Uncivil defenses: The nuclear fictions of Philip Wylie

Date of Completion

January 2005


Literature, Modern|History, United States|Literature, American




In The Human Stain (2000), Philip Roth invokes what has come to be Philip Wylie's most lasting literary claim, railing against the bridle [that] is still on public rhetoric, the inspiration it provides for personal posturing, the persistence just about everywhere of this de-virilizing pulpit virtue-mongering that H. L. Mencken identified with boobism, that Philip Wylie thought of as Momism, that the Europeans unhistorically call American puritanism, that the likes of Ronald Reagan call America's core values, and that maintains widespread jurisdiction by masquerading itself as something else—as everything else [,…] a dominatrix in a thousand disguises (his emphasis, Roth 153). ^ Although Roth does not cite Wylie as being correct in laying blame for this “virtue-mongering” at the door of the feminine—for he writes that Wylie “thought of [this] as Momism” (my emphasis, Roth 153)—Roth redeploys a set of anxieties regarding the fear of emasculation and effeminization that are central to Wylie's Generation of Vipers (1942), Tomorrow! (1954), and Triumph (1962). Within Roth's The Human Stain, this fear of a “de-virilizing” presence in American society is referenced to the feminine: The Human Stain anthropomorphizes “propriety” in the figure of a “dominatrix,” a cruel and harsh mistress of culture (Roth 153). I use Roth's invocation of Philip Wylie's literary contributions to call attention to the lasting, but subtle, influence of this writer on American culture—and to note that Wylie's influence builds upon pre-existing aspects of American culture, such as the “American puritanism” that Roth directly refers to, and the Anglo-European traditions that inform this same “puritanism” (Roth 153). Philip Wylie's work modernizes, for his time, traditional modes of blaming, targeting, and taming the feminine, doing so under the guise of producing national, cultural, and personal reform. Wylie's backdrop—the field against which these injurious acts are performed, which is also a functional setting and means of injuring—is the possible event of nuclear holocaust. Tomorrow! and Triumph employ nuclear war in a process of violent cultural reformation. ^ Given his toxification of the feminine, Wylie has understandably come to be a somewhat toxic literary personage himself. However, this is one of the most pressing reasons that his writing demands study—especially from a feminist perspective. Reading Wylie through Michel Foucault, Elaine Scarry, and other like critics of process by which the human is an object of power, I approach the textual set of Generation of Vipers, Tomorrow! , and Triumph as a tripartite case: a body of knowledge, or a knowable body of sorts, which may be studied and written about so as to generate information that sheds light on archaic and persistent cultural pathologies, and provide an illustration of the culture of the Cold War. ^