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'Generation of Vipers' Loses Its Bite

By Jonathan Yardley
Saturday, July 30, 2005

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

In the spring of 1942, a writer named Philip Wylie left Washington and went home to Miami Beach "after a stretch in 'government war information' -- ill, discouraged and frustrated." He sat at his typewriter and began to vent about the "cancer of the soul" with which he felt his fellow countrymen were afflicted. Fueled with anger -- and, one likes to imagine, several quarts of 100-proof Old Mencken -- he let fly. Here's a sample:

"Washington is . . . the stone symbol of rapacity converted to smugness, of tawdry imitation which is a condemnation of America as unoriginal and servile, as well as a revelation of the ghastly turn of our subconscious minds. This orgiastic claptrap has no honest meaning or no open purpose, and it is not livable. It is, rather, a smothering of the soul or a gallows boast, perfervid and florid -- an unwitting confusion of peewee excesses, of niggling lavishnesses, and of misapprehensions of the phony for the real and the swinish for the good. To abide in it composedly is to be either a lama beyond reach of all earthly things or perilously mistaken in the acceptance of slack composure as inviting, when it is hell's latchstring."

On and on he rolled, a veritable Mississippi of bile, churning out word upon word to a total of some 100,000, just about every one of them quivering with rage -- though whether real or simulated rage remains unclear to this day. From May 12 to July 4 he hammered away, and by January 1943 the result was in the bookstores: "Generation of Vipers," published by Farrar and Rinehart in an edition of 4,000 copies, "a number commensurate with sales of my previous books and one I thought high for the current treatise." Those words were written by Wylie in December 1954 in his introduction to the book's 20th printing, by which time it had sold more than 180,000 copies and stirred a furious national debate.

Small wonder. If there was a single group that Wylie failed to offend, its name is not recorded. Businessmen, doctors, scientists, preachers, the military, boosters, statesmen, professors -- whack! whack! whack! He demolished each and every one. Most particularly, and most famously, he demolished "mom" and the "momism" that was his coinage for the worship accorded to her. Here's a tiny taste of what he did to her:

"Mom . . . is a middle-aged puffin with an eye like a hawk that has just seen a rabbit twitch far below. She is about twenty-five pounds overweight, with no sprint, but sharp heels and a hard backhand which she does not regard as a foul but a womanly defense. In a thousand of her there is not sex appeal enough to budge a hermit ten paces off a rock ledge. She nonetheless spends several hundred dollars a year on permanents and transformations, pomades, cleansers, rouges, lipsticks, and the like -- and fools nobody except herself. If a man kisses her with any earnestness, it is time for mom to feel for her pocketbook, and this occasionally does happen."

Wylie was convinced that momism was yet one more manifestation of the madness into which America had descended by the 1940s, but he was a pretty wild and crazy guy himself. Born in 1902 in Massachusetts, educated for a while at Princeton, he seems to have been one of those WASPs who claim proprietary interest in the country and lament what everyone else has done to it; I know the type well because I'm the son of one. He was a successful screenwriter and novelist, specializing in science fiction. His two best-known novels, both published in the 1930s, are "When Worlds Collide" and "Gladiator"; the latter is commonly understood to have been a main influence on the Superman comic books, which shared Wylie's admiration for the superior being in a world of weak mediocrities. He worked away at fiction and nonfiction until his death in 1970, but though several of his novels are still in print and read by sci-fi enthusiasts, it is for "Generation of Vipers" that he is best known.

I first read it in the 1960s, when I was in my twenties. During the 1950s, like a great many other Americans, I had admired the many books that took a critical view of American society -- "The Lonely Crowd," by David Riesman and Nathan Glazer; "The Power Elite," by C. Wright Mills; "The Organization Man," by William H. Whyte; "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," by Sloan Wilson; "The Hidden Persuaders," by Vance Packard -- and eventually turned to "Generation of Vipers" because it promised to be in the same mold, albeit of an earlier period.

