Below is a paper that I delivered at a departmental seminar at The University of Adelaide on October 23, 2009. I wrote it before I’d conceived of SHE WORE PANTS as part of the early justification for my thesis – what I intended to explore both creatively and academically. I think it might be of interest to other writers for two reasons: 1. I analyze a popular social realist novel and 2. I talk about my process. 3. I avoided academic jargon.
The Endurance of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
Despite its impact on popular American culture, little appears in the academic literature about Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. When first published it became an immediate best seller, made its author rich, and spawned a film starring Gregory Peck. The title entered the popular lexicon, designating the new phenomenon of the white-collar worker and the burgeoning class of corporate middle managers and executives. Although the novel frequently appears in general discussions about 1950s America and its literature, a notable one being David Castronovo’s 2004 book Beyond the Gray Flannel Suit, whose title demonstrates the impact Wilson continues to have on popular culture, it’s mostly ignored by scholars. One reason might be that rebels such as Kerouac steal attention away from him. Another reason might be that there are much better examples of 1950s literature about suburban life and junior executives’ angst worth examining such as Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is flawed and, although the first half of the book is compelling and sets the stage beautifully, the second half collapses due to Wilson’s inexplicable need for a happy ending in which all problems are magically solved after the protagonist, Tom Rath, decides that honesty really is the best policy. However, despite the novel’s weaknesses, it’s worth making the effort to understand why the public responded to it so strongly in its day and why its publisher thought it relevant enough to the twenty-first century to reissue the book in 2002.
One job of the novelist is to capture the nature of conflict, and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit succeeds in addressing a fundamental conflict that existed in 1955 and continues to this day: the tension between the needs of the individual and the demands of the organisation. Another function of fiction is to provide a substitute for tacit knowledge. After all, no one can live enough lives to learn everything they need to know about living through direct experience alone. As Harold Bloom wrote, we read because “we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of the self and others, but of the way things are (Bloom 29).” Of any artist, the fiction writer is the one best able to allow us to enter an individual’s thoughts and compare them with our own.
Set in New York City and Connecticut, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is the story of Tom Rath, a university educated WWII veteran, devoted husband and father, who needs to get a better job so that he can afford a bigger house and a better brand of gin. As one may guess by his name, Tom is very angry and so is his wife, Betsy. Life with their three children in suburban Westport, CT is wearing both of them down. Betsy tries to understand the source of her unhappiness, after all lots of people would love to have her life, so what is there to complain about? But she hates her house and so does Tom. Here’s what Wilson tells us about them on page one:
The house had a kind of evil genius for displaying proof of their weaknesses and wiping out all traces of their strengths. The ragged lawn and weed-filled garden proclaimed to passers-by and the neighbors that Thomas R. Rath and his family disliked ‘working around the place’ and couldn’t afford to pay someone else to do it. The interior of the house was even more vengeful. In the living room there was a big dent in the plaster near the floor, with a huge crack curling up from it in the shape of a question mark. That wall was damaged in the fall of 1952, when, after struggling for months to pay up the back bills, Tom came home one night to find that Betsy had bought a cut-glass vase for forty dollars…and at the climax of a heated argument, he picked up the vase and heaved it against the wall.
The question mark on the wall is not only a painful reminder to Tom and Betsy of his anger and his inadequacy as a bread winner, as well as her moment of extravagance, but asks what neither can bear to say out loud, is this as good as it gets?
The Rath’s neighbors share their negative feelings about their own homes and Greentree Avenue is a “community that rallies around its own termination (Jurca 92).” It’s a place where “contentment [is] an object of contempt” and its residents throw cocktail parties that last until four in the morning to celebrate every small success, such as a husband’s raise, that brings them closer to their goal of moving somewhere better (Wilson 109). In mid-twentieth-century literature the growing suburbs represent the failure of the American dream and mark the beginning of the deterioration of status and privilege that home ownership once had. “Suburban home ownership is treated as a sign of economic weakness, suspended ambition, because it’s fuelled by mortgages and wage slavery” (Jurca 83). In my experience this attitude remains true today. There’s no place more socially disconnected than a suburb because its inhabitants move on average every five years. The corporate workers who are on the executive track have no choice; their companies demand that they move around the country and around the world if they wish to climb the career ladder.
