That Wiley Wylie

By Stuart Hopen


These days, when Phillip Wylie’s name is becoming less and less familiar,  the first thing that grabs the attention of most people is the way he inspired some pop culture characters, especially Superman, who everybody knows, plus two other pop icons, Flash Gordon and Doc Savage, both of whom are starting to fade along with Phillip Wylie, and maybe yet another pop icon, if throw in the name Cap’n Crunch. 

I met Phillip Wylie in April of 1970, when I was still in high school, a kid with wild ambitions of becoming a writer.  He was the keynote speaker at the first Southeastern Writer’s conference held at Miami-Dade Junior College.    But when I met him, one book had overshadowed all of his others — Generation of Vipers.

Because I had set my sights on a career in the comic book industry at that early age, I was mostly interested in what he had to say about Superman.  When he started speaking, I was quickly disappointed, for he rushed through that aspect of his career.  It wasn’t really his character, anyway, but rather a product distilled from plot points of three of his novels. 

Lecturing in a small auditorium classroom, Wiley seemed ancient and remote, something from a by-gone era, though he was about the same age then as I am now.  He spoke with haughty tones, overtly academic, elitist and difficult to follow.  His books read like that as well. 

I talked to him after the lecture, in a group with other attendees.  He smiled condescendingly when I gushed fanatically about my career goals in the comic book industry.  Then he offered words of encouragement that were ultimately discouraging.  He warned me against narrowing my focus, and recommended reading everything I could, and not just fiction.  Anything I might study could be part of my writing.  It was pretty good advice, but the subtext of “lay off the comic books, kid” stuck in my craw.  What I took away was a message to study other things, so that I would be prepared to do something other than writing for a living.  Just because he could do it didn’t mean I could. 

It would not be until decades later that I would fully understand how much of Wylie’s cultural interests stood in direct opposition to what was represented by Superman and the comic book industry he spawned. 

The writer’s conference, as I recall it, somewhat dimly from so long ago, was a modest affair, a pale, south Florida approximation of Vermont’s prestigious Middleberry Bread Loaf, and a far cry from the spectacle that is today’s Miami Book Fair.  Wylie, the headliner was a mere local celebrity whose glory days were behind him.  There were other authors who spoke, but the only one I can presently recall is Lawrence Donovan.  Not the writer who would gain posthumous name recognition as the author of nine Doc Savage books and other pulp adventures, but rather his son, a poet and artist, a faculty member from the University of Miami, famous locally, but not much beyond. One of his wood-cut prints hung in my parent’s living room while I was growing up.   

I was, by far, the youngest person at the writer’s conference, and the other participants regarded me with a curious bemusement.  I sat next to a published author, whose sole credential was an article in a gardening magazine, something entitled “Drama in the Life of a Grub.”

Because I had met Wiley during the height of intergeneration conflict (what we used to call the “Youth Movement”) I had thought Generation of Vipers was intended as a put-down of my generation.  In fact, it was a put down of Wylie’s own– and it drew its title from a biblical quote, suggesting something serpentine and eternally venomous slithering through every generation.  I tried reading it at the time, out of curiosity, the only one of Wylie’s books I could actually lay my hands on.  The dense, unsettling style put me off, the obscure language of philosophical tracts laboring in obvious sermons, a form that might come naturally to the son of a minister.  I really didn’t give Wylie much thought for years afterward.

I ended up going to college at Princeton, where Wylie had spent three years before dropping out, like F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It was there that one of Wylie’s works really grabbed my attention for the first time.  It was the 1932 cult film, Island of the Lost Souls, adopted from the H.G. Wells novel, Island of Dr. Moreau.  This is a film I think of as a nearly perfect work of art, something I would watch repeatedly and study.  But Wylie was only one of many notable contributors, and I still wasn’t motivated to look into his other works. 

In 1976, Wylie’s Gladiator became widely available again, probably in anticipation of the much-hyped new Superman movie, which starred the brother of one of my Princeton classmates. 

  Gladiator is a really weird novel.  I admired the prose, the strange, somber moody atmosphere, and I appreciated the historical significance, but it wasn’t the kind of book that inspired me to seek out Wylie’s other writings.

It wasn’t really until 2019 that Phillip Wylie started to get in my face.  A sign on a newly opened funeral parlor contained a quirky juxtaposition that posted his name in front of me every time I drove downtown.  Selected quotations from his books began to randomly pop up in internet memes. 

