“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” – Henry David Thoureau, Walden (1854).
Sloan Wilson’s novel and his protagonist Tom Rath have become bywords for 1950s conformity. The “man in gray flannel” is seen as the embodiment of the faceless anomie of the corporate and suburban worlds. The hordes of men in suits and fedoras stepping onto the 8.26 at a station somewhere in Connecticut and getting the 5.31 home is the classic cinematic representation of these lives of “quiet desperation”. But it is a misreading of Wilson’s novel to see it as an endorsement of corporate America or the suburban values of consumption, political quietism and ‘getting ahead’.
Wilson’s novel, and the film adaptation starring Gregory Peck as the ‘the man in gray flannel’, are source texts for the popular television drama series Mad Men. Yet Wilson’s novel was not written as a timepiece. The story of Tom Rath and his family was composed as a contemporary reflection on the dilemmas of individuals caught in a society that has apparently triumphed over fascism, and which pits its individualism against Communism, but which is dogged by feelings of purposelessness, even despair.
With all the apparent prosperity of the post-war American world, the Rath family are still struggling to make ends meet as the house needs constant repairs and the local school is underfunded and they need better education for their children. What’s more, the promises of self-actualisation and freedom held out by their society are belied by the constant need to toe the line at work and pay the bills.
Sound familiar, anyone?
This text speaks to us for some of the same reasons that Mad Men has its appeal – we like to think that we have progressed beyond the oppressive gender roles and racial segregation of the 1950s – 60s era, but some of the sharp questions about purpose, conformity and alienation are still apposite. The gap between life’s promise and its disappointing actuality is perhaps a peculiarly American literary theme as no country has articulated the duality of possibility and limitation as consistently as they. In the 20th century the United States did more than conquer with military might — it also exported its outlook and ideals. We have all, in modern Western societies, adopted parts of their creed, in particular the “pursuit of happiness” and the ‘good life’.
The contradiction inherent in this peculiar mix of individualism and conformity was trenchantly critiqued by theorists Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man (1964) and Theodore Roszak in The Making of a Counter Culture (1969). But these critiques came later, on the wave of dissent that characterised the youth culture of the 1960s. Wilson’s hero is lonely in his desperation and has not the comfort of being able to join a counter-culture. Contemporaries of Wilson who explored the psychological and political costs of 1950s conformity were William H. Whyte in The Organization Man (1956) and the artistic rebellion of the Beats.
In the voice of Tom Rath, Wilson explores similar territory – but from the perspective of one caught in the bind of the average middle-class salary slave, rather than the artistic outsider. The narrative drama of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit turns on the tension between the authentic goals of raising a family, caring for a marriage and trying to do something meaningful with one’s life, and the inauthentic ones of having to serve a corporate ethos and someone else’s goals to earn the money:
“But when you come right down to it, why does he hire me? To help him do what he wants to do – obviously that’s why any man hires another. And if he finds that I disagree with everything he wants to do, what good am I to him? I should quit if I don’t like what he does, but I want to eat, and so, like a million other guys in gray flannel suits, I’ll always pretend to agree, until I get big enough to be honest without being hurt. That’s not being crooked, it’s just being smart. … How smoothly one becomes, not a cheat, exactly, not really a liar, just a man who’ll say anything for pay” (183).
The result of this insight for Tom is self-loathing — the knowledge that he is compelled to serve another man’s ethos at the expense of what he genuinely believes. And, unlike some of the writing of the Beats, Wilson’s portrait is compassionate; he credits Tom Rath, and men like him, with the ability to reflect on their dilemma, even if they feel powerless to make a fundamental change.
Tom Rath’s story is also part of another literary tradition – stories of returned servicemen who are expected to pack away the traumatic experiences of war and slip seamlessly back into the flow of civilian life. Indeed, the chapters that recount Rath’s war experiences are searing narratives of a young man’s confrontation with death and his own struggles to square his conception of himself as a decent man, with the realities of murder and Carpe Diem adultery that comprise his wartime life:
“The trick is to learn to believe it’s a disconnected world … where Thou Shalt Not Kill and the fact that one has killed a great many men mean nothing, absolutely nothing, for now is the time to raise legitimate children, and make money, and dress properly, and be kind to one’s wife, and admire one’s boss, and learn not to worry, and think of oneself as what? That makes no difference, he thought – I’m just a man in a gray flannel suit” (98).
Tom’s accidental killing of his war buddy Hank in the Pacific arena haunts him to the point of despair, as does his knowledge that his brief love with an Italian girl has left her with a child and no family in a country pounded by war. The result is a gnawing sense of arbitrariness and absurdity that renders Rath incapable of committing himself wholeheartedly to the American Dream, “Maybe we are all, the killers and the killed, equally damned; not guilty, not somehow made wiser by war, not heroes, just men who are either dead or convinced that the world is insane” (164).
In his introduction to the 1983 edition of the novel, Wilson noted that he called his protagonist ‘Rath’ because he was essentially an angry man. This comes through in some of Tom Rath’s musings, in which he mimics the absurd aspirations he feels expected to follow after having faced death and dealt death in the name of freedom: “I could get a job in an advertising agency. I’ll write copy telling people to eat more corn flakes and smoke more and more cigarettes and buy more refrigerators and automobiles, until they explode with happiness” (163). The novel pinpoints the core dilemma of a society built around consumption – that it tends to address existential and political needs with material placebos.
The considerable hypocrisy of Tom Rath’s milieu is also addressed – – the fact that the nuclear family is held up by the very media he works for as the image of human companionship, but that he feels pressured to spend little time with his own family in order to be seen as a success in the business world. The double-think of conventional morals is also attacked. As Wilson says of his hero, “there was considerable irony in the fact that he had been highly praised for killing seventeen men during the war, but was in peril of disgrace for fathering one son.”
Wilson gives his hero a happy ending and this perhaps reduces the political impact of his work. However, it allows him to pose an argument that would appeal to many readers – that Tom Rath’s predicament is somewhat ameliorated by successfully campaigning for a decently resourced local public school, a job near home and more time with his family. The novel does not propose belief or faith as the answer to Tom Rath’s despair – it accepts that a subscription to political programs or parties is impossible for a man like him. Instead, it offers something more modest –that the opposite of despair is not belief, but meaning. For Tom this means seeking “simple justice” on “matters of conscience” and being willing to accept the consequences.