The Man Who Hated Moms: Looking Back on Philip Wylie’s “Generation of Vipers”

August 13, 2021   •   By Peter L. Winkler

IN 1943, PHILIP WYLIE, then best known for his cosmic disaster novel When Worlds Collide (1933) and its sequel, After Worlds Collide (1934), dropped a literary bombshell into the laps of readers with Generation of Vipers (1943), a blistering critique of American society whose impact has yet to be equaled.

The best-selling midcentury author was born in 1902 to Presbyterian minister Edmund Wylie and novelist Edna Edwards Wylie, who died giving birth to a sibling when Philip was five. Her death, the result of medical malpractice, became a pivotal experience that defined his views on women and his adult relationships with them. While he held up his late mother as an ideal against whom no living woman could compete, he never enjoyed a warm bond with his father, a stern moralist who subjected Philip to acts he considered deliberate cruelty, such as getting his son circumcised at 18 months without the benefit of anesthetic. Edmund Wylie’s remarriage constituted, in Philip’s eyes, the ultimate betrayal of his mother’s memory. Wylie was a bookish introvert, but he loved the outdoors and excelled in the Boy Scouts, whose activities contributed to his later commitment to conservation.

His admission to Princeton in 1920 was delayed by his participation in an expedition to study wildlife in Canada. When he finally entered the university, he did so on the condition that he enroll in courses in the biological and physical sciences. Wylie didn’t resent these requirements, he embraced them, even though his grades in them were poor. A classic autodidact, Wylie stayed current on the latest developments in the sciences throughout his life, and his later involvement with Caltech and with the Lerner Marine Laboratory in Bimini lent verisimilitude to his science fiction and authority to his nonfiction.

In 1923, Wylie left Princeton without graduating after expressing his pointed opinion of a professor’s exam. He joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1925, only to be dropped from the magazine two years later. He then commenced what would prove to be a long and productive career as a freelance writer. Late in life, Wylie estimated his lifetime output at nearly 50 million words. Wylie’s literary identity was elusive; he wrote nonfiction and fiction in nearly every genre, but his work can be roughly divided into four periods during which his concerns were dominated by a single subject: science fiction, social criticism, nuclear war, and the destruction of the environment.

Wylie enjoyed his first major success when he teamed up with the editor of Redbook magazine, Edwin Balmer, to write When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide. The first novel doubled the circulation of The Blue Book Magazine when it was serialized, and Paramount Pictures promptly bought the movie rights to both books, initially planning to have Cecil B. DeMille produce them. The literary longevity of the novels, which remain in print today, along with the success of George Pal’s 1951 film of When Worlds Collide, have helped sustain what little remains of Wylie’s once considerable popularity.

Hollywood again came calling when Universal Pictures purchased the film rights to his novel The Murderer Invisible (1931), hiring him to make uncredited contributions to their 1933 film adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel The Invisible Man (1897), directed by James Whale. Wylie then wrote or co-wrote several films for Paramount, most notably Island of Lost Souls (1932), by far the best of the three film versions of Wells’s novel The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). Unhappy with studio interference with his scripts, Wylie departed Hollywood for New York.

Wylie’s turbulent first marriage ended during this period. He was a mild-mannered gentleman except when he drank, and then he became violent. His wife briefly had him involuntarily committed to an asylum, where he established a rapport with a Jungian psychiatrist (he later underwent Jungian analysis and even corresponded with him). It is rather paradoxical that Wylie, a scientific materialist, didn’t become a behaviorist but instead embraced the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Jung.

Wylie’s 1934 novel Finnley Wren — His Notions and Opinions together with a Haphazard History of His Career and Amours in these Moody Years, as well as Sundry Rhymes, Fables, Diatribes and Literary Misdemeanors — A Novel in a New Manner was a cathartic exercise that was both partially autobiographical and didactic, setting a template for his future novels. In his 1977 monograph on Wylie, Truman Frederick Keefer claims that Finnley Wren is Wylie’s masterpiece, describing it as “a man’s outraged outcry against those things that outlast all topicality: man’s ineradicable stupidity, cruelty and selfishness; his inescapable burden of suffering, pain, loneliness, and death; and, most of all, the lack of any meaning or explanation of his tragic fate.” From the novel’s verbose subtitle to the various subjects it addresses, it can also be considered a precursor to Wylie’s best-selling social diatribe Generation of Vipers.

Stung by the poor response to Finnley Wren, Wylie fell into a depression and drank heavily for a time. He decided to make good on his vow to get rich someday, which he made at Princeton when he was refused entry into a private dining club because he couldn’t muster the membership fee and the price of a new suit. Wylie went on to accumulate that wealth by churning out what he derided as “potboilers.” In 1935 alone, he managed to earn a little over $40,000, a princely sum during the Depression era.

