In one of the most popular novels depicting the “masculine mystique” of the 1950s, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, one of the main characters worries about the difference between his fantasy of marriage and the reality of his actual married life.
Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel describes a “typical” family living for “seven years in the little house on Greentree Avenue in Westport, Connecticut,” which husband and wife both “detest,” for “many reasons, none of them logical, but all of them compelling.” The crux of Wilson’s argument seems to be summed up by the line “Nothing’s wrong with our marriage, or at least nothing permanent. . . We can’t be like a couple of children . . . playing house forever.” By telling themselves that they can’t expect to play house forever, the couple in Sloan’s novel is trying to account for the loss of pleasure they experienced after their first few years together.
They do not confront the deep nature of their misery but instead blame the system. They regard themselves as the victims of a world bent on destroying the integrity of the individual; they do not see that there could be something wrong with them as a couple. Tellingly, Sloan’s 1984 novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit II, has the couple divorce, showing each making new lives of their own.
But there is no hint of that split in the earlier book — unless one is to look at the author’s acknowledgements.
This document, which is not part of the novel itself but is instead part of the nonfiction prefatory material, declares of the author’s wife that while “many of the thoughts on which this book is based are hers,” for two years she also “mowed the lawn, took care of the children, and managed the family finances” so that Sloan could find time to write.
Perhaps she grew tired of all her ideas being penned under someone else’s name while she did all the background work to make it possible?
The wife as volunteer muse/amanuensis/typist/editor/proofreader is not an unusual series of roles for a woman to assume. What is unusual for the wife in such a situation is getting any acknowledgement for her contributions, aside from a few words in the front of the book that can be altered with each edition. Being supportive of a spouse in his or her work is, surely, what one expects. When that support translates into doing another person’s work as if it were one’s own, however, the dynamic changes drastically. The male author does not see his wife as a co-author, even if she positions herself in such a manner. The dust jacket will boast his name, the check arrive with his social security number, and all fame will be awarded to him.
It is not true that behind every famous man stands a good woman, but what is true is that anyone standing behind someone else is necessarily overshadowed by them. I have heard tale after tale of academic wives, wives of writers, wives of musicians, wives of painters — wives of any sort of “creative” man — who are driven to fury by the position they find themselves in after years of doing someone else’s work instead of their own. Women who in their own right could have written, composed, covered canvases, or sculpted steel, find themselves discarded by their husbands-- or at least written off rather than written about.
What do these husbands have to say about the situation? “She became a functionary in my life. I swear that if I had learned to use a computer 10 years earlier, I probably never would have married her. God forgive me, but I knew that I couldn’t make it through graduate school without somebody like her. But, you see, it didn’t have to be her exactly — anyone like her would have been just as good,” confessed one aging colleague in genuine repentance. “I began to regard her as a collection of the tasks she performed — typist, cook, social organizer — and she became valuable not for who she was but because of what she did for me. I despised myself, finally, and I left her when my own self-loathing became too difficult to live with.”
No doubt by the end of her marriage this woman felt that the quickest way to a man’s heart was a knife through his back.
Such a wife is a casualty of the sort of response savored by many male artists. Ernest Hemingway who, when asked how he could leave his devoted wife and young children, replied “Because I am a bastard.”
Such a wife might feel like the shrewish, nightmarish wife in Philip Roth’s novel, My Life as a Man, in which the novelist-hero’s wife considers herself an “editor,” since she works with her husband on his manuscript. Roth’s hero, Peter, is increasingly frustrated by his wife’s insistence that she is as responsible for his work as he is; he resents her absorption of his talents.
At a publishing party, Peter is asked by a young woman about his editor. He names a man at the publishing house, and suddenly his wife provokes a hideous scene. “‘What about me?’” she shrieks. “‘I’m your editor — you know very well I am! Only you refuse to admit it! I read every word you write, Peter. I make suggestions. I correct your spelling.’”
Peter pleads with her, “‘Those are typos, Maureen,’” to which his wife, at once pathetic and terrifying, cries “‘But I correct them!’”
The exchange here damns both husband and wife. If the husband gives his wife credit for being indispensable, he should not then be surprised that she considers herself exactly that — especially if, as often happens in traditional male-female divisions of labor, his work is the only work that is formally recognized by the world as important. She makes herself indispensable, and he relies on her; they do a duet.
If she had her own work and her own definition of herself, she would not have a stranglehold on his life; if he insisted on doing his own work without her assumption of the small and “menial” tasks, then he could resist such scenes without guilt. As it stands, they have trapped one another, like two cars mangled in a wreck.
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adapted from Perfect Husbands…and Other Fairy Tales & crossposted with The Chronicle of Higher Education