda doesn't realize is that her mother thinks she is missing out on valuable life lessons because her life has been so charmed. Mrs. Patimkin says to her daughter, "You ought to learn what a day's work means...You're lazy and you think the world owes you a living" (64-65). The idea that Roth is exploring through the relationship between Brenda and Mrs. Patimkin is that materialism erodes the complete human existence. Brenda can't completely enjoy her leisure and material goods if she has never experienced work or need.
Neil is from a meager Newark upbringing and is impressed my Brenda's lifestyle. The materialism of the Patimkins is something that is simply foreign to Neil. He finds it amusing that she had plastic surgery on her nose. "Why don't you have your eyes fixed?" (15), he asks her mockingly. Neil is awed that the Patimkin wealth gives them so much leisure time for sports. "I could see the back lawn with its twin oak trees. I say oaks, though fancifully, one might call them sporting-goods trees. Beneath their branches, like fruit dropped from their limbs, were two irons, a golf ball, a tennis can, a baseball bat, basketball, a first-baseman's glove, and what was apparently a riding crop" (21-22). What's more, the Patimkins had a refrigerator in their basement filled with fruit. "It was heaped with fruit, shelves swelled with it, every color, every texture, and hidden within, every kind of pit...Oh Patimkin! Fruit grew in their refrigerator and sporting goods dropped from their trees!" (43).
Neil shares Mrs. Patimkin's view that Mr. Patimkin spoils Brenda. "Over the years Mr. Patimkin had taught his daughters that free throws were theirs for the asking; he could afford to" (29). Neil saw the downsides of this affluent lifestyle, yet wanted to be a part of it. He thought of himself as "the outsider who might one day be an insider" (94). Eventually it becomes clear that Neil and Brenda were not meant to be. One can't help but imagine that Neil was thinking of Brenda as he spoke of the colored boy's book of Gauguin: "No sense carrying dreams of Tahiti in your head, if you can't afford the fare" (120).
Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, and Roth all undermine the notion of suburban perfection. Wealth does not equate to freedom and happiness. It is impossible to "have it all," as affluence requires a sacrifice of the total human experience.
Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. "A Coney Island of the Mind." The New American Poetry 1945-1960. Ed. Donald Allen. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999. 130-131.
Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Roth, Philip. Goodbye, Columbus. New York: Vintage International, 1993.