by Philip Wylie





Richard A. Lupoff


In the twenty-first century, Philip Wylie is not exactly a household name, but sixty-odd yeas ago Wylie was a famous—and controversial—figure. This notoriety was the product of Generation of Vipers (1942), a scathing critique of American society as Wylie then saw it. His chief target was the phenomenon that he called “momism.”

The conclusion that he drew was that the population coming of age in this country was unworthy of the heritage created by their more industrious and committed forebears. Ironically, the generation that Wylie castigated would become known, in later decades, as “the greatest generation.” As for “momism,” Wylie’s railing against womankind was a theme that informed many of his works, including The Savage Gentleman.

Philip Gordon Wylie was born May 12, 1902, in Beverly, Massachusetts. His father was a Presbyterian minister. His mother was a writer of some note, who died when Philip was five. The elder Wylie remarried but apparently Philip did not get along well with either his father or his stepmother. He grew up in New Jersey and Ohio and attended Princeton University but did not receive a degree. He was married twice, his first marriage ending in divorce. These misfortunes—the early death of Wylie’s mother, his unhappy relationship with his stepmother, and the failure of his first marriage—in all likelihood contributed to his ongoing uneasiness when it came to women.

He began writing for publication while still a student. By 1925, having moved to New York, he was one of the original editors of The New Yorker and a full-fledged member of the Algonquin Round Table. By 1927 he had managed to get himself fired from The New Yorker; instead of seeking another editorial berth he started selling fiction. At first he had success in the pulp field, selling to many magazines including Black Mask, Blue Book, Detective Story Magazine, Fantastic, Five Detective Novels, Live Girl Stories, Mystery, Triple Detective, Worlds Beyond, and Zest. In time he graduated to the slicks, where pay rates were higher, the readership was larger, and the prestige was greater. His output was both varied and prolific. His series about the fishermen Crunch and Des alone ran to more than 100 stories in The Saturday Evening Post.

He was always intrigued by science fiction. In a 1953 essay titled “Science Fiction and Sanity in an Age of Crisis,” he mentions his boyhood fondness for pulp science fiction. However, by this time, while still producing science fiction of his own, he had largely turned against his colleagues in the field. He wrote that, “their orientation leads most frequently to wild adventure, wanton genocide on alien planets, gigantic destruction and a piddling phantasmagoria of impossible nonsense.” He concluded that, “Most science fiction is trash, ill-conceived and badly written.”

Oddly, the only works he mentions specifically are Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John, H. G. Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come, and the film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, based on the short story “Farewell to the Master,” by Harry Bates.

Wylie’s own science fiction was not only successful in its own right, but is believed by many scholars and critics of mass culture to have heavily influenced Wylie’s contemporaries in the pulp field, and in the world of comic books as well.

Gladiator (1930) is the story of a superman created in a laboratory experiment. The superman is “created” by his father through prenatal chemical infusions, delivered through his mother. The development of such a superman (lower-case “s”) anticipates the origin story of the comic book hero Captain America, and also that of the Human Torch. And of course, as an instance of life imitating art, the steroid scandals of the 1990s and 2000s in the world of professional sports could well have been based on Wylie’s novel.

When Worlds Collide (1933), co-written with Wylie’s sometime editor Edwin Balmer, closely anticipates the early episodes of the Flash Gordon comic strip.

Most intriguing is the product of merging the protagonist of Gladiator, Hugo Danner, with the plotline of When Worlds Collide. The result is nothing less than Superman (with a capital “S”). Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, are reported to have acknowledged their debt to Wylie and Balmer’s works.

As late as 1951, in one of his most accomplished and enduring works, The Disappearance, Wylie takes the gender issue as his sole focus. Through a cosmic quirk of unexplained cause, all the females in the world disappear and the males of the species are left to fend for themselves. Simultaneously, in a parallel reality, all the males disappear and the females are left on their own.

It should be noted that Wylie worked in a variety of genres. His novel The Murderer Invisible (1931) straddled the fields of crime fiction and science fiction, anticipating the later achievements of Alfred Bester and Isaac Asimov among others. His collaborative (and anonymous) novel The Smiling Corpse (1935) is not only a murder mystery but a raucous and devastating satire based on his brief, unhappy stay at The New Yorker. Perhaps the scarcest of Wylie’s books, although admittedly not important as literature, is a little romance, Blondy’s Boy Friend (1930), written under the pseudonym Leatrice Homesley.

As for The Savage Gentleman (1932), it should be only a minor and, one hopes, forgivable “spoiler,” to say that this novel centers on the infant Henry Stone, whose father, betrayed by the child’s mother, spirits him away to a tropical island. Assisted by two male companions, the senior Stone raises his son to fear, hate, and above all never to trust, any woman. When Henry, now a young man, returns, Tarzan-like, to civilization, the plot takes a number of fascinating turns.

The male-bonding aspects of Savage Gentleman are of course anticipated in many earlier works, from the stories of David and Jonathan and Jason and the Argonauts to The Three Musketeers, but Wylie’s version, especially involving the boy raised without female influence or even presence, seemingly struck a chord in the pulp audience. This audience, largely composed of adolescent males just coming to grips with their own sexuality, and in many cases feeling insecure around females, might have been more comfortable in such a setting than in one which included women.

Pulp historians point out that the themes of The Savage Gentleman are replicated to an uncanny degree in the pulp character Clark “Doc” Savage (1933) created by Lester Dent, and then again in the science fiction series featuring one Curtis Newton aka “Captain Future” (1940) created by Edmond Hamilton. The latter version is noteworthy in that Curtis Newton’s three mentors are all inhuman—a metal robot, a rubbery android, and a disembodied brain-in-a-box, yet all three are identified as male.

The Savage Gentleman can be read as a pure adventure story but in fact it has more to offer the discerning reader whose interests include the psychology and sociology of sex and of race. In the latter regard, Wylie’s portrayal of the Negro Jack may be offensive to the modern reader, but ultimately shows a far greater degree of respect and sympathy than is apparent on the surface.

In his later years Wylie continued to produce fiction and nonfiction, much of the former of a fantastic nature. Like such highly regarded literary figures as Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) and Ursula K. Le Guin (b. 1929), Wylie managed to avoid the label “science fiction writer” and the attendant literary ghettoization, while actually producing great amounts of science fiction. Philip Wylie died October 25, 1971. His last published work, the posthumous The End of the Dream (1972), was a grim novel of the future.


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