AMERICAN business, which has long been harassed by the baying of writers and social reformers, has lately been bitten by the hand that fed it: Foriune Magazine. In a series of articles based on two years’ intensive research and now gathered into a book Is Anybody Listening? (Simon and Schuster, $3.00) William H. Whyte, Jr., and the editors of Fortune present a cheerfully disrespectful and generally devastating critique of the folkways of American business. The piercing irony is that, as Mr. Whyte acknowledges in a whisper, Fortune has done its bit toward fostering some of the folkways which this treatise finds moronic or repulsive.
Is anybody listening to the massive salts campaign for free enterprise on which U.S. industry is spending upwards of a hundred million dollars a year? Whyte’s answer is that the campaign “is not worth a damn”; and he proceeds to show how and why business is grossly fumbling the job of commumeation.
One basic trouble is that business has spent far too much time listening to itself instead of to the customers: it is mesmerized by its own myths and self-induced fears. The public, according to Fortune’s survey, has emphatically not lost faith in free enterprise; it has, however, become deeply distrustful of the hypocrisy, the hokum, and the odious interpretations of the American dream which have been peddled in the name of free enterprise. The folksiness of so much of the copy “selling” free enterprise is a scabrous insult to the American intelligence. “Hell yes, it. stinks,” say the ad-men glibly, “but chum, we’re not writing for smart guys like you and me, but for the peasants and that’s what they go for.” Fortune found the “peasants” unimpressed.
This reader particularly savored the scathing sections on the debasement of language by business — on dropsically inflated “businessese”; on the currently more fashionable “reverse gobbledegook,” which tries to mask vacuity or weasling with phrases which give a brisk, “ on-t he-beam ” effect; and on the cast rated English of “prose engineers” such as Dr. Kudolph Flesch, whose grotesque formulae don’t award pass marks to Churehill’s blood-toil-tears-and-sweat metaphor. Incidentally Flesch, with a Neanderthal louch characteristic of his species, has suggested that Churchill should have said: “You must expect great suffering and hard work.”
The latter part of Whyte’s book explores a grimmer subject: the extent to which corporations have been bewitched by the “social engineers” — the champions of adjustment for adjustment’s sake—whose idea is to “engineer everybody into a machinelike contormity similar to the “groupthink” of George Orwell’s 1984. A
good many concerns, before hiring a married man, screen his wife to see whether she can be “integrated” into the corporation “family.” Whyte was dismayed to find that the wives of management, to a considerable degree, have happily surrendered to groupthink — they would not, for instance, dream of buying a Cadillac if the boss drives a Buick. Getting along, Whyte concludes, has become their end-all purpose.
Robert Lewis Taylor’sWinston Churchill (Doubleday, $4.50) starts out with two strikes against it. The first is that Churchill’s life has been more than copiously documented, and much of the documentation has been done with matchless éclat by Winston Churchill. The second is that Taylor apparently has not had direct contact with his subject, who is adamantly uncooperative with biographers. Churchill — heavily dependent on his literary earnings to sustain his ducal style of living — has long since let il be understood that whatever monies are to be made by writing about him, he intends, as far as possible, to make himself. In spite of these handicaps, Mr. Taylor has come up with a biography which should delight a good many people, however much they may have read about Churchill.
The subtitle, “An informal Study of Greatness,” has misleading connot at ions: in so far as appraising Churchill’s greatness is concerned, Taylor’s book says nothing of much consequence. What the author has given us is an anecdotal biography written in the vein of a New Yorker profile; and it is, for my money, a highly entertaining job every inch of the way.
I have slight misgivings — possibly unjustified—as to whether Taylor has always separated legend from fact: a British journalist who knows Churchill well once itemized in print his daily intake of wines, whiskey, and brandy; and this accounting, though moderately stunning, amounts to but a few drops for each beaker attributed to Churchill by Taylor. At any rate, this book added to my knowledge of Churchilliana such items as the fact that Churchill’s breakfast is apt to include — in addition to an egg, bacon, scones, and tea—half a cold partridge and a bottle of white wine; that in a period of political misfortune, Churchill once bought a cheap violin and essayed to prepare himsell for the concert stage; that after his famous broadcast declaring “We shall light them on the beaches, he placed his hand over the microphone and added: “And we will hit them over the heads with beer bottles, which is about all we have to work with.
An admirable feature of Taylors biography is that it dwells particularly on the less well known phases of Churchill’s career—his tempestuous schooldays; his combat experience as a subaltern, in which he displayed a lunatic bravery; his early days in Parliament ; his service as a colonel in the trenches in the First World War. All in all, Taylor’s “Life” lends persuasive backing to his comment on Churchill: “It is wholly possible that he is the liveliest personality yet produced by the upper vertebrates.”
