The Savage Gentleman

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

Philip Wylie only wrote a few works that might qualify as science fiction, but they were quite influential: Gladiator, which likely inspired Superman, The Savage Gentleman, which likely inspired Doc Savage, and When Worlds Collide, with Edwin Balmer, which inspired Alex Raymond’s comic strip, Flash Gordon.

I’ve mentioned Gladiator before:

Reading Gladiator now, as someone who takes Superman for granted, is an almost disorienting experience; it’s almost as if Siegel and Shuster took Wylie’s work and surgically removed, even inverted, all of its dark, lost generation irony.

In Gladiator, the protagonist, Hugo Danner, is born in a small town in the Midwest — Indian Creek, Colorado — but his parents are a hen-pecked local college biology professor and an obsessively religious shrew of a woman — more backward and small-minded than salt of the earth.

Danner leaps across a river, jumps fifty feet straight up, lifts a cannon overhead with one arm, kills a shark by ripping its jaws apart, fells a charging bull with a fist between the eyes, and lifts a car by its bumper and turns it around in the road. “All of these were, in 1930, fresh and new and very exciting to read about,” Wylie’s biographer notes — but even though Superman goes on to do all of these things, the tone of Wylie’s novel couldn’t be further from a four-color comic book. When Danner joins the French Foreign Legion at the start of the Great War — which certainly sounds romantic, doesn’t it? — he ends up killing German soldiers. Many, many German soldiers. When his friend dies in an artillery barrage that he survives, he goes into a berserk rage and tears apart his enemies with his bare hands. It feels like digging his hands into warm cow manure.

The Savage Gentleman starts with a pulpy, if not quite sci-fi premise: what if you took a boy, of good stock, and raised him, away from society, to be a… well, not quite a superman, but an ideal mortal man.

In pulp-author Lester Dent‘s hands, this becomes Doc Savage, raised from birth by his father and a team of dedicated scientists to become the ultimate crime-fighting hero.

In Wylie’s novel, Henry Stone is the son of a newspaper magnate whose wife has run off. The father takes the infant boy away from New York, and, with the help of his engineer and his faithful black servant, builds a new home for all of them on an uninhabited island. There the boy is raised hunting and fishing, building and farming, studying and training. His father personally tutors him on how to behave amongst gentlemen — and warns him off women.

When Henry finally returns to civilization, in his prime, he finds his training obsolete. Times have changed:

By and large, Henry had not enjoyed what he saw. Everything was a reflection of his first impressions, colored by his father’s lessons and marred by his experience with Marian [the "sophisticated" granddaughter of his father's old lawyer]. Anyone taken from the late nineteenth century and hurled into the present day without preparation would experience the same dismay and revulsion.

Those who lived through it witnessed a change so gradual that it seemed almost inappreciable — although thousands of the older generation are still perpetually raising their hands in horror. They saw the polka become ragtime and the ragtime war music and the war music jazz. They watched corsets disappear and skirts rise and rouge come slowly to the lips of the guileless. They were shocked by the flapper who drank from a flask until the flapper became so familiar that she was commonplace and until they perceived that the skies had not yet fallen.

Other things happened step by step to that generation. Prohibition came — and they assumed that their own drinking could continue and were resentful of any effort to check it. When rebellion became a fad, they marched in the van — and as that rebellion bred gangs and political corruption, they looked on calmly, because it was not they who felt they were to blame.

Meanwhile the newspapers, and the magazines, the cinema and the radio and thousands of novels broadened their attitude toward morality.  Things were said in print that had not been put in writing since the silver age of Rome.  There were mutterings and censorships, but the movement toward tolerance and frank examination rolled over them.  Psychology developed a new sense of the reasons for human behavior that the public slowly and partially assimilated.  Thirty years of education and change marked the twentieth century.

Henry had missed them all.  He came untouched from the old era.

Wylie, writing in the 1930s, thinks “modern” psychology has some merit.

Henry’s speech to his aide, Tom, explains his position:

“I came here like Christopher Columbus. The new world was ahead of me. I was bursting with love for it, ambition, ideals. I had yearned for it for twenty years — ever since I was a child. I had been taught that it was a glorious place where a man could do a man’s work.

“What did I find? First — something so beautiful and breathtaking that I could not contain myself. The buildings and the machinery. We never imagined anything like it on the island. It seemed to me that humanity was at last reaching up toward the stars. That it had climbed out of the earth. I was ecstatic.

“Then I looked again. You have to look twice to see. The whole world is sour. Rotten. Despicable. It has emerged from the most terrible war of all time — a war that accomplished absolutely nothing. Blood in rivers in every direction and afterward — jealous piddling of little men. It’s sickening.

“Once there was in this country a standard of morals and manners. That’s gone. Vulgarity is everywhere. In the theaters and the radio and the newspapers. Nobody cares. Vicious men run through the streets with machine guns and shoot down children. Demagogues and morons and even criminals are elected political leaders. The bodies of government have become a shambles of cheap wit and expensive graft. My father warned me against women — and the women have sunk beneath the men. They’re painted prostitutes — even the old ones. Decency has deserted the best homes. Everyone fights for money. Money! There’s madness for it. Greed and exploitation. War and corruption. Stupidity and hatred.”

Rather… reactionary.

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