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Friday, February 22, 2013

Book Value: Fairy Tales for Cube Dwellers

Sinclair Lewis, If I Were Boss: The Early Business Stories of Sinclair Lewis, ed. Anthony Di Renzo (Southern Illinois University Press, 1997). Original publication dates range from 1915 to 1921. 363 pages.
Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt may be the business novel of business novels. It’s certainly one of the most frequent entries on the perennial lists of “100 Best Business Novels” that inspired this column. If I Were Boss, a collection of fifteen of Lewis’s business stories written long before Babbitt, will certainly interest those who want to do a little literary archaeology and dig for the foundations of that great novel. They are certainly there to be exhumed. But If I Were Boss rewards any reader who likes a good business story. And while the collection’s editor is unashamed about his preference for Lewis at his most bitterly satirical, the full set offers something for everyone’s palate. 
Those who want the satirical Lewis will relish the masterful Lancelot Todd stories, about an endlessly entertaining and ethically impaired advertising man. They’re gems of business satire. Some of their funniest moments are “quotations” from the works of Lancelot Todd himself: works with titles like “Fishin’ for Effishincy” and “The Smash and Lash that Put the Zing in Advertising.” Equally funny are the tangles into which Lancelot puts himself by consistently ignoring his own advice that “You can flash up a rust-eaten stove on a full page set in seventy-two point Gothic BUT never make Doc Ultimate P. Consumer believe that the stove is honest-sure heating his little old shack. . . . Brer Ad Man, get hooked up with a by-jiminy firm that produces the honest goods, the good goods, before you attempt the Snappy Display.” 
Lancelot, who is all snappy display and no good goods, is as dishonest as possible, and is caught every time. In “Snappy Display,” Todd tries to seduce a “society lady” for her money and influence, but his plans are thwarted by his general manager and his secretary. In “Slip It to ‘Em” he advertises and takes over the production management of a new line of cars that are so cheap and unsafe that the “way to get the best results with a Vettura is to remove the engine entirely.” The end of the story finds him driving another wealthy target of his seduction through a dark and stormy night in the Vettura she has purchased in order to prove her affection for him. “Getting His Bit” finds Todd on the lecture circuit, modestly detailing his military heroism in WWI France, at least until some real soldiers expose his fraud. And in “Jazz,” Lancelot Todd tries to take advantage of a ghostwriter and finds that the pen is mightier than the three-piece suit.
But there is far more than satire here. The collection contains a trio of stories about women in the business world: “Honestly—If Possible,” “A Story with a Happy Ending,” and “The Good Sport.” These are business romances, and unsurprisingly for the period, their happy endings do imply that no matter what her business interests might be, no woman’s life can be complete without a man. However, on the way to these happy endings, we see a trio of women gain confidence, power, and economic independence by being very, very good at their jobs. “The Good Sport” is a particularly nice literary evocation of Dierdre McCloskey’s bourgeois virtues as a couple learns to live and work together and both discover that being “a good sport” is much less important than being a good partner. And “A Story with a Happy Ending” gives us an office romance that teaches a boss that his former secretary—now his boss—“was his equal . . . his more quickly responsive companion, sharer in his every ambition and enthusiasm.” She is his colleague as well as the woman he loves. This is fairly heady stuff for 1917.
Two of my favorite stories in the collection are diametrically opposed in their representations of businessmen. The first of these is “The Whisperer,” which is about the spider-like Doctor Doremus and the subtle machinations he uses behind the scenes to gain control of a company, destroy his rivals, and put his toadies into place. Set in the pharmaceutical industry, the fears this story plays upon will chime with modern readers, and the office politicking and plotting will be strikingly familiar. Lewis’s initial description of Doremus will certainly sound exactly right to modern managers:
There are two blighted beings who are lavishly hated by all regular office men, whereof one is the suggester, that person who sits in a padded chair, and out of the rich fullness of his lack of experience with practical details advises comic changes which the chief expects you to carry out at once. The other pallbearer is that outsider who is suddenly elevated about men trained in the business because he has a college degree or a beautiful handshake. Both of these was Doctor Doremus.
Though Lancelot Todd always comically rises again, Doctor Doremus meets a decisive and businesslike destruction at the hands of a former toady who surpasses him. He is sent unceremoniously out the door with a five-cent cigar and, as Lewis says, “After that it wasn’t easy for the doctor.”
At entirely the opposite end of the scale is the final story in the collection, “Number Seven to Sagapoose,” about Mr. Rabbitt, a traveling shoe salesman who is so nondescript that “if you had studied him for days, ten hours a day, you would have remembered nothing but his button and suitcase and moustache and diffident mouth.” Mr. Rabbitt, however, has the salesman’s skill of understanding people, of sizing them up at a glance. In the course of the story he bumps into a series of people while he travels, engages them in conversation, and changes their lives forever. The waiter who brings him coffee and pie ends up a famous surgeon. A small-town lawyer becomes a state senator. And a young woman about to leave her husband and run off with a Lancelot Todd type finds a job in a fancy hotel and closes the story by beginning to write her husband “a grudging illiterate letter, yet through its gray there sifted a tremor of dawn.”
If I Were Boss is a joy to read. But it is also a fine example of why it is futile to expect that a great writer will have only one view about a topic as rich and as complicated as business or the people who engage in it. Lewis gives us a wealth of views, a wealth of characters, and a wealth of ways of thinking about business and businesspeople in these fifteen stories. The topic is too good, and the mind behind the writing is too good, to do any less.