My sense of literary wonder began with Superman in very early childhood, before I could even read. I was drawn into other comic books, and then into the pulps.  But Wylie wasn’t really a comic book or pulp writer.  He was more the opposite—a writer for the slicks.  His work was too strange and disconcerting to be fully mainstream (except maybe his Captain Crunch Adams stories about deep sea fishing, made into a short-lived TV series in the fifties, or his articles about raising orchids).   Wylie was obsessed with religious issues, though he was iconoclastic, unorthodox, and even heretical.  He never achieved anything even remotely resembling the wild popularity or fame of the characters he indirectly inspired, Superman, Doc Savage, and Flash Gordon.

Superman’s story resembles plot points found in three Wiley novels.  Super speed and strength, fantastic leaps and impenetrable skin come Hugo Danner, the protagonist of Gladiator.  The doomed planet and escape by rocket come from When Worlds Collide.   The outstanding physical and intellectual superiority come from Henry Stone, the protagonist of The Savage Gentleman, though Stone more closely resembles Clarke (Doc) Savage, Jr., who then begot Superman.

In Gladiator, the protagonist, Hugo Danner is born with super powers because his father chemically mutated him in utero.  Danner continually strives to use his fantastic abilities to benefit mankind, but he never finds an appropriate focus.  As hope after hope is dashed, Danner becomes an introverted wanderer.  By the end of the book, Danner joins an expedition to the lost city of the Mayans, hoping to find historical remnants of others of his kind.  There, he hurls a challenge to God, only to be struck down by a sudden lightning bolt.

The book is unrelentingly bleak, and its ending as startling and unpredictable as the bolt that obliterated the protagonist.  It is the kind of ending one might expect from a dogmatic writer who thought the universe is ruled by an anthropomorphic vengeful deity, actively involved in monitoring every individual, and quick to take offense and unleash retribution.  Or, given the grotesque hyperbole here, a satire of that view.  The scene is an iconic encapsulation of the kind of religious preoccupation that flashes through much of Wiley’s works.

On top of an obvious obsession with religion, Wiley’s writing is informed by a propensity to philosophize, really the opposite of the pulp ideal, which Frank Munsey promoted with the phrase, “All action and no philosophy.” 

Heavily philosophical in tone, Gladiator functions as a critique of Frederick Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  Wiley adopted a form that artistically reflected the epic philosophical prose/poem, a parable combining dissertation with legend, religion, and history, stirring in the element of science fiction, the new alchemy for creating myths.  Hugo Danner’s repeated failures upend Nietzsche’s promises of a Superman, and the bolt of lightning at the end comes across as a bombastic refutation of Nietzsche’s proclamation that God is dead, obliterating the notion as it obliterates the Superman. 

Thus Spoke Zarathustra exalted military values, perhaps only as metaphorical trappings, or perhaps the metaphor is the message.  Gladiator reviles military values, with battlefield scenes showing Danner overpowering his opponents in a grotesque and barbarous manner.  Might didn’t make right.  No doubt Wiley had a direct eye on the way Adolf Hitler was invoking Nietzsche to transform German culture and set it the march again. 

A similar metaphoric refutation of Nietzsche appears in Wiley’s screenplay for Island of the Lost Souls.  There, Dr. Moreau sets himself up on a divine pedestal and proclaims that he feels like God because he has the ability to transform beasts into men.  In the role of the speaker for Moreau’s creations, Bela Lugosi hurls a damning accusation at a creator who would use the slow, torturous tools of evolution to craft humanity:  “You!  You made us in the House of Pain.  Not men.  Not beasts.  Part men.  Part beasts.  Things!”  Enraged, the beast men vivisect Moreau, rewriting the end of H.G. Wells’ original novel with a gesture as startling as the lightning bolt at the end of Gladiator.     H.G. Wells is said to have hated Island of the Lost Souls.

It is ironic that the character inspired by Hugo Danner would forever trademark the translation of Nietzsche’s concept, and bond Wylie’s creation to a product opposite of his intent.

