"Our property seems to me the most beautiful in the world," the satisfied suburbanite wrote. "We enjoy all the advantages of the city, and yet when we come home we are away from all the noise and dust."

The sentiments, so familiar to modern suburban dwellers, were expressed in 539 B.C., in a letter to the King of Persia. As Kenneth Jackson explains, the letter, "written in cuneiform on a clay tablet, . . . presents the first extant expression of the suburban ideal."

That ideal -- why it developed, how it was realized, and at what cost to society -- is the subject of "Crabgrass Frontier," an informative, absorbing and persuasive account of the process by which the United States has become a suburban nation.

Jackson, a professor of history at Columbia University, notes that in the 18th century the suburbs of New York, Boston and Philadelphia were seen as slums, "socially and economically inferior to cities," and the word suburb itself "suggested inferior manners, narrowness of view, and physical squalor."

In the 19th century, however, the word took on a new meaning. The transportation revolution made outlying areas more accessible, and therefore more desirable, and a lesser-known but equally significant cultural revolution placed new importance on the "emerging values of domesticity, privacy, and isolation." By the 1850s, consequently, the "stage was set for the planning of the suburb as a unit, as a romantic community in harmony with nature."

The new suburbs were, at first, exclusive enclaves for the affluent, but by the late 19th century even middle-class families "could reasonably expect to buy a detached home on an accessible lot in a safe and sanitary environment." After World War II, people often found it was cheaper to buy a house in the suburbs than to rent an apartment. Today, 100 million Americans live in the suburbs, a larger number than reside in central cities or in rural areas.

Devoting two chapters to an analysis of government housing programs since the 1930s, Jackson asserts that the Home Owners Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration used guidelines for the granting of mortgages that effectively hardened class, racial and ethnic divisions in American society. He quotes an early FHA underwriting manual: "If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes."

Although the civil rights movement of the 1960s forced a revision in some policies, Jackson nevertheless concludes that, good intentions notwithstanding, "the basic direction of federal policies toward housing has been the concentration of the poor in the central city and the dispersal of the affluent to the suburbs. American housing policy was not only devoid of social objectives, but instead helped establish the basis for social inequities."

Suburban growth has always depended on developments in transportation, and so Jackson pays nearly as much attention to how Americans have commuted as he does to where they have lived. Noting that there are 159 million cars, trucks and buses on the nation's roads -- that is, about 70 motor vehicles for every 100 persons -- Jackson offers a perceptive analysis of "The Drive-in Culture of Contemporary America."

It is this culture that Jackson blames for the "reduced feeling of concern and responsibility among families for their neighbors and among suburbanites in general for residents of the inner city." This alienation, he suggests, affects all those who "choose not to avail themselves of the variety of experiences the metropolis affords."

In some respects, this is reminiscent of the argument made by many observers in the 1950s: that the suburbs, marked by conformity and complacency, led to a boring, humdrum style of life. But the indictment in "Crabgrass Frontier" is even broader and more expansive. Whether or not one fully accepts his critique, Jackson's book is the most comprehensive and scholarly account of how 100 million Americans have come to believe they can enjoy all the advantages of the city, and yet get away from all the noise and dust.