A Classic Reconsidered

Do not look for last year’s best novel piled high in a fancy stack at the Books-A-Million or B. Dalton, with the belles lettres of Tom Clancy or John Grisham, because the best novel of 2002 was written 48 years ago.  The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson (recently deceased), hit the shelves in 1955.  A small, progressive outfit in New York, Four Walls Eight Windows, has reissued the book, once the literary lodestar for the counterculture that bloomed in the late 50’s.  The title has been part of the American argot ever since, and for good reason: It’s catchy.  In three words—gray, flannel, suit—it summarizes what the counterculture wanted us to believe about ourselves: The American male was a conforming, drab automaton, enslaved by the American corporation.

Such might have been a warranted evaluation of our culture in the 1950’s, but that isn’t the book’s theme.  Rather, the motif of Gray Flannel is a man’s struggle with honesty about himself and his past and the question of whether, by telling the truth, he can build a career within a giant corporation while—more importantly—keeping his wife.

The gray-flannel man is Tom Rath, a writer for a philanthropic foundation.  He applies for a job at the United Broadcasting Company and lands one running a mental-health...

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