THAT familiar label for our time, The Age of Anxiety, is well on its way to being superseded by the label: The Age of Conformity. In our contemporary mythology, the cult of adjustment has displaced the cult of success: the operative words are “get along,” not “get ahead”; the daring young man who winds up with ulcers from riding on the flying trapeze has been eclipsed by the earth-bound young man who settles for mediocrity on the installment plan — and says he likes it fine. This unbrave new world is variously explored in three recently published books: The Crack in the Picture Window (Houghton Mifflin, $3.00) by John Keats, an American descendant of an uncle of the poet; The Organization Man (Simon & Schuster, $5.00) by William H. Whyte, Jr.; and A Surfeit of Honey (Harper, $3.00) by Russell Lynes.
The Crack in the Picture Window is a factual exposé, with a cast of fictional characters, of suburban housing developments. William Whyte, too, goes deeply into this subject in The Organization Man, and his report suggests that Mr. Keats has focused only on the worst aspects of the situation. This much, however, is certain: first, that many of Keats’s charges are supported by the findings of the Congressional Committee which in 1952 made a sweeping investigation of housing built under the GI Bill; second, that Keats has written a fast and slashingly funny book.
The proceedings begin with the purchase by John Drone — a veteran with a clerical job in government, a wife, and two infants — of a $10,500 “box on a slab” called a California Cape Cod Rambler, situated in a bleak stretch of pine barrens in Fairfax County, Virginia. In no time, Drone makes the harrowing discovery that the slogan “ab-so-lutely nothing down” covers a multitude of rackets, all of which — though this he doesn’t know — enrich one Samuel O. Burmal, founder of the SOB Investment Co., the SOB Land Co., the SOB Realty Co., and the SOB Suburban Bank and Home Loan Agency. The disillusioned Drones find themsolves trapped in a house that cannot ever possibly be a home—an “illmade inefficient machine for insufficient living" in a “fresh air slum" with unpaved streets and inadequate facilities for the children.
The Drones’ design for living, as Mr. Keats depicts it, is a “design for nightmare.”They are chronically up to their necks in installment debt, and every salary raise is mortgaged in advance to the accumulation of gadgets. Hemmed in as they are by neighbors exactly like themselves, their social life has neither savor nor variety. And everything they think and do is subject to an insidious pressure for conformity.
Responsibility for the suburban building mess, says Keats, rests partly with the laxity of the government, partly with rapacious builders, and partly, too, with the naïveté and inertia of young Americans like the Drones. In his final chapter, Keats suggests several ways of improving development living, but the last word in his inquest is this: “I submit housing developments combine the worst disadvantages of suburbs and city slums without reflecting the advantages of either.”
William Whyte, Assistant Managing Editor of Fortune, also takes a dim view of suburban “package" living, but he differs with Keats on one important point. According to Whyte, dwellers in the better developments — (hough the more sophisticated wryly speak of inhabiting “a womb with a view" — find this way of life well suited to their wants and needs. They belong to the genus anatomized with encyclopedic thoroughness in The Organization Man. Its most conspicuous species is the corporation man, but it also includes the intellectual on the foundation team project, the scientist in the government laboratory — all those members of the middle class “who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of or ganization life.”
Whyte’s central theme is that the traditional American ideology the individualist gospel which preaches salvation through hard work, thrift, and competition — no longer jibes with the facts of organization life and has indeed been replaced in the organization world by what Whyte calls the Social Ethic: a “body of thought which makes morally legitimate the pressures of society against the individual.”Its major components are faith in “social engineering" — in the notion that scientific methods of measuring, testing, and conditioning should he applied to all human concerns; a belief in the group rather than the individual as the source of creativity; and a belief that “belongingness”— irrespective of what one belongs to — is man’s ultimate need. Its heroes are the team player and the bureaucrat, and its cant speaks fuzzily of “service” rather than of achievement.
Mr. Whyte, an incisive critic of the Social Ethic, proceeds to examine its applications and repercussions in American education; in the training and subsequent careers of managers; in scientific work; and in the manners and mores of Organization Man. The “bureaucratization of society” which Whyte is analyzing is by this time a familiar theme, but he has developed it with a reportorial skill rarely encountered in social studies of this kind; and while he has the sociologist’s penchant for belaboring his points, the documentation he servos up is fascinating, if discouraging, stuff — in fact, his book is thoroughly engrossing. There is even humor of an appalling sort in some of his material, as when one learns that the General Electric manual on “communication techniques” for managers lays down the principle: “Never say anything controversial.”
Perhaps the most arresting section is that which lashes out at the personality tests now widely in use even on the management level. In their cagily grotesque way, they represent the full, fetid flowering of the Social Ethic: their object is to weed out those who would once have been rated the fittest and to promote those whose chief attribute is the capacity just to fit. If these tests were to be applied to the highest echelon of American industry, the most dynamic figures in the corporate world would find themselves out of a job.
