The Last Days of World War II
Yates does not say where the battle described in the story took place, but it is possible that it took place in Germany, given that it occurred in March of 1945 and involved American troops advancing against the Germans. The conflict that Yates describes has some similarity to the battle for Remagen on March 7, 1945. Remagen is a city in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany, along the Rhine River, just south of Cologne. After the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944, as Allied forces pushed their way into Germany, the Rhine provided the German army with a natural barrier of defense. The Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen was the last remaining bridge, a valuable asset for the invading army as it moved heavy equipment in its advance toward the capitol, Berlin. The Allies used the bridge, despite German efforts to destroy it before the Allies arrived. After the Allies’ conquest on March 7, the bridge withstood ten more days of German air assault before collapsing. The fictional conflict in this story takes place at a canal and not at the Rhine River, but this area of Germany is full of canals dating back hundreds of years. Moreover, the strategic importance of the battle at Remagen indicates that it had some influence on Yates in conceiving the conflict in the story. The war in Europe only persisted a few weeks after the canal assault in this story took place. In late April, the last of the German army was cut in two by American and Soviet troops, devastating its chances of survival. In Berlin, Adolph Hitler, the German chancellor who had pursued dominance over Europe and Africa, committed suicide on April 30. By May 7, the remaining commander of the German army signed an unconditional surrender. May 8 is celebrated as Victory in Europe Day, or V-E Day.
Postwar Corporate America
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the United States enjoyed a level of economic stability that had not been known since the start of the Great Depression in 1929. The U.S. economy thrived, having the distinct advantage of profiting from wartime spending. Since bombing had caused damage throughout countries that had previously been economic powerhouses, such as Great Britain, France, Germany, and Japan, the United States had a distinct advantage. The booming manufacturing economy led to the development of a new corporate culture. The war years had led to innovations in both product development and in public relations, and this, along with the easy access of money for research and development, gave U.S. businesses new opportunities for expansion. In addition, the postwar boom in college education for returning veterans led companies toward structuring their internal workings around scientific principles. A corporate culture and worldview arose that was specifically associated with the 1950s. If that decade was later seen as conformist and self-satisfied, it may be because the previous decades had been so difficult, shaped as they were by a global economic depression followed by World War II. People who might have held blue-collar jobs or worked as manual laborers before the war (provided that they could find jobs in the 1930s) had an opportunity, after the war, to move into respected white-collar office positions. The corporate culture made it possible for these people to move up into jobs requiring intellect and verbal skills in the same way that, half a century earlier, Henry Ford’s theory of division of labor had made it possible for unskilled farm workers to hold assembly line factory jobs, building automobiles.
The advertising agency came to be seen as the epitome of the corporate culture. Referred to throughout the 1950s by the general, sometimes disparaging term, Madison Avenue, due to the large concentration of the country’s most prominent advertising firms on that street in New York City, advertising was seen by cynics as the ultimate end product of corporate culture: a huge industry that produced nothing but images, creating fears in its viewers intended to manipulate them into buying products. Books such as Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955); William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956); and Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957) and The Status Seekers (1959) described a corporate culture, epitomized by Madison Avenue, that was mercilessly conformist. Madison Avenue men were characterized as group thinkers who spent their days worrying about job security, advancement, and social status, feting clients over martinis at lunch and comparing themselves to coworkers at cocktail parties at night. It is significant that the main characters in “The Canal” are coworkers at an advertising firm, given that the advertising firm came to represent the drive for consumerism, competition, and conformity in the 1950s.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Richard Yates, Published by Gale Group, 2006