Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Philip Wylie

The novelist, satirist, and social critic Philip Wylie talks to Wallace about moms and "Momism," women and marriage, religion, intellectualism, and psychoanalysis.

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Guest: Philip Wylie

WALLACE: In 1943 a promising young novelist by the name of Philip Wylie, declared open war on America's sacred institutions, including Mom. In his book, ”Generation of Vipers,” Mr. Wylie has violated other taboos by attacking American moral values, Christianity, Doctors, Teachers, and Statesmen, to name just a few. In his latest book, “The Innocent Ambassadors,” Mr. Wylie continues to strike out in various directions. He is one of the few rebels, and debunkers left, in otherwise conservative American letters. Mr. Wylie has been dishing it out for years. Let's try to find out why.

Phil, first of all, let me ask you this: Fifteen years ago, in “Generation of Vipers,” you described Mom this way, you said, "Men live for her, and die for her, dote upon here, and whisper her name as they pass away. In a thousand of her, there is not enough sex appeal to budge a hermit ten paces off a rock ledge. She plays bridge with the stupid veracity of a hammerhead shark. She couldn't pass the final examinations of a 5th grader." I think that's enough, for now, any way. That was written in 1942. The obvious question is... is that, in view of the furor and the protest that that essay, that chapter caused, is that still your opinion today, Mother's Day, fifteen years later?

WYLIE: Well, let me... let me say, that if you had read on, through those pages of indictment, you'd have realized Mike, that I was talking about not mothers, all of them, but a certain kind, whom I classified as I did, and whom I outrageously lampooned, deliberately, from a psychological background, that was well informed.

WALLACE: Yes, but it seemed to me, from what you said, that you were talking about millions and millions of American mothers, not just half a dozen of them.

WYLIE: Oh, I wouldn't talk about half a dozen, if you could have read my mail, which came in by the tens of thousands of letters, and still does. You would know that I was talking about more than I thought. But somewhere, later on there, I said, and you'll find it in the book: any woman who is not roaring with laughter now ought to take a sharp look at herself.


WYLIE: And what I meant is, if you have these attributes, then I don't think you're a good mother.

WALLACE: But you were fairly serious about what you were writing, and I got the impression that you felt that this was true... what you wrote, was true about the majority of American mothers.

WYLIE: No... No, I didn't feel that.

WALLACE: You did not feel that?

WYLIE: No, I just thought it was true about so many, and it was becoming true about more, that I ought to say: This kind of Mom is sure a jerk, and I have not changed my opinion in that sense.

WALLACE: Mom... that kind of Mom is still a jerk.

WYLIE: That's why. Yes.


WALLACE: We talked, at your suggestion, incidentally, with your brother, Max Wylie, who is also a writer. Max Wylie explained it to us this way: he said, "I think that Phil is somewhat bitter about mother's because his own mother died when he was five years old, and his stepmother died when he was about 16." And your brother Max, went on; he said, "Now Phil's trying to compensate for the almost total motherlessness of his own life with a shell of cynicism about mothers." In other words -- that's the end of his quote -- In other words, sour grapes, I didn't have one, so I don't want yours to be any good...

WYLIE: Well, I understand that point of view and Max and I are very fond of each other, and often differ. And I am not my brothers' keeper, and he does not need a keeper. But I don't think that's all... I think, Mike, that it goes rather the other way. That I care so much about people and women, that when I see a bad one, that makes me more annoyed, and more vocal than most people who are more indifferent to mankind, and to women especially.

WALLACE: Uh-hum. You think so much of women you say?

WYLIE: I do, Mike. I think more of women than most men even know how to think of women.

WALLACE: Well, uh... let's pursue that just a little bit. Let's look at women from the point of view of one of them. I'd like your opinion of this statement by the French philosopher, writer, Simone de Beauvoir, in her book on women, called The Second Sex. She writes, Phil, as follows: she says, "The tragedy of marriage is, that it mutilates women. The first 20 years of a woman's life are extraordinarily rich, but at 20 or thereabouts, mistress of the home, bound permanently to a man, a child in her arms, she stands with her life virtually finished forever. Real activities, de Beauvoir writes, real activities, real work, are the prerogative of her man, she has mere things to occupy her, which is sometimes tiring, but never fully satisfying." Now, what about that?

