Science Fiction Studies

#66 = Volume 22, Part 2 = July 1995

David Seed

The Postwar Jeremiads of Philip Wylie

Although the term “jeremiad” has been defined generally as a lamentation on the badness of the times, Sacvan Bercovitch and David Minter have argued that the literary form took on quite distinct characteristics in America related to perceptions of spiritual and national destiny. While European jeremiads tended to be secular, the American Puritans fused secular and sacred history in such a way as to “direct an imperiled people of God toward the fulfilment of their destiny, to guide them individually toward salvation, and collectively toward the American city of God” (Bercovitch 9). From the Romantic period onwards Bercovitch identifies examples of what he calls “anti-jeremiads” containing the “denunciation of all ideals, sacred and secular, on the grounds that America is a lie.” This inverted idealism better suited the circumstances of an increasingly secular culture and Bercovitch finds in a work like The Education of Henry Adams a reversal of traditional spiritual effects but a retention of the jeremiad's “figural-symbolic outlook” so that Adams becomes a “prophet reading the fate of humanity, and the universe at large, in the tragic course of American history” (Bercovitch 191, 195). Adams is only an early example of twentieth-century applications of the jeremiad pattern which recurs throughout modern American fiction, appearing, for instance, in John Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer where the rise to prosperity of New York is juxtaposed with biblical allusions to the fall of Nineveh, or in The Grapes of Wrath where Steinbeck writes his narrative of share-cropper migration over the Exodus story in order to cast the former as a betrayal of national promise.                

This desire to address national shortcomings, to strike the stance of the nation's conscience, also informed the later career of Philip Wylie (1902-1971). The son of a Presbyterian minister, Wylie rejected orthodox Christianity partly for its promotion of the goal of spiritual perfection, turning instead to medicine (he originally planned to become a doctor), psychology and ecology.1 He first achieved fame as the joint author with Edwin Balmer of When Worlds Collide (1933) and its sequel in the following year, After Worlds Collide. In both these works Balmer reportedly supplied the basic idea and Wylie wrote the texts (Moskowitz 389). The first of these describes the discovery of two rogue planets which are hurtling towards Earth. The one named Bronson after its discoverer will collide with Earth whereas the second, Bronson β, offers a chance of salvation in appearing habitable; the two oncoming planets stand respectively for what David Ketterer describes as the “destructive and restorative activity of a new world of mind” (138). The novel crudely and explicitly superimposes a biblical grid on its disaster narrative, which is cast as a retelling of the story of Noah. Prophecy (in the form of a scientific message to the world) gives way to activity among the true believers. The scientists form a League of the Last Days and begin constructing a rocket (called the “Ark”) which will carry the saving remnant to the new planet. It falls to the American president to insist on the spiritual nature of the forthcoming trial which might be “provided as punishment for our failure to pursue His ways.” Spiritual generalities quickly give way to the specific fate of America. While “many nations have already faltered and fallen in the outpouring of their own blood,” “America, recognizing the magnitude of the coming upheavals, has taken every step, bent every effort, and enlisted every man and woman and child to do his and her utmost, not only, as a great predecessor in my office has said, `that the nation shall not perish from the earth,' but that humanity itself shall not perish from the earth” (WWC §10:62). Interestingly in view of Wylie's postwar ambivalence on the subject, the Ark is powered by atomic fission, and when mobs try to storm the rocket site their failure is described as the “last battle” between brains and brutality. The successful landing on Bronson β thus reads as a multiple triumph of spiritual purpose, national destiny, technological know-how, and intellectual supremacy. The space voyage loosely parallels the voyage of the Founding Fathers since the survivors too are establishing a “new world” apparently under divine guidance.2               

Wylie did not maintain the utopian optimism of When Worlds Collide in its sequel, for the pioneers discover the traces of a sophisticated but long-extinct civilization and, even more disturbing, that another rocket from Earth has landed with a band of Russians, Germans, and Japanese determined to set up a soviet (there is more than a whiff of ethnocentrism at this point). Whereas the disappeared civilization (the “Other People”) is safely absent and can only be approached through their artefacts, the new group presents an immediate threat from totalitarianism. As one character explains, “they were sworn, if they reached here, to set up their own government—to wipe out all who might oppose them. It is not even a government like that of Russia. It is ruthless, inhuman—a travesty of socialism, a sort of scientific fanaticism” (AWC §9: 92). Wylie occasionally introduces biblical parallels (between the Communists and the Midianites, for example) but essentially the action turns into a stark conflict between freedom and despotism. The new world thus degenerates from a land of promise to the site of an ideological struggle anticipating the Cold War conflicts which Wylie was to pursue in a number of different ways throughout his postwar writings. As early as the 1930s, partly under the impact of a disillusioning visit to that country, Wylie's attitude to Russia had hardened into implacable hostility.                  

