I was participating in a post-class bull session with a professor and a couple of other male students, one of whom mentioned he was getting married soon. The professor seemed surprised by this revelation. Without the slightest hint of levity, he proclaimed, “Your mother bosses you around when you’re young, and after you’re married, your wife bosses you around. Wouldn’t you like to have a few years of freedom in-between?”
You might think that no professor – tenured or otherwise – in his right mind would ever make such a statement, even with no women or recording devices present. Well, today that would be true, but this discourse occurred a half-century ago, and the professor who made that statement came of age during World War II. As a highly literate man (in fact, an English professor), he more than likely read Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers, published in 1943.
Wylie provided talking points aplenty in his book. Utilizing a number of arcane or obscure words (if you read the book, keep a dictionary close at hand), he ripped almost every stratum of society in the USA. In the process, he added a new word to the American lexicon: “momism.” I can’t improve on Merriam-Webster, so let’s see how they define momism before we go any farther:
An excessive popular adoration and oversentimentalizing of mothers that is held to be oedipal in nature and that is thought to allow overprotective or clinging mothers unconsciously to deny their offspring emotional emancipation and thus to set up psychoneuroses.
Well, it should be obvious, at least to the readers of this web site, that in 1943 momism was like a Stage I cancer that was never treated, thus allowing it to grow to…Stage III? Or worse, Stage IV, the final stage? In truth, national collapse is not out of the question:
Just as Goebbels has revealed what can be done with such a mass-stamping of the public in this nation [Nazi Germany], so our land is a living representation of the same fact worked out in matriarchal sentimentality, goo, slop, hidden cruelty, and the foreshadow of national death.
Accusations of misogyny were rare (relative to today at least) in Wylie’s day, but they were frequently leveled at him. He reckoned he was “the all-out, all-time, high-scoring world champion misogynist.” In fact, the margins of my copy of Generation of Vipers had occasional notations of “WTF?” or “Misogyny!” My copy was a reprint purchased at a used bookstore in a college town. Pity the poor millennial college student encountering such troublesome text!
If Wylie could embark on a lecture tour today, he would be the subject of protests, harassment, and possibly cancellations. Milkshake sales at nearby fast food outlets would skyrocket. At least in 1943 an accusation of misogyny was not sufficient to discredit a thesis. On the contrary, it stimulated debate. Today the tyranny of “enshrined womanhood,” as Wylie put it, is openly discussed only among MRA and MGTOW. The corporate media don’t totally avoid the topic, but when they deal with it, they label it female empowerment and stamp it “Approved.”
Wylie’s social criticism was not a departure for him. It was present, albeit less overt, in his pre-Vipers short stories, articles, essays, screenplays (in the early 1930s he worked on two memorable adaptations of H.G. Wells classics, Island of Lost Souls and The Invisible Man), and science fiction. His best-known effort in the SF genre was When Worlds Collide, co-authored with Edwin Balmer, in 1934, and filmed in 1951. In that novel selecting a cross-section of intelligent, highly skilled people to make a post-doomsday voyage to colonize another planet offers a chance to reboot humanity, to literally elevate the best and the brightest and leave the commoners behind; it could be a paean to elitism, an allegory of evolution, or both.
It would be wrong to dismiss Wylie as merely a purveyor of genre fiction. Generation of Vipers, his biggest hit (20 printings!), was a non-fiction work expressing deep concerns about the state of the union. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the book is its publication during the midst of World War II when rah-rah USA was all the rage. One would have thought the book more likely destined for nationwide bonfires than best-seller lists.
Basically, the book is one long rant against…well, everything. Wylie verbally carpet-bombs American society. Like most idealists, he has finally succumbed to disillusionment and disappointment. He has been red-pilled.
H.G. Wells famously observed that we are in a race between education and catastrophe. But suppose the educators are corrupt and the students are flawed, as fallible as they are malleable? If you were going to rail against human shortcomings, World War II was a superb stage for lamenting the failures of humanity.
Long after the war, however, Generation of Vipers still resonated with American readers. A new edition came out in 1955 when the postwar world had taken shape. Today the book is of interest largely to academics and historians as a cultural artifact from the World War II – Cold War era. The title, by the way, derives from the New Testament: “O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things?” (Matthew 12:34).
The momism theme in the book was the most controversial and may be why the book remained in the public consciousness after the war ended. The Germans and Japanese had been defeated but momism kept rolling along.
Wylie was not against the old commandment of honoring thy father and mother or normal filial affection. He just didn’t care for the imbalance created by the mother being elevated above the father, and by extension, the woman over the man. He estimated that 80 percent of the money in the nation was possessed by women and American society was “a matriarchy in fact if not in declaration.”
