The mere act entitled women to respite from all other physical and social responsibility

Sunday, May 8th, 2022

Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers includes an attack on Momism:

During World War II, Wylie went to work for the Office of Facts and Figures (later known as The Office of War Information) in Washington, DC, but resigned when his superiors rejected his plan to tell Americans about the Bataan Death March and other atrocities committed by the Japanese, in an effort to stir their patriotic commitment to the war effort. Dispirited by this experience, Wylie returned home to Miami Beach, where, from May 12 to July 4, 1942, he hammered out a series of splenetic essays that comprised “a catalogue of what I felt to be wrong morally, spiritually and intellectually with my fellow citizens.” These essays would eventually be gathered into Generation of Vipers, whose 18 chapters skewered a range of supposedly sacrosanct American beliefs, groups, and institutions, such as organized religion, business, Congress, doctors, and the supposed goodness of the common man. But the chapter that ignited a firestorm of controversy and rocketed the book to bestsellerdom was “Common Women,” Wylie’s caustic attack on Americans’ sanctification of motherhood, a cultural syndrome Wylie dubbed “Momism.” This was tantamount to spitting on the flag.

Generation of Vipers (whose full title is Generation of Vipers: A Survey of Moral Want • A Philosophical Discourse suitable only for the Strong • A Study of American Types and Archetypes • And A Signpost on the two Thoroughfares of Man: the Dolorosa and the Descensus Averno • Together with sundry Preachments, Epithets, Modal Adventures, Political Impertinences, Allegories, Aspirations, Visions and Jokes as well as certain Homely Hints for the care of the Human Soul) sold terrifically when it hit bookstores in January 1943, thanks to the endorsement given it the week before publication by popular columnist Walter Winchell. The first printing of 4,000 copies sold out in a week, and the book just kept selling. Vipers went through 11 printings in 1943 alone and went on to sell 180,000 copies in hardcover by 1954. In 1950, the American Library Association named Generation of Vipers one of the 50 most influential and important books of the last 50 years.

“Mom,” Wylie begins the chapter “Common Women,” “is an American creation. Her elaboration was necessary because she was launched as Cinderella.” Here Wylie refers to an earlier chapter in which he explained how American women were inculcated in a distorted version of the fairy tale that conditioned them to expect material wealth, not because of virtuous activities but merely because they were female. “The idea women have that life is marshmallows which will come as a gift — an idea promulgated by every medium and many an advertisement — has defeated half the husbands in America,” Wylie wrote. “It has made at least half our homes into centers of disillusionment. […] It long ago became associated with the notion that the bearing of children was such an unnatural and hideous ordeal that the mere act entitled women to respite from all other physical and social responsibility.”

I haven’t read Generation of Vipers, but I have read Wylie’s 1930 novel, Gladiator, which many argue is the original inspiration for Superman, The Savage Gentleman, which likely inspired Doc Savage, and When Worlds Collide, which he co-wrote with Edwin Balmer, which (along with Armageddon 2419 AD) inspired Alex Raymond’s comic strip, Flash Gordon.


  1. Dan Kurt says:

    I was in high school circa 1957 and had to take two Pittsburgh Railways’s streetcars to and from the high school. Cost was a thin dime for each trip and even cheaper if one purchased a weekly student pass for $1.25 good for unlimited rides. During those years I was also a great fan of Wylie since my father took the Saturday Evening Post as long as I could remember and I read parts of it from when I learned to read among which were the sporadically published Crunch & Des stories of Saltwater Fishing written by Wylie. I, by high school, was into his books many of which I borrowed from the public library including his Generation of Vipers.

    Now comes the denouement. The Democrats in Allegheny County wanted to wrest the Pittsburgh Railways Company, a private corporation, from its owners and run a public transportation system which of course they did in time which is still around and losing money, PAT (Port Authority Transport). There was scheduled a public debate on the proposed looting and it was televised. Phillip Wylie was scheduled to be a participant. I expected to see an eloquent defender of private property but instead saw a low and little man who stumbled over his words. He was a “man” of the Left. The politicians got their way and PAT took over. Almost all of the streetcars were replaced with belching busses, ride cost increased, and, as alway, the Democrats decreased the quality of life.

  2. Altitude Zero says:

    Wylie was a good example of a man who was extremely influential when he was alive, but was forgotten almost immediately after his death, much like Theodore Dreiser or (to step up a bit) Mordechai Richler. I remember reading an abridgement of one of his nuclear war books when I was kid. He had some good points in some of his books, but he always struck me as someone I would have disliked a great deal had I met him in person. Anyway, it doesn’t surprise me that he was a lefty, he was most certainly a weirdo, and they tend to trend that way.

  3. Longarch says:

    I must thank you for recommending this author! I intend to read all his books closely. While locating a copy of Gladiator, I stumbled upon a follow-up nonfiction book, An Essay on Morals. Also, Wylie’s intro to a revised edition bears quoting:

    “Vipers” has become a kind of “standard work” for Americans who love liberty, detest smugness and are anxious about the prospects of our nation. It has been studied by scores of Bible classes. It has also been proscribed by Catholics. It has been quoted in unrecorded dozens of other books; it is “compulsory reading” in hundreds of college English and journalism classes. In 1950 it was selected by The American Library Association as one of the major nonfiction works of the first half century. It was used, during the war, as an instrument for “briefing” those British officers who were to have contact with our troops, on the nature and neuroses of genus Homo, race americanus. And it no longer seems possible for any author, lay or scientific, to discuss motherhood and mom without noting that the dark side of that estate was defined earlier by me. Those are but a few of the vicissitudes of “Vipers.” I daresay this new, annotated edition will augment their number and their bewildering nature.

    Two reactions to “Vipers” are common enough to warrant brief discussion here. A great many people have asked me, often with evident anguish, this question: Are you

    It is easy enough to reply, “Lord, yes!”


    A commoner and even more sobering reaction to “Vipers” concerned its concentration upon criticism and derogation. That was intended to stimulate constructive thought. I would not damn a traditional idea or circumstance or attitude that I did not believe could be improved: if I will not re-write history neither will I resent or regret the past, as do so many frantic authors these days. But to criticize or anathematize what men believe now, and are doing and saying now, is another matter: it is the only way to bring to the future any hope of betterment.

  4. Altitude Zero says:

    Wylie was also a classic example of a guy who didn’t know his own strengths. His fiction, which he regarded as hackwork, done only for financial reasons, is pretty good. His more “serious” stuff I find almost unreadable, although as noted above, he does have some good points buried under a bad prose style.

  5. Bomag says:

    “I expected to see an eloquent defender of private property but instead saw a low and little man who stumbled over his words. He was a ‘man’ of the Left.”

    I’ve noted many who were wonderful in private, but deflate in public.

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