A pivotal work in Wylie's career and one which helps to explain the direction of his subsequent writing is his 1942 best-seller A Generation of Vipers. Taking its title from John the Baptist's words to the Pharisees in Matthew 3 (“O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”), Wylie dons the prophet's role to castigate his country for its hypocrisy and infantilism. The book starts out with a personally bitter account of unheeded warnings throughout the thirties on the rise of Hitlerism and the need to rearm, then broadens its attack to maintain a thesis that “Americans have lost their moral sensibilities by living too objectively and with too little subjective awareness” (xxii).3 In a “teleological ramble” Wylie imagines a future historian writing of 1940 America: “A more brutal and degraded era can scarcely be imagined.... Literature endured an equal battering at the hands of writers who, obviously unable to find order in the foul, frenetic world around them, tried hard to emulate and reproduce chaos” (21, 26). Chaos indeed is one of the possible endpoints Wylie foresees in the conclusion to the book. Although the forthcoming end of the war will place the burden of rebuilding the world on America, Wylie ties this responsibility to national guilt, a collective failure to prevent the war; and throughout A Generation of Vipers his indignation over social and psychological shortcomings takes on a special edge at what he sees as a refusal to confront America's naive conviction that only a few more years will usher in a political, scientific, and moral millennium (4-5). Wylie described his own work as a “sermon” and a “miscellaneous Jeremiad,” in other words he was quite conscious of working within the structure of a genre where the reader is accused of falling well below specified ideals. The false god Wylie attacks is consumerism, the “millennium of goods” which was to destroy the environment in The End of the Dream (1972). Above all A Generation of Vipers demonstrates Wylie's tendency to adopt the role of spokesman for his country in his writings from the 1940s onwards, a desire which was to produce polemics straddling a number of different genres.

Wylie saw the Cold War as a period of extended crisis. The advent of the atomic age signalled two things: a massive increase in the destructive potential of military weaponry and a loss of freedom of information as severe security restrictions were put on scientific research. He combined these two anxieties in his 1946 story “Blunder,” set in the 1970s after the “Short War” between Russia and USA has left the eastern American seaboard a wasteland. Two scientists plan to explode a bismuth bomb in an abandoned mine in Scandinavia. Their calculations have been published in a journal which other physicists read, noting with horror a crucial error in their calculations. Security restrictions prevent this information from reaching the scientists and the explosion bursts out of control creating an apocalyptically named “omega ray” which destroys the Earth. By the end of the story the planet can only be viewed from an external position on Mars, which thereby renders rather absurd one of the scientists' comments on their experiment: “If this goes's justice! It will teach the whole idiotic world that you cannot monopolize knowledge!” (Derleth 377). The moral, however, will fall rather flat if there is no surviving humanity to learn from it.                

The Cold War then for Wylie was defined through one prevailing emotion. “We live in a midnight imposed by fear—a time like all dark ages,” he declared in 1949 (Opus 21 256). And four years later he stressed the unique capacity of science fiction to engage with that fear. In “Science Fiction and Sanity in an Age of Crisis” Wylie railed against pulp sf for producing “wild adventure, wanton genocide on alien planets, gigantic destruction and a piddling phantasmagoria of wanton nonsense” (Bretnor 234). It was only a few writers like Wells, Olaf Stapledon, and Aldous Huxley who addressed the reader's mind.4 Science fiction can use the principle of extrapolation to bring the reader's dread to the surface, Wylie argued, identifying one possible reason for the repeated emphasis on destruction in his fiction; and he continued:

The proper function of the science-fiction author—the myth-maker of the twentieth century—would be to learn the science of the mind's workings and therewith to plan his work (as many “serious” writers do) so it will represent in meaning the known significance of man. Logical extrapolations from existing laws and scientific hypotheses should be woven into tales congruent not with our unconscious hostilities and fears but with the hope of a subjective integration to match the integrated knowledge we have of the outer world.... For the reader not only projects himself into each tale he encounters, but he considers it, whether he is aware of the fact or not, from the allegorical standpoints. It becomes a parable to him.... (Bretnor 239).