Wylie’s other major take on the Superman theme appears in The Savage Gentleman.  Here, Henry Stone’s superiority was the product of isolation, rigorous discipline, and above everything else, removal of the influence of women. Super powers come from the puritanical notion that the opposite gender is distraction from more important matters, and the sex drive can be harnessed for greater productivity when used only for procreation and not wasted recreationally.

Again, the Wiley’s intent was the opposite of the message molded into solid bronze in the Doc Savage books.  Throughout the course of that series, Doc Savage never succumbs to the charms of the fem fatales who paraded through its pages, instead restricting close companionship to an all-male band of five adoring geniuses, who, unlike Doc, make a great show of advertising their heterosexuality by ogling and competing for the women Doc ignores. 

In The Savage Gentleman, Wiley weaves a parable to show how an attempt to create a superman by avoiding sex leads to the protagonist’s disastrous inability to deal with the reality of sex once exposed to it.  Decades later, Wiley addressed the same theme in more direct and outrageous fashion.  In his 1951 novel, The Disappearance, men and women are simultaneously transported to separate parallel dimensions where each must contend without the benefit of the other.  This isn’t science fiction, and there is no attempt to provide anything resembling a plausible explanation.  The absence of rationality and logic behind the event is kind of the point.  It is an act of pure imagination, isolated from the material world, a philosophical thought experiment, the erection of a myth to drive home a cultural and theological point.  It is understood by the affected characters to be an act of God.  The sheer impossibility of the event represents the divine nature of its message—a thunderbolt announcement that humanity has long misinterpreted the meaning of the original sin and the fall from the Garden of Eden.  Contrary to some of the prevailing views, Man’s original sin was not engaging in copulation, but rather in denying its essential nature.  The novel climaxes when both genders are miraculously reunited, and an open-air public orgy erupts in the streets of Miami, without shame, under the tolerant eyes of the watchful police.

 It was pretty ballsy literary stunt—to proclaim a superior knowledge of the mind of God, and to package it in the form of a parable.  That wily Wiley, setting himself up as a prophet after tearing down the Superman.  Of course, if you read this 1951 piece as a prediction of the oncoming sexual revolution, the prophecy, at least, scores points for accuracy.

The sound of literary balls of steel (or bronze) clanking together here are almost inaudible compared to the trumpet blast Wiley previously sounded in his 1944 novel, Night Unto Night.  In his foreword to that book, Wiley warns the reader up front that the book was about death.  It would have been more accurate to say it was about eternal life.  Wiley delivers yet another series of parables, sermons, and philosophical digressions, here centered around a recent war-widow haunted by the spirit of her late husband and her budding romance with an epileptic professor given to hallucinations brought on by seizures and self-hypnosis. 

With the same panache that Wiley revealed the true meaning of original sin, he reinterprets the meaning of the promise of eternal life.  Using language confiscated from astral physics, he counters the notion that individual egos survive death, and proposes instead that each individual should surrender the self to form a connection to the vastness that lies beyond.    

As the central character is dying or seizing, he thinks: 

When I die—will there be a flash of understanding?  That moment of knowing just how infinity means eternity to me?  Do I know now?

…He stood still and quietude came into his mind.  The world of sound and angles, of smells, shapes, and vibrations commingled, melted and flowed away from him. He was alone with himself.  This, he thought, is not vision but withdrawal of earthly vision.  He waited patiently for more to happen.  He had a sense of movement—not in one direction but in all the directions of expansion; he was gradually enabled to perceive the comfort of his shining, gray nothingness—both from the center of it and from its ever-widening peripheries.  The light increased and became blinding—a classic white light and, presently, the whiteness beyond passion.  All at once the brightness took on every hue. 

I am this, he thought.  This perfect awareness.  This sentient geometry.  This polychromatic infinitude.  I must halt here and discover what it is, then, that I am… Out of this comes art, music, knowledge.  This is the mathematical seed of living.  Beyond good and evil, pain and pleasure, though and matter, lies this construction, this becalmed ecstasy—this crystalized forever.” 

This rhapsodic prose poetry continues through the final pages, ethereal, transcendent, uplifting.  Beyond good and evil.  A glance back at Nietzsche.   Then the novel concludes mid-sentence before the professor can reveal to the reader the meaning of the naked truth behind the fully revealed universe.

