FROM MAD MEN TO The Ice Storm to American Beauty, suburban life has been consistently depicted as a deal with the devil. Comfort and security can be found at the end of the commuter line, but they often come at the expense of excitement and fulfillment. The acreage desired to raise a family can often engender crushing isolation. There is a darkness at the edge of town, one that often leaves suburbanites feeling as if they may have paid too high a spiritual price for that prime real estate.
One of the great rewards of reading Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) nearly sixty years after its publication is that it reminds us this Faustian deal has been present since the earliest days of the great suburban migration. For Tom and Betsy Rath, the thirtysomething couple at the heart of Wilson’s best seller, life in 1953 Connecticut is a perpetual grind with ballooning mortgages, inadequate salaries, and crumbling public schools. The daily struggle is not about keeping up with the Joneses so much as it is about keeping your head above water. But even with the litany of hardships they face, they do not lose the faith that, if only they work hard enough, their investment will one day pay off.
The novel opens with Tom, a veteran who remains haunted by his World War II experiences, admitting that his job at a charitable foundation is not bringing home enough bacon. He hates his ticky-tacky house in Westport, with its “thousand petty shabbinesses.” Putting his skepticism into a blind trust, he finds work as a public-relations hack for Ralph Hopkins, a workaholic television-network president. After a vertiginous climb up the corporate ladder, Tom is invited to take his place in the enchanted world of serious money. Once he realizes that success means eighty-hour workweeks, he rejects Hopkins’s offer. Readers would be mistaken, however, to think that his renunciation stems from restlessness, or the decision to escape suburbia in search of a more bohemian existence.
The novel’s central tension, in fact, is that Tom truly wants suburban comfort, despite the stress and ennui such a quest might bring. Wilson’s iconic title has become a catchphrase in the war on commuter conformity, but Tom bears little in common with his close literary cousin, Frank Wheeler of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, also set during the Eisenhower years. Unlike Wheeler, Tom never fostered any ideals about doing something artistic—or about wandering far from his Westport home. When Betsy suggests his corporate apostasy stems from a yearning to go to Italy to be with his wartime lover, Tom recoils at the notion of straying beyond the commuter belt.
No, he does not long to shed his gray flannel suit. He just wants one cut a little more loosely. His great ambition is to enjoy suburban life as fully as possible. Instead of telling Hopkins to take his job and shove it, he meekly asks for a nine-to-five gig so he can be home in time to coach Little League, trim the hedges, and mix martinis. Despite that symbolically loaded surname, Tom Rath is no angry young man. He’s a rebel with a cause—to spend more time with the kids.
“The important thing is to create an island of order in a sea of chaos,” Tom realizes during a commute into the city. “And an island of order obviously must be made of money, for one doesn’t bring up children in an orderly way . . . or dress in an orderly way, or think in an orderly way without money. Money is the root of all order.”
Even his most daring aspirations keep him planted firmly in leafy Connecticut. When he inherits twenty-three acres of prime real estate from his grandmother, he does not flip it in order to live in Greenwich Village or the Left Bank. Instead, he and Betsy dream of developing the land into one-acre lots that they can fill with like-minded barbecuers. The Raths don’t want to flee suburbia. They want to own it.
This is the core message of Wilson’s novel, one that makes it both less appealing and more honest than Revolutionary Road. Suburban discontents are usually not wannabe poets and Abstract Expressionists. Or aspiring Gatsbys, for that matter. They are simply struggling to make ends meet. Wilson understood that suburban wealth is not about accumulating vast piles of loot so one could quit the day job and write that novel. Rather, it is about creating a secure, serene island in a clamorous world. For many Americans, the fact that this dream has so often proved elusive has not made it any less seductive.
Stephen Amidon is the author of six novels, including Human Capital (2004) and Security (2009; both Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and the nonfiction book Something Like the Gods: A Cultural History of the Athlete from Achilles to LeBron (Rodale Books, 2012).