PROFESSOR ROBERT BEUKA: 21ST CENTURY RENAISSANCE MAN
BCC’s English Department Chair is an Internationally-Recognized Authority on the Image of the American Suburb, a Noted Expert on Author F. Scott Fitzgerald and in His Spare Time a Blues Singer And Guitarist
September 22, 2015 — What could the classic sit-com Leave it to Beaver, the novels of John Updike and the zombie horror film Dawn of the Dead possibly have in common? A great deal, according to Bronx Community College English Department Chair Robert Beuka. In fact, he’s built a career on that premise as an internationally-respected authority on the evolving image of the American suburbs in 20th century literature and pop culture.
It was the subject of Dr. Beuka’s Ph.D. thesis — and his first book SuburbiaNation (2004), which in his words focuses on “the dual vision of suburbia as it’s presented in literature and popular media, as the promised land of the middle class on one hand and this alienating, entrapping world on the other hand.”
And fascination with the American suburbs is not limited to Americans. This past April, Dr. Beuka was invited to speak to a class at Palacky University — in the city of Olomouc in the Czech Republic.
“I was invited by Dr. Jiri Flajsar. He is a professor in the American Studies Department at this school who also works on American suburbia. He had obtained a European Union-funded grant for an international lecture series on suburban studies. My book is one of the texts he’s using, and so he reached out to ask if I would do a lecture. I would have been delighted in any case. I spent a year teaching English in the Czech Republic 20 years ago. The town I taught in was nearby.
“I took a look at the topic through the years, working off the post-war moment when mass-developed suburban towns began appearing. First you start seeing this depicted in films in interesting ways, whether it’s very positive as in the case of a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life or farcical as in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. Then along comes TV and you get the totally idealized Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. As soon as that vision had its moment in the sun, that’s when the suburban-critique kind of movies began — The Swimmer, The Graduate, The Stepford Wives, right on up through American Beauty, Pleasantville, The Truman Show, Revolutionary Road — they’ve really never let up since.” Beuka points to the gory Dawn of the Dead — set in a shopping mall — as perhaps the most extreme example of Hollywood’s dark vision of American suburbia.
The hour-long lecture included movie clips and was followed by a Q & A session. “It went really well,” recalls Dr. Beuka. “I got some good questions afterwards.” There was no language barrier ¬— everyone spoke English well — but he did notice a cultural barrier: “Some of the references my crowd didn’t know. They got the general contours, but they didn’t know specific films.” So Beuka tossed much of his original script out the window — and the result was such a success he was invited to submit material for the program’s journal. “We’ll certainly stay in contact. I’d love to go back if it ever comes up again.”
It was his graduate school studies in the late 90s and the early 2000s of such bards of American suburban life as Updike and John Cheever that led Dr. Beuka to the topic of cultural impressions of suburbia in general. At the time it was a dormant field after some interest in the 60s and 70s. “Now,” he says “It‘s back — big time.”
“The thing I love about the topic is that you don’t have to be an academic to be interested in it,” observes Beuka. “I’ve lectured on it at local museums like the Long Island Museum of History. Everyone has an opinion on the suburbs, whether you live in one or not.”
These days Dr. Beuka’s attention is focused on his other great area of interest — F. Scott Fitzgerald, the subject of his second book, American Icon: Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby' in Critical and Cultural Context (2011). Beuka is currently writing an essay on Fitzgerald’s short stories set in the American south (“He had a very romanticized but complicated vision of the South — it’s an interesting, under-explored part of his geography as a writer”) and working on the upcoming annual issue of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society newsletter, for which he has served as the editor for the past ten years. “I've long held a theory that author societies naturally develop some aspects of the personality of their author,” remarks Beuka. “And in this regard, the Fitzgerald Society is true to form — a group that puts in the hard work but also certainly knows how to have a good time.” Among the newsletter’s readers are Fitzgerald’s granddaughters.
These are heady days for BCC’s English Department in general, where Beuka is now in his third year as chair (he began his Bronx Community College career in 2002 as an assistant professor). For years, its classes have been part of the liberal arts major. But now there is also a plan for an associate in arts degree specifically in English, fueled in part by student interest in the department’s literature offerings and in the popular Creative Writing Club. The proposal for such a degree has been approved by the College and is currently under review by CUNY, after which it will need to work its way through the bureaucracy in Albany — but by next fall, majoring in English could be an option for BCC students.
When not on campus, the expert on suburbia fittingly lives in the suburb of Huntington, Long Island, where his wife teaches ESL at the local high school. His three children claim most of his down time… but if you’re ever in the area and drop by a pub featuring the “rootsy American music — blues, country, rock,” of a certain singer/guitarist, that too just might be the surprisingly eclectic Professor Robert Beuka.