Paul, I share your obsession with the spirituality of the American salesman. Shortly before inspirational speaker Zig Ziglar died, I saw him speak at an enormous sales conference in Washington, D.C. I was shocked at how closely the gathering mirrored an evangelical revival, down to the call for salvation at the end of his talk. I should not have been shocked, as you point out, because this is an old strain in American culture. Stephen Covey, author of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, was a Mormon, and sociologist Alan Wolfe once wrote a brilliant review in the New Republic called “White Magic in America” tracing the Mormon roots of his self-help philosophy. In that moment when Bob Benson lifts Ginsberg off the floor, he seems like an evangelist. He even says something about Manischewitz being the wine for all religions, a perfect example of faith diluted through the capitalist filter.
There are two strains to the American bootstrap story, as Jackson Lears so beautifully lays out in Something for Nothing, and I think you’re right Paul, Bob Benson and Don Draper represent each one. The hero of one (Benson) is a self-made man who relies on discipline and hard work, who believes in a clear guiding principle (“one thing, just one thing”) and a Providential plan. The hero of the second (Draper) is a con man, a marginal type who depends on gambler’s luck and believes in grace as a kind of spiritual luck that falls from the sky. I just saw The Great Gatsby last week and noticed that Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway divide along these lines as well. They are both self-made men, but Nick is in the Bob Benson mode—industrious, polite, always hanging around. He even begins his career by reading a set of those modern business how-to books you described, Paul. Gatsby meanwhile comes from Dick Whitman roots and builds his house on a foundation of Draper-style lies.
One other obvious example of capitalist religion we haven’t discussed: Avon, which was essentially built on the evangelist’s model of going door to door, “seeing the people,” earnestly telling a story to four or five people and doing good, just as that record Bob Benson listens to says. That Avon dilemma of whether to go “groovy or nostalgic,” as the head of marketing tells Joan, was real. Avon began to phase out its famous “Ding-Dong, Avon Calling!” ads around 1967, replacing them with images of more modern looking women, sometimes even in suits. The company stayed successful well into the following decade, so if Joan and Peggy land the account, they’re made women.
Seth, you ask why the women—most notably Peggy and Joan—have to take the jagged, unexpected path to the top instead of climbing the corporate ladder. The obvious answer is that they have no choice. Anyway, isn’t the stereotype these days, confirmed by Lean In, that women sit around and wait for someone to hand them a promotion? If so, then maybe we all should learn to lie like Joan.
You’ll have to do better than that,
TODAY IN SLATE
The Self-Made Man
The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke
Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?
The First Case of Ebola in America Has Been Diagnosed in Dallas
Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10
Mad About Modi
Why the controversial Indian prime minister drew 19,000 cheering fans to Madison Square Garden.
You Deserve a Pre-cation
The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.