Tom eventually takes a better job in the public relations department at United Broadcasting Corporation that pays him 30% more in the naïve belief that money solves all problems. In reality, money only brings more obligations as he now has to work in a large organization and conform to its demands. Then his grandmother dies leaving him nothing but an unsalable old house in South Bay, a servant who needs to be pensioned, and no cash. Soon after this he learns that he fathered a son while stationed in Italy during WWII and, even though he’d like to help the boy and his mother by sending them some money each month, he’s afraid to tell Betsy about it.
By the end of the novel, Tom decides to tell his boss the truth that he doesn’t want to become a big time executive because the sacrifices are too great. His honesty is rewarded with a job that pays as well as the one he has and doesn’t require him to commute to the City. Then Tom tells Betsy about the war and the adulterous affair. She forgives him and agrees that they should help the boy. At the same time all the roadblocks to their housing project idea fall away. Yes, this is a delicious irony that Wilson perhaps didn’t catch onto until after he’d finished the book. The Raths are saved from the cloying suburban life they detest by building a suburb on the land they inherit from Tom’s grandmother.
Wilson’s failure here lies in his avoidance of the darkest possibilities of the human heart and mind. He touches on them when he shows us, through Tom’s memories, the horrors Tom experienced during the war, including how he stabbed to death and nearly decapitated a German sentry, as well as how he accidently killed his best friend with a grenade. In his book Story, Robert McKee points out that the most beloved stories, the ones that take our breath away by steering us into the deepest and most cathartic experiences, focus on the ‘negation of the negation.’ This is McKee’s way of describing the limits of character experience. For example if a theme of a story is justice, whose opposite is injustice / corruption, then the negation of the negation is totalitarianism—a world where the laws change based upon the whims of a regime. In the hands of a great writer we might get a story like 1984. Wilson never allows Tom and Betsy’s world to embrace the negation of the negation. If their story is about finding one’s personal truth, then the negation of the negation would be lying to oneself. Tom lies to everyone but himself until he tells the truth. Had Wilson created a crisis that had resulted from Tom’s attempt to live as the ultimate Organisation Man, the second half may have delivered the kind of memorable experience one receives in The Great Gatsby or Revolutionary Road or even The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Despite its weaknesses, Wilson’s novel succeeds in achieving something that only the best fiction manages to accomplish: his characters’ experiences, fears, and emotions accurately reflect real people. Readers found themselves and their friends in the book. In my mind this is corroborated by the successful publication of William Whyte’s non-fiction book The Organization Man, which came out a year later and also made the bestseller list. Whyte studied organisational culture and investigated what was required of individuals who wished to be hired by the largest corporations and then wished to keep their jobs. He discovered that the number one requirement was conformity and companies created and perpetuated the myth that the group will always outperform individuals. The organisation man doesn’t lament the loss of individuality, but wants to increase the “deference paid to the group…and with help of some branches of the social sciences he is erecting what is almost a secular religion (Whyte 47).” The two values of conformity and a willingness to subvert one’s individuality marked public life in the 1950s. Of course, privately people seethed against these two things all the time. And this is precisely what Wilson captures successfully in his novel.
Readers therefore wanted Tom Rath to beat the organisation and, in his way, he did, without being selfish or self-annihilating, which is likely what they wished for themselves. Wilson delivers exactly the ending people wanted and this is why I believe the novel sold well. Not only does Wilson show the combined discontent of the suburbs and organisational life, thus appealing to both male and female readers, he delivers the ultimate fantasy of a conclusion.
These conflicts and desires persist today among large swaths of the American populace; therefore, the novel remains as relevant now as it was in 1955, and this is why the book is more than a quaint reflection on the gin-soaked 50s. Sure some things have changed—people consume far less alcohol than they did in 1955 and gray flannel suits are less ubiquitous than they once were, at least on Fridays, and the problems Tom Rath faced at work are also faced by women in equal numbers to their male counterparts—but the fact remains that employees continue to struggle against the “false collectivization” William Whyte identified.
So how does all of this impact my research and the argument that my thesis puts forward? These are early days, and the argument hasn’t formed yet, but in studying fiction about the world of American business, specifically The Great Gatsby, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Bonfire of the Vanities, each of which concerns itself with the search for wealth, social status, love and acceptance, I’ve found that there is room for a new novel to add to this rich body of social literature. Most of the books I’ve found with female protagonists who participate in the world of work are really romance novels or ‘chicklit’, they aren’t actually about women’s experiences as employees in the modern workplace, but about finding a husband in the workplace. There are no female equivalents to Tom Rath, Jay Gatsby, or Tom Wolfe’s bond trader, Sherman McCoy that I’ve been able to locate.
