The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson, was a best selling novel for over half a year after its publication in 1955. There has been munch speculation as to why this novel became so popular. Many critics and readers agree that the most important reason this book became successful was its ability to relate to the everyday working man. With the debut of this novel, Tom Rath became a symbol of the middle class American almost overnight. Many factors, besides being regarded as a novel that "embodies Fifties America", helped make this book a success. They include the way in which Sloan Wilson was portrayed to the American public and the promotional tie-ins of the book to other public industries. However, by becoming a novel that represented an era, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit became a piece of history and not a novel that has continued life. This book is not a timeless novel; many of the issues and ideas it discusses have become antiquated. This book was enormously popular in the time period in which it was written for many reasons. Yet this is not a novel that still reaps popularity and notoriety today.
Tom Rath is no one special. He is an ordinary man doing ordinary things in an ordinary time. The 1950's were a time when the American public was trying to return to a normal lifestyle after World War II. Hundreds of thousands of American men who fought in the war and the millions more civilians, who had felt its drastic effects on the home front, were trying to readjust to peacetime lifestyles. Tom Rath had fought with a paratroop unit in the European and Japanese Theaters during the war. Like so many other men of that generation, he had bled, killed, and witnessed horrors beyond imagination; and like so many veterans who read this book, he was haunted by what he had witnessed. Tom and his wife Betty were a typical newly wed couple of the World War II generation. Readers could relate to Tom and Betty's war correspondence, their wartime sacrifices, and the necessity of having to grow up too quickly. Tom and Betty are parents of the "baby-boomer" generation. They deal with such everyday occurrences as chicken pox, family budgets, and neighborhood cocktail parties. The Raths live in a normal house in a typical suburban community with commen family problems. Indeed, Tom Rath is no one special. Nevertheless, this was the greatness of Tom's character. In the 1950's, he was an "every man" to whome the common person could relate. Critics and readers alike, attributed the novels success to it's ability to be, as one reader put it, "a wonderful reading experience about everyday, ordinary people, with human problems. I know people like these and probably am so myself." The book's publisher, Simon and Shuster, created an entire advertising campaign around this feeling of commonality with Wilson's characters. Tens of thousands of dollars were spent on ads for this novel in all the major publishing magazines and even included a double, full page ad in The New York Times. The silhouette of an unspecified Simon and Shuster executive dressed in a gray flannel suit with his hands clasped behind his back, became a very recognizable symbol of this book that appeared everywhere books were sold. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was not a thrilling, action packed novel. It became a bestseller because so many people could personally relate to Tom Rath's very human problems. By donning his gray flannel suit in the morning and catching the 7:35 AM train for work, Tom Rath became a character that shared many of the same struggles that working class America had to face in their own lives. He is a hero with all the faults and worldly troubles that befell the working man of the 1950's.
This book did not always receive the highest reviews when first published. An important observation to note is that when critics first reviewed this book, there was a distinct difference in the way large newspapers and magazines described the novel and the way local bookstore owners and common readers described the novel. Local bookstore owners and common readers seemed much more able to relate to the story. Their reviews usually have only good things to say about the book. Often these reviews made mentioning of "knowing a Tom Rath my life". Large newspaper and magazines often did not review the book as favorably. Time magazine called the story "not easily believable." Another major reviewer called the novel "bland". Apparently, the audience for whom the book was written - middle class Americans - best received this novel and it was these masses that made the novel successful.
Tom's heroic character is not a timeless one. The reason The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is not still topping book sales charts today is because it does not relate to the general public of the 1990's as it did in the 1950's. This book was supposed to be a very modern novel. It described current foreign affairs and national politics of the day. Communism, suburban housing expansion, and the return of veterans to the workplace were all important contemporary issues in the 1950's. Today these issues are outdated. The book is too new to be considered a classic and society has changed too much for people to be able to relate to the book as they once did. One major difference is that today's business world has gone through a drastic change. White males are no longer the sole business leaders of the world. Today, women and minorities might even take offense to the way that they were represented in Sloan Wilson's novel. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit portrays women in the workplace in only secretarial roles. In the novel, Mr. Hopkins, Tom's boss, employs two secretaries and it is implied that one is employed for her looks while the other is employed for her abilities. In today's world where women executives are not an uncommon sight, this book seems very out dated. The book shows almost no minority character representation. In, fact minorities are mentioned only two times. One instance is when Tom has a flashback to the war and he remembers a Black infantry platoon coming ashore after one especially hard landing. Not only does Wilson refer to the Black sergeant as a "Negro", but this scene also hinted at some of the prejudice that was a part of the United States military during World War II. It illustrated how Black soldiers were often kept out of front line combat and relegated to auxiliary and support roles in important military operations. The only other time minorities are mentioned in the novel is when Hopkins is trying to form an "Exploratory Committee" for his mental health project. He wants Tom to include "a Catholic?a Jew?.a Negro" in his committee. Wilson's terminology and his depiction of minority roles in the work place make this novel out of date in today's multicultural and politically correct society. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is also out of date in its depiction of family life and family roles. Today's women, who make up a large percentage of those buying books and making books bestsellers, may dislike the typical subservient housewife portrayal of Betty in the novel. Indeed, this book is not as appealing to today's audiences as it was to the readers of the 1950's.
