The Wonderful World of Work

Maureen Corrigan, in her review of recent novels about the unemployed, started by saying that historically “the workaday world…has been considered too mundane to be of much interest.”  Poor Maureen–another otherwise well-read person completely unaware of the world of Career Girl books. I’m talking about books like Betty Loring, Illustrator (1948), Patti Lewis, Home Economist (1956), and A Flair for People (1955–the heroine is a personnel director). Despite growing up with the Beany Malone books (which she analyzes in her memoir Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, Maureen somehow missed out on books like Date With A Career (1958), and Phoebe’s First Campaign (1963).

These are the books a girl might pick up if she wanted to find out, say, what it was like to work for the foreign service (Assignment in Ankara) or whether she should be a lawyer (Linda Jordan, Lawyer) or a doctor (Doctor Barbara). Or if a nurse, which of the many varieties of nurse? Navy Nurse? School Nurse? Visiting Nurse? But make no mistake, these books offer more career possibilities than Cherry Ames ever dreamed of.

I always regret that I was already well-launched on my own disorganized version of a career when I began to explore these books, frequently referred to as “Career Romances.” For me, the advice and career tips came too late.

Seems like from the forties through the sixties any juvenile publisher worth its salt was publishing this subgenre of teen lit. Julian Messner, a division of Simon and Schuster, led the field, putting out a whole slew of them under the series title “Romances for Young Moderns.” They follow a fairly standard formula. A young woman begins her professional career (“On Monday morning she was going to New York, quite on her own, to look for a position as private secretary. The thought was thrilling.”), encounters setbacks and obstacles (“The cake layers came out of the oven flat as pancakes. How was she going to save her face with the audience?”), but eventually finds a measure of success (“Oh Marcia, I always knew you’d make good!”) and romance—generally some sort of proposal from the fellow who’s been hanging around advising or distracting her for most of the book (“this is an opal ring my mother used to wear and I’d like you to have it.”).

I love these books—obviously, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. To understand why, you have to compare them to other typical teen fare of that era—A Date for Marcie, Senior Prom, and The Boy Next Door, to name just a few. Unlike the boy-obsessed teenagers (who I still have a soft spot for), the career-minded heroines of these books are not frittering their time away on dates and clothes. They have purpose. They are ambitious. They are working.

Here is Katie (Katie and her Camera) on the subject of dating: “There are so many things happening in my life, so much I want to learn about, so many people to meet, so much to do, that I’m not searching for other complications.” At least not until the end of the book, after she’s sold her photographs to magazines and gotten a job as a photo-journalist.

One of the most charming things about these books is the clumsy way they cram useful advice into the plot. “You’re not thinking of starting in Chicago or New York, are you?” boyfriend-to-be Paul asks Katie as they discuss her job search. Katie, no fool, answers correctly, “Heavens no, with no experience? And all that competition? I think the first thing for me to do is get some experience locally.” It’s like the enriched soy flour biscuit mix that makes Patti Lewis’s reputation as a home economist. Good for you, and tasty too!

And for a fascinating view of the era when women were streaming into the work force, these books can’t be beat. Contradictory advice, mixed messages, and ambivalence, here we come!

Visit this blog tomorrow when I’ll be posting book reports on two career-minded shutterbugs in honor of my photographer friend Rebecca’s slide show at the SFPL!

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