Picking it up again after four decades, I remembered little about it except (of course) mom and a general atmosphere of splenetic outrage. As it turned out, "Generation of Vipers" did not come through a second reading in very good shape. The spectacle of someone making an absolute fool of himself is always enjoyable, so watching Wylie put himself through these ridiculous paces was amusing, but "Generation of Vipers" is warmed-over H.L. Mencken with only occasional hints of Mencken's wit or perspicacity. Along the way Wylie says a few smart things, but give a chimpanzee 100,000 words and one or two of them are likely, against all odds, to make a bit of sense. Mostly the book is high-octane twaddle, fun to read but incapable of withstanding close scrutiny.

By the early 1940s Mencken was past his peak, but his influence remained huge even though he pretty much kept quiet during World War II. Smart young writers had worshipped at his shrine for a couple of decades, and tinhorn imitators abounded in the land. Consider, in the paragraph quoted above about Washington, "orgiastic claptrap," "perfervid and florid," "peewee excesses," "niggling lavishnesses," etc. -- the sound of Mencken without the music, all bluster but little substance.

Still, Wylie did get some things right. Then as now, American hypocrisy about sex was near universal -- "The people, common or self-important, are engaged in a violent vocal repudiation of that which they are simultaneously engaged in doing" -- and it is amusing to contemplate what Wylie would have to say about conditions today, when sex is slathered all over the mass media (just the other night I stumbled across a TV show depicting breast implants in the most graphic ways imaginable) yet the Holier Than Thou crowd goes right on preaching the same stale Victorian sermons. Wylie's account of the country's past is more than a trifle frivolous, but he provides a useful antidote to the mindless veneration now (as in Wylie's day) accorded it:

"America was founded by a multitude of discontented colonists and a handful of well-intentioned men and women who took advantage of a European war to free themselves of taxation. It was partly a godly land, but in larger part, a slave-trading, rum-tippling, whoring melee of lawless opportunists who couldn't get along in a more conventionally organized society. It stuck together because a few men with a few ideals, wily compromisers who failed to compromise, were backed in a civil war by the industrial half of the union against the agricultural South. In the American Revolution, our book-vaunted militia broke and ran a dozen times from Hessian mercenaries and British regulars. In the civil war, our record of graft and bad generalship, of draft rioting and governmental mismanagement was unparalleled."

There's more than a whiff of truth to some of that, but Wylie wasn't content to let truth lie unmolested. Several chapters later, returning to the subject, he makes this astonishing claim: "In the period that followed the War Between the States, the South, staying in the nation gamely, made a measurelessly greater spiritual contribution to democracy than the victorious North." Jim Crow? The Ku Klux Klan? Pitchfork Ben Tillman? Wylie must have had six gallons of Old Mencken in him when he wrote that.

It's on the subject of women, though, that Wylie gets himself into the most trouble. In one of the many footnotes to the 1954 edition, he insists that "since I love women more than most men, I believe I love them more deeply and knowingly," but the evidence on the printed page is almost entirely to the contrary. He writes about "the unrealness and infantile unreasonableness of most wives," and a couple of pages later goes right over the top: ". . . the child wife, the infantile personality, the woman who cannot reason logically, the bridge fiend, the golf fiend, the mother of all the atrocities we call 'spoiled children,' the middle-aged, hair-faced clubwoman who destroys everything she touches, the murderess, the habitual divorcee, the weeper, the weak sister, the rubbery sex experimentist, the quarreler, the woman forever displeased, the nagger, the female miser, and so on and so on and so on, to the outermost lengths of the puerile, rusting, raging creature we know as mom and sis."

That is to be sure not without its amusing aspects, which leads to the question many others have posed before: Was Wylie really serious, or was he just having everyone off? In his 1954 introduction he says he is often asked, "Are you sincere?" and he replies, "Lord, yes!" So presumably we must take him at his word, though frankly most of the time it is exceedingly difficult to do so. It is easy, by contrast, to conclude that "Generation of Vipers" is long past its day. It's nutty fruitcake, too.

"Generation of Vipers" is available in a Dalkey Archive paperback ($13.95).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address isyardleyj@washpost.com.

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