WYLIE: Well, I've read that book and Simone de Beauvoir made a wonderful case for the abuses of women through history, and in our culture. But, I think that that had nothing to do with my feeling. I wrote a book once, called “The Disappearance,” to show what would happen if all the men mysteriously vanished, and also the other half of the book, that the women vanished from the men. Then I ended my book by saying something like this, "There is no such thing as a person without both sexes. There is not just a man alone, or a woman alone."

WALLACE: But, what I'm after... you say there's not such a thing as a man alone, or a woman alone, what I'm after is this: it seems to me that Simone de Beauvoir says, in a sense, much the same thing that you say in your chapter on Momism, and yet she says it with so much more sympathy. You say that you... that you like women, that you love women.

WYLIE: Yeah. I do.

WALLACE: You have sympathy for women, and yet you go after effect, she goes after cause. She tries to find out why, why women are as she says, mutilated by marriage.

WYLIE: Well, I don't believe they are. I believe that what mutilates them, in her sense, is the great... is a parable ageless misunderstanding, since the evolution of man from animals, cultures have pended before they had knowledge of their real anatomy, the real physiology, the real nature of human beings, through the medical and the scientific knowledge that we have. They just assumed from the distance an event between the sexes and the strength of man, that women were inferior. And they've been treated that way ever since. And indeed, our whole... our whole culture assumes that in many senses.

WALLACE: Well then, maybe women are just fighting back with what means are at their disposal...

WYLIE: Well, sure they're fighting back.

WALLACE: Well, then, why don't you say that, and say it with some sympathy, instead of calling them hammerhead sharks, and talk about their stupid veracity, and taking such...

WYLIE: Well, I do sometimes. But I think when you've got an outrageous woman, who fights in a way against which you have no defense, and a great many American women do. Now, just the other day, I had asked for a bill in a hotel, and it was on a little ledge, and I was writing a check, and a woman threw her pocketbook on top of -- a middle-aged woman -- on top of my check, and my bill, and knocked the pen out of my hand, and said, "Please give me my bill." Well, against those women. And any woman that behaves that way, I feel, entitled to act as outrageously as I did as a writer.

WALLACE: Now, aside from Momism, you've attacked just about everything considered hallowed in American life, from our statesmen to our teachers, from doctors to clergymen, and let's talk about religion, for just a moment. Through the years you have repeatedly attacked the Christian church. And in your latest book, The Innocent Ambassadors, you continued to attack Catholicism, Protestantism, and Ministers. Now, what basically, have you got against organized Christianity, particularly, in as much as you're the son of a Presbyterian minister, yourself.

WYLIE: Well, if you've got Max's quote on that, he might say that was the reason for that. But I tell you Mike, that early in my life as I watched the struggle inside our church which was Presbyterian, between fundamentalism and what was then coming up evolution, which my father was a minister protagonist and battled with parishioners about... I began to think what I later came to wonder about greatly, not which religion is true, because if any one does what it says embodies all the truth, then there's only one that is correct. Or if any Protestant denomination embodies all the truth, the others are wrong. But I began to think: Why do people have religion? And the final conclusion I came to, and this is a great over-simplification,


WYLIE: ...is that all these are systems for rules for behavior and explanations for the terrible fact that an evolved timeless, instinctual animal suddenly appreciated when he got a brain that he could use time, he could plan from yesterday's knowledge, today, what he's going to do tomorrow.

WALLACE: Could you simplify, I wish you could continue with your oversimplification 'cause you're losing me.

WYLIE: Well, a man who is going to die...


WYLIE: ...and this was a great shock. And religion was a way to explain that to make it tolerable.


WYLIE: and religion was a way to give himself a system of what to do and what not to do. In other words to replace what animals did automatically but it had symbols that explained: Does God?

WALLACE: Well, what's wrong with all that?

WYLIE: Nothing, except there's so many different ones and I say in this book, I'm not against Christianity or against any religion, I say I understand them all. And I think any man...

WALLACE: You have said time, and again: you're not against any specific church, you're against all churches. I believe that's more or less a quote from your Essay on Morals: "I'm not against any specific church, I'm against all churches." You are against organized Christianity, I want to know why.

WYLIE: Well, because when... when Christians. are organized they... begin to behave in an unchristian manner...

WALLACE: Alright. Now, for instance, for instance...

WYLIE: Well, how do you like the Inquisition of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages? If they -- they become power houses -- and if they become the great majority, if they convert or subvert or take over the majority of people in a country, any religious sect: Mohammedanism, Hinduism, anything.