Whyte’s book is disappointing in that he lacks the courage of his own logic. He proclaims himself an optimisl, and vaguely suggests that individualism is possible within organization life—his pessimistic exposition proves precisely the contrary. The challenging issue — and Whyte never faces up to it —is whether, at this stage of technological development, any kind of organization is conceivable which can reconcile individual independence with the goals of mass production. The evidence to date would seem to be that the pursuit of productive efficiency becomes, at a point already reached, incompatible with individual freedom.
Some of the phenomena studied by Whyte also engage Russell Lynes’s attention in A Surfeit of Honey, but Mr. Lynes’s short and entertaining book ranges over a broader front. The subtitle sums it up tidily: “a friendly, if somewhat skeptical, excursion into the manners and customs of Americans in this time of prosperity.”
Mr. Lynes’s specific purpose is to describe some of the less obvious changes which have taken place in American life during the past decade or so. He starts out with the argument that the traditional class structure, whose broad divisions cut across the nation’s society, has given way to a series of freestanding pyramids, each with its several levels and its aristocracy: the intellectual pyramid, the big-business pyramid, the communications and entertainment pyramid, the labor pyramid, and so on. Lynes then profiles a newly emerged group, self-assured and prosperous, which occupies an indeterminate zone in our society: the Upper Bohemians. While many are engaged in producing or publishing the written word, Upper Bohemians may also be lawyers, say, or even businessmen. Their common denominators are pride in placing the satisfactions of the mind and spirit above those of status, and a life style of studied informality; they manage both to take convention and to leave it. Subsequent chapters discuss, among other things, the way in which husbands have become “The New Servant Class”; the eccentricities that have blossomed in men’s clothing; the sillier and the more unattractive aspects of our age of prosperity.
Mr. Lynes’s soft spot as a social critic is that, sharp though his critical faculties are, he is of rather too amiable a disposition. His tendency to follow up a series of penetrating thrusts with the healing salve of fairness and geniality sometimes creates an impression of blandness. As against this, his sanity and good temper are refreshing; and one can be sure that he is not guilty of dyspeptic overstatement. He has established himself as the maestro of an unpretentious brand of social commentary which is civilized and stimulating fare: crisply phrased, witty, consistently intelligent and discerning.
Considering that it won the Harper Novel Prize, Tower in the West (Harper, $3.95) by Frank Norris is fresh evidence of the lack of luster in recent American fiction. (Oil hand I cannot recall a year within the past decade which produced so few really impressive American novels as 1956.) Mr. Norris’s book, to be sure, shows a high degree of competence where storytelling is concerned; but it is totally lacking in literary distinction.
The theme is the familiar one of the “good ‘ man whose noble intentions keep on playing havoc with his life. Now, unless such a character is presented with the understanding that unconsciously he is courting disaster — and this Norris does not do—he emerges just as not very bright, and his quixotic follies are apt to become exasperating. Mr. Norris’s hero, George Hanes, is completely governed by his worshipful admiration for his elder brother, Jeff, a celebrated St. Louis architect. Jeff dies young in a motor accident in 1915 after completing a superb hotel building known as the Tower in the West, a sizable share of which is left to his wife, Mary, and to George. Mary, who has been unfaithful, finds herself pregnant; and for the sake of his dead brother’s honor, George volunteers to marry her though he knows she is an unmitigated bitch. This arrangement, which causes George’s sweetheart to marry on the rebound, becomes a prolific source of anguish in his life.
Another set of troubles arises from his sense of custodianship toward the Tower in the West which, from the time that Prohibition cuts down its revenue, becomes a bone of contention between George and his business partners.
The story, which spans four decades, is told with an unflagging drive that will probably make the book a popular success. Mr. Norris certainly has narrative power, but his major characterizations are mostly onedimensional. George is the soul of honor, his sweetheart an all-round paragon of excellence; Mary is a monster; and a big-time gangster is portrayed as a sweet, lovable fellow with a tear-jerking devotion to his old pal, George. Mr. Norris can hardly be congratulated, either, on his use of the English language. His hero, who is supposedly well educated enough to become a professor at Princeton, speaks of “going good,” and has a repulsive habit of using “ fault ” as a verb.
Aside from the fact that both books center on family relationships, Brendan Gill’s second novel could not be more different from his first, The Trouble of One House, which won a special citation from the judges of the National Book Award in 1951. Whereas the earlier work was a somber drama of deep seriousness, The Day the Money Stopped (Doubleday, $2.95) is a high-spirited entertainment which seems made to order for the stage. There is a single setting;
the action is confined to a single morning; and most of the story is unfolded in dialogue.
At thirty-nine, Charlie Morrow — the prodigal and favorite son of a rich and revered Connecticut lawyer — has clowned through life, living it up, chasing the girls, and forever flirting with bankruptcy, from which time and again his father has had to rescue him. He is a man who, as he puts it, has “always been ready to rich”; and he fully expects to be the morning he races from New York — up to his neck in debt but driving a brand-new cream-puff Caddie — to his brother’s law office in a Connecticut factory town to hear the reading of his father’s will.
