Looking Back at emThe Man in the Gray Flannel Suitem

Occasionally, a work has a title that takes on a meaning that outruns the work’s actual content. Often, the added meaning is merely a plausible variation of the original. Sometimes it can be directly at odds with the original.

For example, a pair of scholars recently wrote that Middletown is a study of Levittown, New York. In fact, it’s based on Muncie, Indiana, and was published nearly 20 years before Levittown was even built. For its own day, however, Levittown did display the kind of middling representativeness that drew Robert and Helen Lynd to Muncie in the 1920s. So, though the new interpretation doesn’t fit the letter of the original meaning of the title, it does fit its spirit.

But consider how “Ozzie & Harriet” is used by some to denote a model of family life that’s defined by patriarchal oppression, even though the always-at-home father of the show itself was laid-back and mellow, gentle and nurturing, and a forerunner of the Sensitive New Age Dad of the 1990s. Or how young people know that The Feminine Mystique is an important book but, shaped by a celebrity culture that speaks breathlessly of the mystique of a Brad Pitt or a Liv Tyler, assume that the title denotes something good, rather than a damaging but powerfully sponsored set of illusions. The same people would want me to confess that I was clueless enough once to think Green Day was a date on the calendar.

The case of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a little harder to classify. The image in the title of Sloan Wilson’s 1955 best-selling novel is used today to denote the conformism of American life in the decades after World War II. In general, this holds to the original meaning: This is a story about conformity. But it is also used in a way that suggests that the title character and the main character are the same person, and thus that the book documents the fellow’s soul-deadening life in a period of quiet desperation. This interpretation departs from what you will actually read in the book’s pages.

The main character is Thomas Rath. He’s the son of a once-wealthy Connecticut family (his great-grandfather owned a sailing fleet of 28 vessels) that is lapsing into shabby gentility. A graduate of prep school and Harvard College, he fought a rough war as an officer in the paratroops. In 1946, he got a job with a small foundation in Manhattan. He and Betsy, his wife, bought a modest house in Westport and soon had three children. As the novel opens, it’s 1953, their car is 14 years old, and the house is falling apart. The Raths want to get a larger place, but can’t afford it on his current salary. He gets a public relations job with a burgeoning national television network, the United Broadcasting Company. It’s a special assignment to work on a civic campaign with the CEO of United Broadcasting, Ralph Hopkins. Rath’s presence at UBC soon begins to pull him in two different directions.

Corporate success beckons–but at what cost?

On the one hand, it draws his eye up the corporate ladder. He gains the respect, then the confidence, then the paternal affection of Hopkins, who eventually offers him a fast-track role as the CEO’s personal assistant. On the other, it draws his eye down the socioeconomic ladder. Rath discovers that one of the elevator operators in UBC’s building is Caesar Gardella, an Italian-American who served in combat with him. He gives Rath a link to some of the grittier consequences of the war. He also prompts him to realize how deeply Rath values the egalitarian spirit of his wartime service, an ethos that crossed the lines of race and class and ethnic background. Eventually, Rath decides that he must choose between these two poles in his experience.

Though he likes Hopkins, he has also discovered that the older man is a workaholic who has neglected to invest in his family life, now suffers lonely consequences, and sees Rath as a surrogate for the son he’d long ignored. To work long hours at the CEO’s side, Rath believes, would damage his family life–and for what? For nothing more than an opportunity to run the risk of becoming what Rath, in his own private shorthand, describes as a man in a gray flannel suit: a bland yes-man whose inner life is as standardized as his attire. So Rath is inclined to pass up this new assignment.

At the same time, partly through Gardella’s influence, he has been forming ties to some of the traditional outsiders in South Bay, the gentry-dominated town where he grew up: a Jewish lawyer, an Italian-American carpenter. Betsy Rath discerns a way to use such friendships to confer new value on a white-elephant land parcel that was left to Tom by his grandmother. This enables him to quit UBC. He takes up a new career as a developer of affordable homes for the families of suburbanizing veterans and a new cause as an advocate for better public schools in a growing South Bay.

Thus, Rath engages in a couple of forms of class treason. One is subtle, and involves the basis he chooses for his own status and livelihood. The other is less so, and takes the form of altering the socioeconomic order in South Bay.

At UBC, he could’ve converted his fraying status in the WASP gentry into new wealth and stature as a player in the executive suite, but he doesn’t. There’s an upwardly mobile working class now, and Rath wants to cast his lot with it. This isn’t pure altruism on his part, of course. As homebuyers, members of the rising working class provide the new market for his grandmother’s land. The better the public schools, the greater the market value of the new houses that the Raths are beginning to build in South Bay. Nevertheless, as Rath sees it, the kinds of people he fought beside and admired as soldiers, and the kinds of people who would buy into South Bay if it would offer them houses at affordable prices, are the same. He’d rather make his living working for them than working for UBC’s top management.

As for South Bay, its socioeconomic ladder has presumably been consistent with the socioeconomic ladder of the nation at large. Before the war, roughly 15 percent of the country’s households were rich or middle class; the rest were working class or poor, and there was a large gap between the two. Since South Bay was exclusive, it was heavier than the nation on the first, and lighter on the second, but displayed an even larger gap between them. By opening the town to upwardly mobile workers, the Raths fill in this gap.

Thus, the Raths were investing in the early stages of what we now recall as the expanding middle class of the first few decades after World War II. A socioeconomic scale that had been shaped like a bottom-heavy hourglass quickly gave way to one that was shaped like a barrel. By 1970, 75 percent of all households had what was then seen as a middle-class standard of living. The rising and spreading affluence gave the society a sense of convergence.

In those days, upwardly mobile workers were making their way into the expanding middle class.

Today, of course, there’s a pervasive sense of the opposite condition: socioeconomic divergence. This isn’t just because the distance between rich and poor has been growing. It’s also because the middle class itself has been diverging, as some of its members move up the scale, and others find themselves going down. If there’s an upwardly mobile working class, it’s hard to find.

The latter-day counterpart to The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is Bonfire of the Vanities. What Sloan Wilson did with the convergence of his day, Tom Wolfe does for the divergence of ours. Wolfe’s Sherman McCoy is the son of a comfortable family (his father was a partner in a Wall Street law firm), and a graduate of prep school and Yale College. A bond trader with a seven-figure income, he renounces the propriety of his parents. Far from respecting those below him on the socioeconomic scale, he is oblivious to them. Far from seeking a connection to them, he holds a platonic conception of himself as nothing less than a Master of the Universe: standing alone and unfettered, he can command all he deigns to survey.

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In retrospect, a striking feature of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is where it locates the conformity of its day. During the postwar decades themselves, of course, there was a view that located the evils of conformity in the upwardly mobile working class. Some intellectuals on the left worried workers were exchanging their militancy for material comfort. Intellectuals on the left and right worried that such workers would use their new purchasing power to create a demand for debasements of high culture. At the time, these critiques were the exotic notions of a tiny minority. Today, however, they define what’s now a widely shared picture of the time. Often, that critique acts to deride the idea of creating affluence for today’s working class, as if such affluence would do little more than increase the supply of lawn flamingoes.

This picture is shared partly because there’s some truth in each critique, of course. But it’s also shared for reasons of appearance rather than reality. Much of the apparent conformity of working class affluence was superficial. It had less to do with the content of working class minds and souls, and more to do with the physical appearance of highly standardized goods: tract houses, ’55 Chevies, swing sets from Sears. As a source on the post-war era, the novel reminds us that much of its conformity was actually located at a point considerably farther up the socioeconomic ladder.

Ralph Whitehead, Jr., teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.