Review by Alice Waagen
Book by Sloan Wilson
Publisher: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1955
I recently had the pleasure of reading The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a classic novel that became a metaphor for the corporate employee of the 1950s — one reduced to an insignificant cog in a soulless corporate machine, toiling endlessly on minutiae. Together with William Whyte’s 1957 study The Organization Man, these books came to represent how big business can rob the individual of self and identity, forcing him into conformity and uniformity.
Much to my surprise, the legend surrounding the book did not match its actual content. The focus of this book is the struggle of the protagonist (Tom Rath) to create balance between what he does for a living and his personal values. Tom questions and challenges himself, his boss and his wife about his purpose and calling in life. If one can ignore some of the dated descriptions (most notably the price of housing and the amazing amount of alcohol consumed), this book is as relevant in 2007 as it was in 1955.
One other aspect of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit that seems eerily familiar to us today is Tom’s struggle to reenter civilian life after serving in combat in World War II. He clearly suffers from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder; back then they called it shell shock. At the same time that I was reading a very moving chapter about Tom surviving heavy combat, I was seeing articles in the Washington Post about the challenges facing Iraqi war vets who had returned home. Sadly, one is reminded of the aphorism: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Using this book as a lens to look back in time, it is fascinating to see the differences in the role of women in the marriage and business partnerships of the 1950s versus those of today. The strongest female character in the book is Betsy, Tom’s wife. Betsy is portrayed as a typical suburban 1950s housewife, focused on creating a good home for her family and raising her three children while supporting her husband emotionally. But unlike her fictional contemporaries such as Donna Reed and June Cleaver, Betsy is a strong, determined woman. She challenges Tom to show the courage to stand up for his moral principles. I felt sorry for Betsy having to live in a time when women’s roles were so restricted.
If Betsy were living today, she would be the one finding her place in the business world while Tom would be happier raising the children.
The bottom line: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a highly entertaining and engaging book. Although it is a work of fiction, not a business book, it fleshes out our notions of the post-war business climate and serves as an appropriate parable of one man’s struggle to find meaning in his life and in his chosen profession.