Close-up of Gide
Since the war, there has been an appreciable rise of interest among serious readers in this country in the writings of André Gide; and the critics have been at work on him. Two books about Gide were published in the forties: a. critical biography by Klaus Mann, which was discerning in part but rather slipshod; and a doctrinaire essay by Van Meter Ames which inflated some sound percept ions into the sterile thesis that Gide was “a philosopher of science.” Last August, there appeared Albert Guerard’s erudite and incisive André Gide, primarily a study of Gide as a novelist. Now Harold March, a professor at Swarthmore and author of an excellent book on Proust, has turned in a comprehensive critical biography, Gide and the Hound of Heaven University of Pennsylvania Press, $5.00), which makes use of the important disclosures that Gide made about his marriage (“the secret drama of my life”) a few years before his death.
Professor March’s is an extremely searching study which contributes much to a fuller understanding of Gide’s complex, elusive personality and to a more precise awareness of the issues at stake in his work. It tells the story of Gide’s restless life in fascinating detail, and the analytic passages are skillfully integrated with the biography. Unlike so much of the writing about Gide, March’s appraisal is neither hostile nor adulatory, but sympathetic and at the same time decidedly exacting. The author also deals trenchantly with the bearing of Gide’s homosexuality on his life and work.
Having made clear my regard for Professor March’s study, I must add that it has, to my mind, certain shortcomings of some consequence. The author has accepted at face value the picture which Gide tends to give of himself in the Journals as a man more or less crippled by neurasthenia—a picture which (as Gide eventually acknowledged, and as his life itself demonstrated) is somewhat out of focus. March does not bring into bold enough relief those elements in Gide which furnish an exhilarating counterpoint to his cloying introspection and perversity — his remarkable creative energy (he wrote more than fifty books); his insatiable zest for literature; his spirit of adventure.
Similarly March’s analysis, which delves deeply and discerningly into Gide’s spiritual conflicts and the opposites that obsessed him — submission to authority and emancipation; self-assertion and sell-loss fails to give sufficient emphasis to the enlivening content of Gide’s disquiet: the quality which made his influence so tremendous among young European intellectuals. March has neglected, I feel, the crucial point that a resolution to the problems which Gide dramatized, with inconclusive conclusions, in each of his books is to be found in his work when it is viewed as a eontinuum. This resolution is the Gidian doctrine of perpetual exploration, which might be baldly paraphrased as follows: Emancipation brings freedom and the elation of rebirth; but untrammeled freedom breeds defeal, followed by a recognition of freedom’s hazards, which, however, should serve as an impetus for fresh adventure. “ Le Paradis est toujours à refaire.”
Laving, Nothing, Pack, Caught, Conclading, Party Going— these six novels by England’s Henry Green (written between the late thirties and late forties, and published in this country, in nonchronological order, since 1949) add up to a body of work which is one of the freshest and most exciting in contemporary fiction. The latest Green offering to straighten out his tangled literary chronology really is his latest: the title is Doting (Viking, $3.00), and the setting is the West End of London.
“I’ve always doted on older men,” says Annabel Pavilion, eighteen years old, to Arthur Middleton, rising fortylive and, as the saying goes, happily married. And Arthur remarks: “Oh, doting isn’t loving at all, Ann.” As usual, Green’s economic title goes to the heart of the matter: this is a story about people who are in a state of doting.
After the Middletons have taken Annabel out several times as a date for their schoolboy son, Arthur starts inviting her to luncheons a deux; and presently Diana Middleton catches her husband and Annabel in farcically compromising circumstances. In retaliation, Diana starts dining out with their old friend, Charles Addinsell, a handsome widower much versed in philandering. Arthur, distraught by the tensions in his home, introduces the selfsame Charles to Annabel, but is righteously indignant — though not more so than Diana — when they learn that Charles and Annabel are seeing each ot her nightly. Diana and Annabel now engage in devious maneuvering against each other, in the course of which Annabel’s confidante, another eightcenyear-old, becomes involved with Charles. Eventually the five of them go out together on a party for the Middletons’ son—“And the next day they all went on very much the same.”
The story is told almost entirely in dialogue — dialogue through whose surface is filtered, prismatically, the characters’ true coloring. There is possibly no novelist in business who punctures human pretensions quite so subtly as Henry Green, or who does so with such affectionate tolerance. In a year whose showing, in fiction, has been exceptionally poor to date, Doting is something to be thankful for. It is, however, certainly one of Green’s lesser novels; and the author’s wonderfully sly humor is a bit tarnished by the book’s over-all tone of somewhat shame-faced and distinctly ineffective middle-aged lechery. Green says of Doting: “They will call it decadent, but it is not. In fifteen years’ time it will be thought quite soppy.”