The New-Old Babbitt
Sincerely, Willis Wayde.
by John P. Marquand.
Little, Brown. 511 pp. $3.95.
Marquand has become established as our leading chronicler of contemporary business, whatever reservations one may have about the quality and level of his literary achievement. His current book, Sincerely, Willis Wayde, was serialized in a mass-circulation journal and has held first place as a best-seller for several months. Surely part of its popularity is to be found in the spectacular “inside” picture it offers. We are present in homes and offices when big industrial decisions are discussed and made; we see top businessmen at work and play; we commute cross-country by plane. Even though the documentation consists of little more than snippets of jargon and fugitive glimpses of factories, we still feel as though we are rubbing elbows with the great.
The vast panorama is background for the story of Willis Wayde, a man of no special engineering or selling skill, who rises through a series of high-class clerical assignments to be head of an industrial belting combine, by virtue entirely, so far as we can tell, of being a nice guy. Marquand sees Wayde quite differently from Dreiser and Norris, whose heroes are full-blooded robber barons, and from Howells and Lewis, whose businessmen face real moral problems. He makes a caricature of Wayde, a compendium of all the familiar notions about the Babbitry and duplicity, and also the latter-day “other-directedness,” of the American businessman on his way to the top.
Wayde is a simpleton who lives by every rule of Dale Carnegie’s. He remembers the hobbies and interests of important persons; he reads fifteen minutes a day from Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf, “to improve his mind”; he neglects no chance to advance his career by a glad hand, even on his honeymoon. His tastes and pretensions are primitive. He is “heartless,” in the manner of a Gropper cartoon, when closing down an inefficient New England plant, throwing old employees out of work. The picture is all the harsher as Wayde’s careerism is almost an unconscious thing, unrelieved by a hint of self-understanding or even cynicism. Here is the description of Wayde’s reactions to Babbitt and The Grapes of Wrath:
Somehow or other these and other novels which, he thought, might have had a few cheerful thoughts in them, always left a bad taste in his mouth. Frankly, Willis preferred a plain down-to-earth writer like Dale Carnegie. It was shocking to Willis, but he had to face it, that the men who wrote these books really did not seem to like America. They did not like their country in spite of all the fine things America had done for them, such as the education it had given them and the chance to sell their books and motion-picture rights for enormous prices. They did not like America in spite of the opportunity America gave them to acquire lovely homes and have their pictures in Life and Time. These people were constantly sneering at solid institutions, snapping at the very hand that fed them. When they wrote about business, they looked upon people who earned an honest dollar by selling products, running banks or production lines as crass materialists, devoid of ideals and social conscience. Businessmen in all these novels were ruthless and very dumb. Willis often wishéd that he might have a talk with some of these writers. He wished that he could show them that men who ran factories and sold the products and dickered with bankers, tax examiners and labor-union organizers were not as dumb as a lot of novelists who always seemed to be at Palm Beach with some blonde.
Marquand instructs his readers how to think about Wayde, pounding the lesson home with a sledge hammer. After all, he is writing for the same ambitious American middle class to which Wayde himself belongs, and, although in the quarter-century since the crash they have been taught at college to turn their noses up at the old American middle-class philistinism, Marquand feels they need unmistakable pointers to keep them on the path of enlightenment. However, the scorn Marquand heaps on Wayde today is almost as philistine and slavish-minded as the Babbitry the Saturday Evening Post used to uphold in the 20’s. It is quite certain that a real Wayde—that is, a contemporary top executive or a junior executive with aspirations—would prefer Marquand to Dale Carnegie. A real Wayde doesn’t wear a Herbert Hoover stiff collar, but a Brooks Brothers button-down one. In Wayde, Marquand doesn’t criticize the manners and morals of a representative figure of the American business class, but knocks down an anachronistic dummy, a straw man.
A queer sort of class-consciousness rules Marquand’s world—one should know one’s class and place. The characters who show to best advantage in the novel are the aristocratic Harcourts; even the out-and-out new rich trash, who are unselfconscious and unambiguous about their vulgarity, are not derided like Wayde. Willis is contrasted unfavorably with his father, an engineer whose ambition is only to tinker with machines. The trouble with Willis is that he rises out of his class to tinker with men, unlike Henry Harcourt who was born to this kind of tinkering, and kids himself about what he really is. (Marquand makes much of Willis’s joining the Harvard Club although he actually attended only the university’s graduate school of business.)
We get a hint of what Marquand might have done if he had not hung sandwich signs on his main characters (in addition to Wayde with his unctuous name, there are P. L. Nagle, Business Buccaneer; Henry Harcourt, Solid and Admirable Aristocrat; the Hodges family, Poor but Happy Academicians). Sylvia Hodges, whom Willis marries, is an attractive and by no means simple woman, shrewdly understanding Willis but protecting him and accommodating herself to him. She doesn’t fit into Marquand’s master ideology, however, and goes her own, genuine, and rather baffling way. We see in this instance, and in a few others, how Marquand might have turned his awe of the business world to reporting it in some of its morally and psychologically labyrinthine aspects.
But a Willis Wayde with complexities and ambiguities rooted in reality would have presented a serious problem to Marquand’s public. It’s so much pleasanter to meet someone in fiction who is, if not familiar in terms of experience, at least easy to understand as an idea. Ideas about reality are always more handy to deal with than reality itself. Like Wayde, Marquand is careful to work by the rules, to meet popular expectations all along the line. I don’t know about a best-selling industrial belt, but this may be the only way to deliver a best-selling book.