‘Holly’ Whyte: Organization Man, Observation Man

William Hollingsworth Whyte, known to family and friends as “Holly,” lived from 1917 to 1999. He wrote The Organization Man, the 1956 bestseller. In 1968, in The Last Landscape, Whyte tracked those men, their organizations, and their families as they fled from the cities and sprawled into suburban developments. In his 1988 book, City: Rediscovering the Center, he showed what makes cities work, and not work, and predicted that companies and their workers who had embraced the suburbs would seek to return to vibrant, walkable, diverse urban areas. In fact they have been doing just that in the early 21st century.

Holly Whyte can be thought of as the father of the New Urbanism, inspiring legions of people who are now committed to reviving the urban scene.

Born and raised in the Brandywine Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, and educated at Princeton, Class of 1939, Whyte’s first job was as a salesman for Vick’s VapoRub. Several months before Pearl Harbor he eagerly enlisted in the Marines, which would give him insights into how decisions are made when life is on the line. He saw the relative virtues of standing operating procedures and group decision-making.

In 1952, as a 34-year-old reporter for Fortune magazine, Whyte cast a wary eye on the emerging discipline of communications, and the accompanying loss of “intuition, inspiration, and hunch.” In a Fortune magazine article incorporated into his first book, Is Anybody Listening?, Whyte introduced the term “groupthink,” which he defined as “a rationalized conformity — an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.”

The closing pages of Is Anybody Listening? foreshadowed The Organization Man, in which Whyte declared that the Protestant Ethic and its survival-of-the-fittest social order to which businessmen so routinely subscribed had been supplanted by a social ethic. Survival of the fittest had become survival of those who fit in best. “Group” had become the more important word in “groupthink.” Despite the common perception, however, The Organization Man was not a blanket condemnation of corporate conformity. Nor was Whyte making a plea for nonconformity. And he was not condemning men in “gray flannel suits,” a reference to the 1955 bestselling novel by Sloan Wilson (and later the movie starring Gregory Peck). “There’s no harm in them,” Whyte wrote in his introduction.

The closing chapters of The Organization Man established a thesis that would play out in most of Whyte’s subsequent writing, including The Last Landscape and City: Rediscovering the Center. Those “packaged villages,” as he referred to the suburbs created to house the organization men and their families, might have met the immediate needs of the post-war Baby Boom, but they would fail to be a sustainable alternative to vibrant cities and downtowns.> Read More …