Here’s some interesting data published this past June by Catalyst: women compose 46.6% of the US labour force and 50.8% of the labour force categorized as management, professional, and related occupations. Women are slightly more than half of the ‘organization men’ in today’s workforce!. Yet they make up only 15.7% of corporate officers and just 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs (Catalyst Inc.). There’s a story to tell here, and an especially good one to tell about the financial services industry, its corporate culture and its impact on women, as well as women’s impact on the culture.
The creative process is mysterious and my own is hardly efficient. I always begin with some issue or idea from the real world. My MA novel’s origins lay in a 1999 newspaper article about Kathleen Soliah, a former member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, who was arrested after 25 years on the lam on charges of murder, armed robbery, and sedition. In that time she raised three daughters as a doctor’s wife in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota. The FBI arrested her in her mini-van after she’d dropped her youngest child at school. I read this and asked myself what might it feel like to be one of those daughters or the husband who swears he had no idea who Soliah really was?
Now that I’ve found an opportunity to say something original about organisation women in the PhD novel, I’m taking stabs at figuring out who my characters are, the world they occupy, and researching the real world aspects of my fictional world, with particular attention to its sources of conflict and delicious ironies. I read everything I can get my hands on about the global financial crisis, especially the meltdown of Wall Street investment bank Bear Stearns. These are the things that provide the material and the context for the human experience the novel will represent. However, reading alone doesn’t uncover a story, only writing can do that.
The most effective method I’ve found is something called ‘freefall writing’ where you release your ego and allow yourself to write whatever comes up for you, letting your fingers dance across the keyboard, you don’t change anything, abolishing the inner censor as well as the editorial perfectionist. Most importantly, you don’t get out of your chair until at least a thousand words have hit the page or 2 hours have passed, whichever comes first. Sometimes the first thousand words hit the page really fast and the goal is surpassed, while on other days a large chunk of the 2 hours in the chair is spent spinning around, staring into space, throwing pencils into the air. When this happens I find it useful to pick up a pen and write long hand for a while until the ego falls away. The value of this practise comes from accessing the inner well and allowing the thoughts to hit the page before they’ve fully formed along with the unplanned scaffolding that contains them. Again, it isn’t efficient, but it is effective, the job gets done.
The purpose of this work is to find a voice and a character, to discover that person’s deepest thoughts, their sins and virtues, as well as to sort out if they are masculine or feminine, young or old, and the obstacles they face to getting what they want. Eventually this material reveals a story progression. Combined with this effort is focussed reading. I read other novels, as well as anything I can get my hands that helps me comprehend the nuances of the world I’m writing about and the people who occupy it. Until I understand the negation of the negation for this character, her desires and sources of conflict, I don’t have a story. Only after I’ve filled a lot of pages and have a story will I know what argument I’ll put forward in the exegesis. In the mean time I learn from writers like Sloan Wilson and look to them for the experience I don’t yet have and couldn’t possibly live long enough or write enough books of my own to obtain.
And sometimes, when I’m in that dark place of double negatives such as hate pretending to be love, which is what made Judith Guest’s novel Ordinary People extraordinary, I ponder the opposite question: why is it that locating a story in the positive value doesn’t work? McKee hasn’t figured that one out yet either.
Bloom, H. (2001). How to read and why. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Catalyst. (June 2009). Women in Business Retrieved 14 October, 2009, from <http://www.catalyst.org/publication/132/us-women-in-business>.
Fitzgerald, F. S. (1925). The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner.
Jurca, C. (1999). The Sanctimonious Suburbanite: Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. American Literary History, 11(1), 82-106.
McKee, R. (1997). Story. New York: Harper Collins.
Whyte, W. H. (1957). The organization man. London: Jonathan Cape.
Wilson, S. (2002). The man in the gray flannel suit. New York: Thunder Mouth’s Press.
Wolfe, T. (1987). The bonfire of the vanities. New York: Picador.
Yates, R. (1960). Revolutionary road (3rd Vintage contemporaries ed.). New York: Vintage Books.