You have to wonder if Wiley had gotten engulfed by the enormity of the pure ideas pouring out of him, the ideas themselves so grandiose as to obliterate his sense of self, transforming his mind into a mere vessel to contain those ideas, so that he was missing the irony, or maybe he was reveling in it.  He was setting himself up as not just a prophet, but as a new messiah, and the ultimate truth behind his surrender of the ego was a supreme act of egotism.

The book would be later made into one of Ronald Reagan’s most profitable movies, directed by Don Siegal, now famous for other works, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry.  It was hard to imagine such a message being brought to the big screen for wide-scale consumption in 1949.  But the film version castrated Wiley’s original ballsy message, and concluded with the epileptic professor overcoming the dark night of the soul in the midst of a Florida hurricane, deciding against suicide, embracing his mortal coil, his individual ego.      

A consistent theme materializes in Wiley’s works— that of consumerism set up in opposition to spirituality.  He sees this as a cultural weakness, and his discussions draw upon centuries of philosophical debate, equating materialism with consumerism and idealism with spirituality.  He bemoans the way religion has been exploited to commercial ends, with cults of consumption, and the way both ancient and modern mythologies have been turned in their service.  There is a lengthy didactic discussion on this issue, a tract embedded in Night Unto Night.  With brutal irony, after presenting this tract, uninterrupted, we return to the novel’s fictional characters, now walking along Miami Beach, where they overhear two children debating how long Superman can endure while holding his breath underwater.  It is an astonishing statement of transcendent survival of a character who ended up having greater monetary value as a trademark, worth more in the form of toys, candy, and lunchboxes than the stories in which he appears.

  Wiley’s work has been consistently apocalyptic.  He smashed the entire planet Earth in When Worlds Collide.  In the The Paradise Crater, he considered the destructive potential of nuclear bombs even before completion of the Manhattan Project, and the book earned him a house arrest.  His next take on atomic holocaust, Tomorrow, helped to promote an organized system of civil defense during the Cold War.  Even the thoroughly bizarre The Disappearance is fraught with unrelenting scenes of chaos and devastation in the aftermath of males and females being forced into separate cosmic siloes. 

His final two books, Los Angeles 2017 and The End of the Dream, marry his long-standing complaints about consumerism to disaster when the end of the world comes about in the form of ecological catastrophes. 

These last two books seem creepily prescient as the specter of climate change rises to challenge mankind and the cultural debate centers on balancing proactive measures against negative financial impacts.

 Los Angeles 2017 was originally written for an episode of a television series called The Name of the Game.   A very young Steven Spielberg directed the episode at the start of his career and at the end of Phillip Wylie’s.  One very telling scene shows a business executive who has time warped from 1971 confronting a government official in 2017.  The man from the past berates the man from the future, condemning the fascist regime that has seized America, running it like a corporation, using propaganda and psychological mind control techniques to keep the population ignorant and docile.  And the man from the future puts the blame on the man from the past for clinging to values that destroyed the environment.   

In the foreword to the 1955 reissue of Generation of Vipers, Wylie wrote: “Most of the observations and criticisms in the book derive from the application of the theories of “dynamic psychology”—that is, from a use of the psychological insights of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung…  It is my hope that by noting here some few of the places in “Vipers” where I showed an insight in 1942 that was not commonplace, but that proved to be correct, I may draw attention not to me but to my method…

I would like more people to come to understand a science by which useful insight into what may happen tomorrow may be had, through a special scrutiny of what we are doing—and thinking—right now. There are numbers of dire predictions in this book which have not come true—yet. If enough of us understand the logical concepts which make such disasters foreseeable, I think the lot of us might be led to avoid them. It is this thought, that hope, about which I am most sincere: The learning of science, logic, reason and especially the logics of dynamic psychology, by enough men and women to prevent the needless squandering of a great nation, in which I am one citizen, and the needless death of a great, free people, to whom I belong and whom I try to serve because I love them.

But when you look at the scope of Wylie’s writing, what comes across is a restless intellect that reached far beyond science, logic, and reason— jumping from fiction to essays to philosophy to movies to history to deep sea fishing to government to community involvement to growing orchids to sex to racial injustice to myths to religion to politics to disaster to life to death to eternity.

When I look back on the advice Wiley gave me when I was so young, viewed from the perspective of experience of half a century, he was right.  He was absolutely right. 

Everything is connected.

“This polychromatic infinitude.  Out of this comes art, music, knowledge.”