During World War II, Wylie went to work for the Office of Facts and Figures (later known as The Office of War Information) in Washington, DC, but resigned when his superiors rejected his plan to tell Americans about the Bataan Death March and other atrocities committed by the Japanese, in an effort to stir their patriotic commitment to the war effort. Dispirited by this experience, Wylie returned home to Miami Beach, where, from May 12 to July 4, 1942, he hammered out a series of splenetic essays that comprised “a catalogue of what I felt to be wrong morally, spiritually and intellectually with my fellow citizens.” These essays would eventually be gathered into Generation of Vipers, whose 18 chapters skewered a range of supposedly sacrosanct American beliefs, groups, and institutions, such as organized religion, business, Congress, doctors, and the supposed goodness of the common man. But the chapter that ignited a firestorm of controversy and rocketed the book to bestsellerdom was “Common Women,” Wylie’s caustic attack on Americans’ sanctification of motherhood, a cultural syndrome Wylie dubbed “Momism.” This was tantamount to spitting on the flag.

Generation of Vipers (whose full title is Generation of Vipers: A Survey of Moral Want • A Philosophical Discourse suitable only for the Strong • A Study of American Types and Archetypes • And A Signpost on the two Thoroughfares of Man: the Dolorosa and the Descensus Averno • Together with sundry Preachments, Epithets, Modal Adventures, Political Impertinences, Allegories, Aspirations, Visions and Jokes as well as certain Homely Hints for the care of the Human Soul) sold terrifically when it hit bookstores in January 1943, thanks to the endorsement given it the week before publication by popular columnist Walter Winchell. The first printing of 4,000 copies sold out in a week, and the book just kept selling. Vipers went through 11 printings in 1943 alone and went on to sell 180,000 copies in hardcover by 1954. In 1950, the American Library Association named Generation of Vipers one of the 50 most influential and important books of the last 50 years.

“Mom,” Wylie begins the chapter “Common Women,” “is an American creation. Her elaboration was necessary because she was launched as Cinderella.” Here Wylie refers to an earlier chapter in which he explained how American women were inculcated in a distorted version of the fairy tale that conditioned them to expect material wealth, not because of virtuous activities but merely because they were female. “The idea women have that life is marshmallows which will come as a gift — an idea promulgated by every medium and many an advertisement — has defeated half the husbands in America,” Wylie wrote. “It has made at least half our homes into centers of disillusionment. […] It long ago became associated with the notion that the bearing of children was such an unnatural and hideous ordeal that the mere act entitled women to respite from all other physical and social responsibility.” He went on:

Past generations of men have accorded to their mothers, as a rule, only such honors as they earned by meritorious action in their individual daily lives. Filial duty was recognized by many sorts of civilizations and loyalty to it has been highly regarded among most peoples. But I cannot think, offhand, of any civilization except ours in which an entire division of living men has been used, during wartime, or at any time, to spell out the word “mom” on a drill field, or to perform any equivalent act.

This was an example of the sort of “Megaloid” mom worship that Wylie dubbed “Momism.”

Wylie devotes most of “Common Women” to savaging every aspect of contemporary motherhood. “Mom is a jerk,” as he put it. Wylie’s moms were middle-aged and menopausal Cinderellas, hirsute and devoid of sex appeal. “She smokes thirty cigarettes a day,” Wylie wrote,

chews gum, and consumes tons of bonbons and petits fours. She drinks moderately, which is to say, two or three cocktails before dinner every night and a brandy and a couple of highballs afterward. She doesn’t count the two cocktails she takes before lunch when she lunches out, which is every day she can. On Saturday nights, at the club or in the juke joint, she loses count of her drinks and is liable to get a little tiddly, which is to say, shot or blind.

Vacuous creatures, these women occupy themselves with radio soap operas and movie fan magazines and play bridge “with the voracity of a hammerhead shark.”

The indictment continues, and continues, and continues:

Mom is organization-minded. Organizations, she has happily discovered, are intimidating to all men, not just to mere men. They frighten politicians to sniveling servility and they terrify pastors; they bother bank presidents and they pulverize school boards. Mom has many such organizations, the real purpose of which is to compel an abject compliance of her environs to her personal desires.

Knowing nothing about medicine, art, science, religion, law, sanitation, civics, hygiene, psychology, morals, history, geography, poetry, literature, or any other topic except the allconsuming [sic] one of momism, she seldom has any especial interest in what, exactly, she is doing as a member of any of these endless organizations, so long as it is something.

She reads the fiction in three women’s magazines each month and occasionally skims through an article, which usually angers her so that she gets other moms to skim through it, and then they have a session on the subject over a canister of spiked coffee in order to damn the magazine, the editors, the author, and the silly girls who run about these days.

Wylie recalled how he once tried to organize a group of women in Miami, where he lived, to support a law requiring the pasteurization of milk to reduce disease. Instead, they became enthralled with a quack doctor who claimed that pasteurized milk caused cancer and ended up opposing Wylie’s measure.

What compelled Wylie to attack women so viciously in Vipers? His 1949 novel Opus 21 offers a hint. In that novel, a fictionalized Philip Wylie complains to a woman that

[m]aleness has just about disappeared from your native land, sister. The boys are all brought up by women, and taught by women, and then they go to work to support women by manufacturing and distributing things women think they want. […] You’re used to men who have been beaten to death by women before you got hold of them.

