Briefcase Blues

In the United States, the span of years following World War II was a period of prosperity, growing national influence in the world, and mass access to higher education through the GI Bill. It was a time of optimism and newfound self-regard, and the ordinary life of Americans suddenly seemed a subject of surpassing interest. The books here articulated a new vocabulary with which to reflect America back to itself, but the image they presented was not always pleasing. The country as seen by these writers was materially abundant but spiritually arid, a place of conformity and pervasive underlying anxiety.

The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character by David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney

Riesman’s first book began a vital era in sociology, describing how American institutions’ steady postwar drift toward greater size and bureaucracy was reshaping individual character (Glazer and Denney, who both went on to have distinguished careers, were researchers to whom Riesman generously gave title credit). Riesman invented the term other-directed to describe the personality type that emerged in these sprawling institutions. “The other-directed person,” he wrote, “wants to be loved rather than esteemed”; instead of forming his own character, the other-directed person merely attunes himself to the values of those around him. Character accordingly becomes not a welling up of thought and feeling, but an osmotic process in which the individual’s basic autonomy from society is compromised. Riesman saw the emergence of this type as neutral in individuals but profoundly troubling as a dominant social style. His critique retained its authority for several decades, providing some of the dogmatic foundation for a counterculture whose permissiveness Riesman himself largely regretted.

White Collar: The American Middle Classes by C. Wright Mills

Like his friend and colleague Riesman, Mills identified, described, and provided a taxonomy of the emerging postwar middle class. For Mills, “white-collar people” embody “much that is characteristic of twentieth-century existence”—deracinated, devoid of political urgency, and spiritually null. White Collar is a dyspeptic book, an uneasy mix of hard science and harsh polemic, and is therefore as much a record of Mills’s fractious world of Upper West Side intellectuals as of the calmer estates of Middle America. Nonetheless, it remains a classic because it provides a family portrait of American life at a pivotal point in the nation’s consciousness.

The Organization Man by William H. Whyte

Whyte was a magazine writer at Fortune, and this volume benefits from his greater familiarity with and sympathy for American business culture. Business people are not exotic to Whyte, as they were to Mills, and therefore Whyte’s account of their values is more textured and credible. Like Riesman and Mills, though, Whyte associates the postwar generation of managers with “conformity” and “bureaucraticization.” He wrote of those who “have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life . . . it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self-perpetuating institutions.”

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman

For Goffman, “all the world’s a stage,” as he explores the symbolic representations underlying everyday life. A social psychologist from the University of Chicago, he employs a dramaturgical vocabulary to describe the behavior of waiters, diplomats, and physicians, all of whom perform according to the rigid codes of their social positions. Goffman’s book depicts the emerging self-consciousness of postwar life, a new critical relation to the self born of the sudden ubiquity of advertising. As Goffman writes, in the modern age we are all not only consumers but also merchants: “Our day is given over to intimate contact with the goods we display . . . but it may well be that the more attention we give to these goods, the more distant we feel . . . from those who are believing enough to buy them.” Like Riesman, Mills, and Whyte, Goffman depicts a nation of people who project their values around the globe but whose inner resources are steadily ebbing.

Jonathan Clarke is an attorney and critic living in New York.