WALLACE: Alright, let's bring it up to date. Let's particularize up to date. During your recent trip around the world, you came to the conclusion, as described in “Innocent Ambassadors,” that American Christianity, American Christianity in general and John Foster Dulles's Presbyterianism in particular, is undermining our foreign relations. That, more or less, was the point of your book as I understand it. You said that we're losing the world because of our preoccupation with our brand of Christianity.

WYLIE: Not quite. But we're getting quite close to what I was trying to say.

WALLACE: Alright, sir.

WYLIE: Because you will not... you will have seen in that book that I also said that individual people have been able to use the symbols of every great religion to become free, great Christian men or Brahmins, or whatever, and they're all the same kind of people. It is when religion begins to restrict individual freedom to think and know; and when an organized group of believers start pushing around minorities or trying to censor what they read or telling them what to do or legislate against their right to know, then I protest and you don't agree that the churches have done this in America, we'll get together some night and and I'll show you how they do.

WALLACE: And John Foster Dulles in particular, how's he do...

WYLIE: That's the other question. But that's another thing. I merely used him as a symbol, and it's a symbol of the very same thing.

WALLACE: Yes, but you used... you say you used him as a symbol. Let's take India for instance.

WYLIE: Yes...

WALLACE: In what sense did John Foster Dulles's Presbyterianism, in India, subvert American foreign relations? Because that's what you said.

WYLIE: Well, that's how I used him as a symbol as any man whose religion has made him so sure of what he believes that he feels that he cannot be wrong and he cannot understand freedom in another country... he just don't. Here are 360 million people who have thrown off after hundreds of years of colonial yoke, England last, feel free, want to be independent, Mr. Dulles went over and said Neutralism (which is his name for their policy toward us in Russia) is not right; it is not moral. And what does that mean to an Indian?

WALLACE: Neutralism is not moral. Now we're getting to the nub of the way you feel.

WYLIE: This is self-righteous because in effect that says, in my opinion, I know what's right, but you 360 million people don't know and have no right to determine what's right. He had taken away their self-determination, their liberty in effect.

WALLACE: Well, don't the Russians, in a sense, say much the same thing?

WYLIE: The Russians do it.

WALLACE: The Russians do what?

WYLIE: Take away liberty and Russia is the greatest religion in the history of the world has made more converts by violence and by persuasion than there are people that call themselves Christians in the whole world today.

WALLACE: So certainly that is just as much of a dogma in your mind as Christianity.

WYLIE: Sure! It is.

WALLACE: Speaking of politics, in “Innocent Ambassadors” you are obviously unimpressed with President Eisenhower's intellectual capacities. You suggest many times, several times anyway, that his reading is confined to Western stories and then evidently using him as a symbol, using the President as a symbol, you conclude by saying: we have gradually become a nation of exalted ignoramuses. Now, why do you think that we hold intellectual accomplishment here in the United States in such low esteem?

WYLIE: Well, I think for this reason. I think this is getting at the heart of one of the things I protest most. Because about a hundred years ago it began to be apparent to Americans that our technology in mass production could give to multitudes, to the majority, maybe everybody, ease, comfort, luxury, possessions that have belonged further to only the king. And men, women, and everybody went for that, and the... the real authority in men historically is rested on their knowledge of the arts, their sensitivity, their appreciation of music, their knowledge of literature, their awareness of sciences, a man and we still have that feeling in Charlie Van Doren.


WYLIE: Made a lot of people realize that an intelligent man, matter of fact, but, generally Americans today have gotten to call scientists "eggheads" and artists "sissies".

WALLACE: And yet you confound yourself by the very Van Doren situation, because you say we are becoming a nation of "exalted ignoramuses" and then all of a sudden we practically deify by Charles Van Doren because he has it here. So, in a sense, you do confound yourself...

WALLACE: No. I say that the possibility with women that were crazy about this guy and they were right. The possibility to appreciate real male authority is there. Not just strength, not just money, not just earning capacity, but all that makes a real man, that uses his brain and his heart.

WALLACE: Phil, I have here five terms; names, terms, whatever. I would like from you a quick one line opinion on the following controversial personalities and issues. About ten seconds a piece. This is... we'll go ahead, let's try. Let's see if it makes any sense. You're ready? Ten seconds a piece.

WALLACE: Alger Hiss.