In Wylie’s view, mothers emotionally castrated their male children, turning them into corporate drones. As he puts it in Vipers,

Mom had already shaken him out of that notion of being a surveyor in the Andes which had bloomed in him when he was nine years old, so there was nothing left to do, anyway, but to take a stockroom job in the hairpin factory and try to work up to the vice-presidency. Thus the women of America raped the men, not sexually, unfortunately, but morally, since neuters come hard by morals.

Between the twin figures of Mom and Cinderella, a guy just couldn’t catch a break. Wylie was, not surprisingly, accused of misogyny, a charge he denied by saying, “I think more of women than most men even know how to think of women.” And Vipers also contained a chapter, “Common Men: The Hero’s Backside,” which was as tough on modern men as “Common Women” was on modern women. He followed it, however, with a chapter on “Uncommon Men”; there was no such chapter on women.

Wylie later commented on the personal experiences that led him to write “Common Women.” Because he “grew up as a ‘motherless’ minister’s son and hence was smothered in multimomism for a decade and a half,” he had “an unusual opportunity to observe the phenomenon at zero range.” On an episode of the ABC TV show The Mike Wallace Interview, broadcast on Mother’s Day in 1957, Wallace remarked to Wylie that he had

talked, at your suggestion, incidentally, with your brother, Max Wylie, who is also a writer. Max Wylie explained it to us this way: he said, “I think that Phil is somewhat bitter about mothers because his own mother died when he was five years old, and his stepmother died when he was about 16.” And your brother Max went on, he said, “Now Phil’s trying to compensate for the almost total motherlessness of his own life with a shell of cynicism about mothers.” In other words […], sour grapes, I didn’t have one, so I don’t want yours to be any good …

“I think, Mike, that it goes rather the other way,” Wylie replied. “That I care so much about people and women, that when I see a bad one, that makes me more annoyed, and more vocal than most people who are more indifferent to mankind, and to women especially.”

In October 2018, I emailed Wylie’s daughter, Karen Wylie Pryor, to ask her whether she agreed with the critics who alleged that her father was a misogynist because of his attack on Momism in Vipers. She replied:

For me, I’m fine with that. Phil was horrified by some kinds of women who were particularly selfish and demanding, especially one of my Aunts, Lamby, who married Phil’s brother Max and made his life miserable. She was a heavy drinker and a pain in the neck. Phil’s term Momism has lasted a long time and some of his ideas brought a lot home to young people: for example, women who boasted about having gold star flags in their windows — meaning sons who’d been killed in the war. People who misunderstood what Phil was writing assumed he hated women (a “misogynist”), but really he loved the women in his family and among his friends; what he hated was cruelty and selfishness in anyone. (There is a chapter […] about nasty unkind men, too.)

For a few years after the publication of Vipers, Wylie became everybody’s go-to source when it came to diagnosing the country’s ills. Readers were eager for more of his scathing attacks against America’s sacred cows. Magazines like Cosmopolitan, Playboy, and Reader’s Digest assigned Wylie to answer questions such as “What’s Wrong with Women’s Clothes?” or to tell readers why “Mom’s to Blame” and “Pop is a Moral Slacker.” Though Wylie’s daughter disputes it, Wylie eventually came to believe that the wild success of Vipers became his albatross, overshadowing everything else he wrote. He rejected one fan’s praise of Vipers, advising the reader not to try to buck the system as he had.

Wylie returned to science fiction in the aftermath of World War II with The Disappearance (1951), in which the world splits along gender lines; The Answer (1955), in which US and Soviet atomic tests knock angels out of the heavens; and the nuclear-war novels Tomorrow! (1954) and Triumph (1963), the latter his last commercially successful novel. In 1968, Wylie began The End of the Dream, his first work of fiction to address humanity’s destruction of the natural environment. He interrupted work on it so many times to finish more pressing projects that the book was left unfinished at his death in 1971; it was published posthumously the year after.

Toward the end of his life, Wylie returned to film with a teleplay for the TV series The Name of the Game (1968–’71), entitled “L.A. 2017.” Heavily rewritten by producer Dean Hargrove, much to the episode’s benefit, the show, directed by a young Steven Spielberg, was a brilliant dystopian vision of a future Los Angeles. Unhappy with the finished product, Wylie pounded out Los Angeles: A.D. 2017, a 90,000-word paperback novelization of his teleplay that appeared in 1971.

L.A. 2017, which was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation by fans at the 1972 World Science Fiction Convention, was Philip Wylie’s last hurrah. “The tremendous expenditure of energy writing it brought on the acute, congestive heart failure and perhaps, coronary infarction which, soon after, terminated his writing career,” Truman Frederick Keefer wrote. In Wylie’s novelization of his script, the protagonist’s nightmare about future Los Angeles takes place on Friday, October 15, 1971. Perhaps haunted by his own nightmarish experiences with Hollywood, Philip Wylie died 10 days later, on October 25.

¤

Peter L. Winkler is the author of Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel (Barricade Books, 2011) and editor of The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best (Chicago Review Press, 2016).