The male is an attachment of the female in our civilization….of money, manufactories, transportation, art, mores, and instinct. He does most of what he does – eighty per cent, statistically – to supply whatever women have defined as their necessities, comforts, and luxuries.
Today we look back to the World War II era as a golden age of red-blooded American manhood, but Wylie detected only armies of khaki-clad beta males:
The mealy look of men today is the result of momism and so is the pinched and baffled fury in the eyes of womankind.
Interestingly, Wylie grounds his argument in a cultural misreading of the Cinderella fairy tale. When the story is interpreted from the prince’s point of view, it is a parable of finding a diamond in the rough, a sweet-tempered female of humble birth who is a good candidate for a life partner, unlike her grasping, materialistic stepsisters. When the tale is interpreted from Cinderella’s point of view, as it usually is in America, it is all about female entitlement:
Our rags-to-riches theme gives scant attention to the virtues rags may conceal; it deals mainly with the lucky escape from rags. The American version of the Cinderella story, retold ad infinitum in the magazines, by the movies, and on the radio puts all its emphasis on the reward.
The important factor to us is Cinderella’s conditioning. It is decidedly not to go on dutifully sweeping the floor and carrying the wood. She is conditioned to get the hell out of those chores. There is, the American legend tells her, a good-looking man with dough, who will put an end to the onerous tedium of making a living. If he doesn’t come along…she isn’t just lacking in good fortune, she is being cheated out of her true deserts.
Of course, in spite of our capitalistic society, there are not enough Princes to go around – so most women actually must settle down to a compromise of major dimensions. That they will have to make such a compromise is not entirely concealed from them. But the American woman…is scarcely conditioned for the mathematical destiny to which reality must and does ascribe her.
Cinderellas, shrill ones, pushing for more yardage in the material world, demanding only that the men, obviously no princes, at least make up in some small way by acting like Santa Claus.
Cinderella…has the prince, the coach, the horses – but her soul’s a pumpkin and her mind’s a rat-warren.
Of course, in 1943 the concept of hypergamy was not in wide use (except perhaps for zoologists), but in essence that is what Wylie is talking about. He goes beyond the fairy tale by considering the “happily ever after” aspect of the Cinderella tale; call it Cinderella II or Cinderella 2.0. Having found a mate, Cinderella embarks on motherhood.
The shining-haired, the starry-eyed, the ruby-lipped virgo aeternis, of which there is presumably one, and only one, or a one-and-only for each male, whose dream is fixed upon her deflowerment and subsequent perpetual possession…the transition of Cinderella into mom, which, if it occasions any shock, only adds to the huge, invisible burthen every man carries with him into eternity. It is the weight of this bundle which, incidentally, squeezes out of him the wish for death, his last positive biological resource.
In pre-Cinderella days that transition to motherhood was downright unpleasant. It was right out of the Book of Genesis: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and they conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” (3:18)
Hitherto, mom has been so busy raising a large family, keeping house, doing the chores and fabricating everything in every home except the floor and the walls that she was rarely a problem to her family or to her equally busy friends, and never one to herself. Usually, until very recently, mom folded up and died of hard work somewhere in the middle of her life.
Wow! And Betty Friedan thought her suburban matrons had it tough! But in days of yore, drudgery was the lot of almost all women (and men). People married while young, reproduced while young, and if they were lucky, lived long enough to witness the birth of grandchildren.
In Wylie’s heyday improvements in agriculture, medicine, and mass production meant that mere survival wasn’t a daily challenge. As Wylie noted, however “Material blessings, when they pay beyond the category of need, are weirdly fruitful of headache.”
Sure, life was easier in 1943 than in 1843 or 1743, etc. But at least there was still a stigma attached to being an old maid or single mother. In today’s who-needs-men environment, remaining single and single motherhood are not only stigma-free, they are praiseworthy!
Given the pampering of women, the invasion of men’s spaces, the domination and diminution of men in the classroom and the workplace, the reach of Cinderella-as-mom has never been greater. While the birth rate has plummeted, “momism” has grown.
The hen-harpy is but the Cinderella chick come home to roost: the taloned, cackling residue of burnt-out puberty.
Wylie sniffed out hypergamy, white knighting, and female entitlement long before anyone else did. If he were still around (he died in 1971), perhaps he would be motivated to expound on single-momism. I don’t know if he ever wrote movie reviews, but I’d love to hear his thoughts on Joker! I suspect that the man who gave us momism would give it four stars.