Sloan Wilson wanted to be considered by his readership as a common man when he wrote this novel. When this novel was first published in 1955, it included an "Acknowledgments" and an "About the Author" page. Both of these passages seem to portray Wilson as just a simple working man, a normal husband and father. The "About the Author" page tells how Wilson wrote The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit on weekends while his wife did his chores around the house. Wilson is shown as a working man with a dream to write a book. Simon and Shuster most likely wanted his public to see Wilson in this light. They wanted the working man to feel that this was a book by one of thei own, by a person who knows how they feel. Twenty years later, Wilson was still trying to present himself as a common man to his readers. At the end of his autobiographical novel, What Shall We Wear to This Party?, published in 1976, Wilson offers simple advice about surviving lifes daily struggles. He presents himself as a father and remarried husband trying to discover simple pleasures in life. Indeed Simon and Schuster and Sloan Wilson were looking to present "the novel about the common man" as being written by one of the common men.
Another reason The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit became a best seller might have been that it seems to fit the model of the type of story that became best sellers in the mid 1950. Like Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar (best seller in 1955) and Grace Metalious' Peyton Place (best seller 1956), this book is a social commentary on the growing trend towards uniformity. This seemed to be a popular subject and topic that sold books in the mid 1950's. It is interesting to note that this subject is handled very differently in these different bestsellers. While Peyton Place depicts characters rebelling against society and refusing to change, Marjorie Morningstar shows a character rebelling against society and in the end giving in and accepting social uniformity. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit falls somewhere in between these two different story lines. Tom realizes his place in the world, attempts to change, and finds a happy medium in which he can live. It can thus be inferred that one quality that made a book a bestseller in the mid 1950's is that it was a social commentary. The public wanted to read about the writer's thoughts on society. They became more accepting of many varying viewpoints.
Major promotional tie-ins to other public industries are another reason this book topped the best seller's charts for so long. Foremost in this aspect was the book's film debut in 1956. The movie version of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, appearing so soon after the book's release, rejuvenated public interest in the novel and helped keep the book's sales figures soaring in that year. Also, the casting of notable Hollywood stars, such as Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck, made this a hit movie on it's own. The clothing industry was another public industry that's efforts heightened sales of this book. Major retailers across the United States and in Canada saw the publishing of this book as an excellent opportunity for tie-in promotions to push gray flannel suit sales. Trademark silhouette cardboard cutouts soon hit department store windows after this book hit bookstore shelves in 1955. Copies of the book began appearing in such major department store display cases as Wallach's and Muse's Clothing Store of Atlanta. The book soon became not only a literary and film hit but, a fashion craze as well. One report in a 1955 article of Publishers Weekly mentioned:
"The ladies were not ignored either. Peck and Peck in New York recently had two attractive windows of clothes in one of its Fifth Avenue shops, built around a blow-up jacket picture, with a note that The woman (and the Junior) in the gray flannel suit complements the man in the gray flannel suit."
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit makes connections with a number of different industries. This connection of characters with society's members spread its popularity and helped establish it as a finacial and critical success.
To become a bestseller, a book needs to be more than just a great literary work. Numerous different factors need to work together to make a book achieve this level of success. Multi-faceted advertising campaigns, positive perceptions of the author, and conformity with other best selling novels of the time, are some of the factors that contributed to the success of Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. In Tom Rath, Sloan Wilson had not only a great book, but also a great phenomenon. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit took on a life outside its bookbinding and stirred the masses of an entire decade. However, in focusing so much on relating to one decade, Wilson's novel does not have staying power in today's society.
-What Shall We Wear to This Party?
-Publishers Weekly (1955-56)
-Time (July 1955)
-The Booklist (July 1955)