WYLIE: I think Hiss, if he wanted to tell his whole story, should have told something more. I didn't read his book but I read the reviews and I have a feeling that it left nobody satisfied.

WALLACE: Birth control.

WYLIE: Why not. We control death.

WALLACE: What's that?

WYLIE: We're taking control of public health, longevity, death has been put off.

WALLACE: Birth control is alright.

WYLIE: Birth control is alright.

WALLACE: The state of Israel...

WYLIE: I've always opposed with my Zionist friends from the time that it was set up, building one more righteous group of religionists who have only one belief and are fanatical about it and putting them in a little nation. We should have taken them in the West.

WALLACE: Mercy killing.

WYLIE: That's Okay.

WALLACE: Liberace

WYLIE: I said about Liberace all I think that I could ever think of saying: that is that when we were down in Miami...

WALLACE: Well, for those of us who were not privileged to hear what you said.

WYLIE: Well, I said I was... (CHUCKLES) I had thought seeing the streets blocked with morons and having to drive around these swarms of hysterical middle-aged gals; I thought of getting a bunch of the last few male men left in the continent and stoning him to death with marshmallows.

WALLACE: (LAUGHS) Alright now, Philip Wylie, Let me ask you a question which I want you to think over for a minute before answering. In view of your professional success, your aggressive assurance as a writer, your interminably definite opinions on some of the most perplexing problems that we face today; in view of all of this, why have you found it necessary to undergo psychoanalysis, as I understand that you have, not once, but twice? And we'll get the answer to that question in just one minute. Just one minute.

WALLACE: Now then Phil, why have you not once, but twice, undergone psychoanalysis if you understand human problems as clearly as you claim to, and write.

WYLIE: Well, Mike, I understand them partly because I couldn't understand myself. And I went into analysis because I thought some of my troubles might be due to the culture in which I felt not at home, and in the course of those two analyses, I learned a great deal about belief, and the nature of man and something more about me; but a writer like me, Mike, I feel is always learning. And to learn and talk I have to learn myself a little more. I am not a guy who says: This is so. I'm a guy who says: Let's think about this.

WALLACE: You don't... you don't go... You didn't go into psychoanalysis in any sense for health, for comfort, for peace of a sort?

WYLIE: Well, certainly I did. I was mad because I had symptoms that struck me... I would get melancholy; I'd go and sit with a case of whiskey and drink it, and I didn't like that.

WALLACE: All right, then let me ask you this question.

WYLIE: Okay.

WALLACE: You attacked religion. You attacked Christianity in particular, yet you have this sincere respect for psychoanalysis. Could it be, that analysis has become your substitute for religion? The couch your substitute for the confessional.

WYLIE: No, I don't think so. But that's a question that will have to be decided by the books yet to come, and somebody else, not me.

WALLACE: Well, why then do you attack Christianity, which gives other people...

WYLIE: Well, Mike, I... let me say this...

WALLACE: This... Let me just put this question, if I may. Why do you attack Christianity, which gives other people the mental and the spiritual comfort that they seek, when you evidently seek the same kind of comfort from psychoanalysis?

WYLIE: I don't seek the same kind of comfort that most of them seek, and I don't attack Christianity. You'll see if you read what I wrote carefully, that I always attack, when I do, the way most people who call themselves Christians behave. I would not say that I was a Christian, because I'm not that arrogant. But I... what Jesus says, is just about in three sentences, just about my whole philosophy.

WALLACE: Let me, rather than proceeding there, for just... we only have about a minute left, Phil. In a column in the New York Post, back in December 8, 1945 you wrote: I am not a Protestant, or a Catholic, or a Jew; I don't belong to any church or union. I am not and never have been a communist, fascist, leftist, liberal, tory, or rightest. So, in a sense, you try to play it safe, I guess. You hold yourself away from the crowd, but you criticize. Now, one last question. Specifically, what living men, what leaders do you admire? Who -- we know what you're against -- who specifically are you for?

WYLIE: Well, if we only have one last question and one minute left, I have in my book bitterly criticized Mr. Dulles. One man I admire is the new Assistant Secretary, Chris Herder.

WALLACE: Chris Herder?

WYLIE: Uh-hum... from Boston.

WALLACE: Do any others come quickly to mind?

WYLIE: John Kennedy I would like to know him... There's thousands of them that I admire. I admire more people, much more than I derogate a few millions alone.

WALLACE: Phil, thank you very much for coming and spending this time.

WYLIE: Thank you, Mike.