The 1942 critique of American mores that rattled the country through 20 reprintings and an updated edition
Robert Bolt, the English playwright who penned “A Man For All Seasons” about Thomas More, may not have envisioned that his title went on to describe any individual who stands up for his deeply-held convictions. Although likely long forgotten, to my mind Philip Wylie (1902–1971) was such a man. The evidence is in his work, of course, and is best embodied in the book Generation of Vipers, written in 1942. Wylie raged against the machine of progress from a unique position, both in respect to his times and his writing: it was 1942 and the United States had, as of December, 1941, entered World War II. Wylie made it his task to prognosticate on just what this would mean for the country.
It meant a lot.
Aside from making us the world’s biggest and weathiest arms dealer, it was a sharp turn in American culture toward materialism, the greatest plague ever to engulf our civilization, summarized in the lyrics of Queen’s seminal song, “I want it all / and I want it now.” Cultural eras are often named: agrarian, technological, Aquarius. Ours can assuredly be named The Age of Amazon.
But Wylie’s perceptions of our culture had been shaped by several decades of observation as a writer of fiction, movie and radio scripts and nonfiction social commentary. The man was prolific: dozens of novels, comic books, half a dozen nonfiction books, poetry and essays for The New Yorker, screenwriter for the influential When Worlds Collide movie (1953), an hour-long radio show for Orson Welles entitled “Tomorrow!” characterizing a thermonuclear attack on the US by what was then the USSR.
Wylie was, first and foremost, a thinker and an observer, two traits that make for a good journalist and writer of most any ilk. I was profoundly moved by reading Generation of Vipers (the title’s origins are from the Bible) to see just how many aspects of culture have come to pass, just as Wylie saw and commented on them some 70 years ago. Each chapter takes up a new axe to grind, and he renders those axes as sharp as a razor blade.
Two things (among many other, perhaps lesser, ones) emerge. One, just how far our country has fallen since . . . then. Every speck of decency has become frayed and bedraggled; a congressman and his family photo on their Christmas card, all packing guns? Think I’m kidding? Look:
Two, the true nature of sharing and patriotic pulling together demonstrated by Americans during WW II — saving bacon drippings so the army could make gunpowder? Today we could be at war with half the world, but don’t you dare cut in line in front of me at Starbucks!
My copy of his book is peppered with yellow highlights:
“War . . . represents an unreasoned and inarticulate attempt of a species to solve its frustrations by exploding. . . . most wars are inconclusive.” (p. 4)
“Anarchy exists nowhere in nature. An asceticism, which is to say, a discipline, is imposed upon every living object by its environment and its instincts. . . .The urge toward liberty is, of course, an instinct.” (p. 103)
“At first, our shores were reached by many who were trying to escape religious persecution; this willingness to uproot their homes for an idea showed spiritual hardihood. But these were soon outnumbered by persons who came to make their way, seek fortunes, escape penalties of the law, and so on . . . the chronic riffraff of several nations.” (pp. 219–220)
“The laboratory has undone every tactic but that which wins (war).” “. . .in some not distant future, a hundred men with a hundred new bombs might, quite literally, fight a whole war against a great nation in half an hour.” (p. 275)
“Your feelings, like your thoughts, will often lead you into emotions. But, because emotions are conflicts, they are unfinished business.” (p. 304)
A few more viper-strikes:
“The church insists that people adopt its values-those, in the main, against which Christ broke himself trying to correct . . . .”
“The little red schoolhouse proffers its drab values . . . most of this is stuff and rubbish . . . “ and
The university, county government , business, ending with “Out of such elements, with the dollar topping the lot, are values compounded in America. . . .A fine and fecal puree to have to feel about, through a human life!” (p. 307)
What’s distinctive about Wylie’s book is that he doesn’t just whine, bitch, complain and point his finger, which one finds in most books which undertake to address things thought of as wrongheaded in the US. Instead, Wylie concludes with a chapter concerned with Jesus Christ, the man and his teachings. Wylie doesn’t purport to be a Christian, yet it’s quite clear he is anti-church: in other words, he doesn’t go along with doctrine, which was created not by God but humans.
He says Jesus “set man the task of knowing himself,” and this is the highest goal a human can rise to. And I agree. Each of us, if we choose to, spend our entire lives trying to figure ourselves out. Good luck with that, as the snide might say. It’s a cradle-to-grave task.
Wylie placed great confidence in the thought of Carl Jung in this regard, and that resonated with me. I’ve closely studied Jung’s archetypes and wisdom and it was refreshing to learn Wylie had as well. In truth, this seems his way of breaking through the abject cynicism and disgust he explores so thoroughly in Vipers. It is his path to hope — and perhaps ours as well. He said it best himself in the book’s conclusion:
“It has been fairly fancy of me, I know, to write so long and noisy a book just to say that if we want a better world, we will have to be better people.
“That’s all I’ve said, of course.
“All the founding fathers said.
“All Christ said.
“All there is to say.”