Arriving earlier than the appointment, he makes a play for his brother’s pretty, standoffish secretary, disarmingly confessing that he is a “wayward child” with “a sickness called the desire to please.” He has already melted her defenses by the time his brother, a stern, censorious type, calls him in and confronts him with the news that the advances made to him by his father on his inheritance have exceeded his fair share and that he has not been left a cent.
How Charlie fights back — digging up and threatening to expose family scandals, playing his affectionate sister off against his brother, and enlisting the secretary as his loving ally — makes a comedy full of ingenious twists, climaxed by what might be called a “royal flush" happy ending. It’s good fun, but too clever by half to ring true.
In Stopover: Tokyo (Little, Brown, $3.95), John P. Marquand has returned to the vein in which he scored his first successes, the novel of suspense, and has reintroduced the celebrated Mr. Moto. Top billing in the story, however, goes to Jack Rhyce, an American intelligence agent who is sent to Japan to break up a Communist ring whose plans, if not frustrated, will cause the United States a heap of trouble. Rhyce and his associate, a ravishing young girl, are traveling as do-gooders who wish to make a study of the supposedly innocuous Asia Friendship League. But suspicious events in San Francisco give them a chilling feeling that their “cover” may have been broken. And in Tokyo, they don’t know what to make of the mysterious Mr Moto, who attaches himself to them as guide; they discover that the Friendship League is far from innocuous; and shortly after their arrival, their local American contact is murdered. Meanwhile, they have made what to undercover agents is an infinitely dangerous mistake: they have fallen in love with each other.
The current fashion in thrillers is to keep socking the reader with a supercharged combination of rapid action, sex, suspense, sinister atmosphere, and mayhem. Anyone who has grown partial to this saturation bombardment may find Marquand’s handling of the situation somewhat on the tame side. Mr. Moto, moreover, plays a disappointingly dim role in the proceedings, and the stage-managing of the love affair is decidedly halfhearted. I need not, however, labor the point that Stopover: Tokyo is more literate and less removed from reality than most novels of suspense.
Two English writers of considerable talent and strong individuality — C. S. Lewis, author of The Screwtape Letters, and William Sansom — are represented by new novels. Mr. Lewis’s, entitled Till We Have Faces (Harcourt, Brace, $4.50), is a brilliant reworking of the legend of Cupid and Psyche.
The teller of the tale is Orual, eldest daughter of the barbarian king of Glome, who as a young woman dons a veil to hide her ugliness and bitterness of spirit. When disasters strike the kingdom, the people and the priests of the dark idol, Ungit, demand that the king’s youngest daughter, the divinely beautiful Psyche, be sacrificed to the Mountain Brute. Psyche is left tied to a tree to be devoured by the Brute, but when Orual returns to collect her bones, she finds Psyche alive and radiant — married, she says, to a god, the West Wind, and installed in a magnificent palace. At this point Mr. Lewis makes a crucial switch from the legend: Psyche’s palace remains invisible to Orual, and it is out of motives more complex than jealousy that she forces Psyche to perform the forbidden act — to look with a lamp on the hitherto unseen face of her husband while he is asleep — for which Psyche is condemned to a long exile. At the end of OruaFs life, she has a vision in which she encounters Psyche, restored to her god; and now that Orual has finally fought her way out of hate and identification with darkness, she is vouchsafed a dazzling revelation, an experience of “the utmost fullness of being which the human soul can sustain.”
What is remarkable about the novel is that a string of complex psychological dramas — about the nature of love and hate, and other fundamental aspects of the human condition— are played out quite unobtrusively within a swiftly moving “tale of barbarism.” A single reading left some of the novel’s meanings obscure; from the standpoint of interpretation, it is a difficult book. But on the narrative level, its eloquence, vividness, and intensity weave a seductive spell.
The plot of Willinm Sansom’s novel, The Loving Eye (Reynal, $3.50), can be simply summarized. A good-looking London bachelor of thirty-nine, who has been successful with women, enjoys a pleasant private income, and has a thriving business of his own, has chosen to bury himself in his lodgings to putter away at a footling historical monograph. He has an ulcer, and we are given to understand that he is mildly, not desperately, neurotic. One day the figure of a girl, apparently attractive, appears in a hitherto empty window of the opposite house, and she immediately becomes the ruling obsession of his life. Fearful of destroying his illusions by meeting her, he goes on watching and watching. But the actor who is his companion brings them together at the local pub, and they fall in love at once.
Mr. Sansom is a writer whose novels have at once impressed and disappointed me. He is an artist to his fingertips, and one is tempted to expect great things of him, but egregious flaws appear in his fiction. The present novel hinges on what seems to me a highly improbable situation and winds up with an improbably cozy ending. Yet if these things are accepted, the rewards are large. The London background with its world of gardens and cats, the interior monologues, the subtly keyed vein of humor, the touching and romantic love story, all these are brilliantly done. Sansom’s fiction has the quality one asks of fiction and so very seldom gets — a touch of magic.