The Disappearance (1951) represents one of Wylie's first attempts at applying nonrealistic narrative methods to the Cold War situation. On a certain day the members of one sex disappear from the other, and the novel—strictly speaking a combination of “allegorical fable,” picaresque narrative, and inset essay— alternates sections dealing with the newly isolated men and women. In spite of its fantastic starting-point, one character immediately rationalizes the catastrophe as predictable “ever since those atom boys got fiddling with the forces of nature” (§1.3:49).5 An old man “with nasty eyes” in a Miami crowd rationalizes the Disappearance as the “Last Judgment of American capitalism” (§1.3:52). Although he is ignored within the scene, divine judgment, at least as metaphor, is written into Wylie's first two section headings: “The Hand of God” (on the bizarre change) and “Armageddon” (on its catastrophic consequences). The expectation of the end of the world results in an attribution of divine purpose in events. The philosopher-protagonist of the male sections, a clear surrogate for Wylie, reverts to the beliefs of his Calvinist ancestors: “The Hand of God lay heavily on the land” (§1.5:88). But secular politics also has its part to play in Armageddon since the Russians assume that the Disappearance has been engineered by the American imperialists. They then activate plans for atomic attack using mines off the American seaboard and bombs smuggled into the country.6 There follows another Short War which wipes out the Midwest and key metropolitan areas in both Russia and America. This destruction has a kind of diagnostic function within the novel to demonstrate, following H.G. Wells, that “hatred is man's principal characteristic; hostility and aggression are the chief manifestations of it in the objective realm” (§3. 13:232).7 The Disappearance is designed to articulate Jung's theory of androgyny where each gender alone is incomplete, the social reflecting structure of the individual psyche. But the novel also shows the women to be infinitely better diplomats, capable of cutting through the polarities of Cold War ideology and thereby avoiding atomic war. The book concludes its time-loop by returning to its opening point with each gender restored to visibility. All characters, however, possess a “memory” of what happened during the Disappearance, so that past events are now reclassified as “memories” within a four-year divergence from actuality. One critic has said of The Disappearance that “On one level, it depicts two separate worlds disintegrating. On another level, it scolds society for forcing men and women into separate psychological and material domains” (Magill 2:544). One problem lies in the sheer breadth of topics Wylie tries to address within a single work. He simply does not have the space to do more than suggest the roots of aggression which were to be probed at length in Bernard Wolfe's Limbo (1952) and the movie Dr. Strangelove.               

Where The Disappearance attributes social and political ills to gender separation, The Answer, a 1955 novella which drew appreciative comments from Eleanor Roosevelt and Bernard Baruch, draws on Christian mythology for its parable of the arms race. The work opens on an American aircraft carrier during a nuclear test. All goes well until a casualty is discovered on a nearby island who turns out to be a dead angel, apparently a logical contradiction but essentially a symbolic figure. Then a second parallel explosion takes place in Siberia with the same results. The Russian premier has a positively apocalyptic reaction: “In the angel he saw immediately a possible finish to the dreams of Engels, Marx, the rest. He saw a potential end of communism and even of the human race” (47). The presence of each angel then challenges the ideology of the opposing sides, ironically recalling the common Christian origins of American and Russian culture. The angelic corpses pose a practical problem of information management and a broader problem of understanding. The forthright Russian reaction is to attach the remains to another hydrogen bomb and blast them to smithereens. On the Pacific island it is finally revealed that the angel fell to earth with a gold book containing in different languages the message “love one another.”                

The parable revolves to a large extent around parallels between the two sides but the apparent evenness of comparison is undermined by the description of the Russian premier as a wily oriental despot with a “Mongol face and eyes as dark and inexpressive and unfeeling as prunes” and of American officers as the embodiment of righteous strength (“anvil shoulders, marble hair, feldspar complexion,” etc.). The revelation of ideologically controlled hatred as a transformation of fear is a diagnosis directed only against the Russians, so The Answer proves in that sense to be a skewed fable. On the surface it recommends mutual respect and a recognition of parallels between East and West; but the subtext uncritically polarizes the regimes along a series of oppositions between humanity and despotism, reason, and repression. Communism functions throughout Wylie's fiction as an alien force, not an alternative creed. Indeed, Wylie collaborated with the psychologist Robert Lindner (of Rebel without a Cause fame) on an essay in “psycho-politics” which describes Communism as a mental illness; and a round-the-world trip he made in the mid-fifties was expressly designed to show Americans that Communism was an aggressive ideology whose “target is the intellect of every living person; where people cannot be persuaded, the target becomes the heart, nerves, sanity and the body of each of us” (Innocent Ambassadors xiv).8 Correspondingly, Wylie's two most famous novels of East-West combat, Tomorrow! (1954) and Triumph (1963), both take as their premise the desire for and technical means of achieving a preemptive strike by the Soviets.

Tomorrow! describes the atom-bombing of the twin midwest cities Green Prairie and River City (loosely modelled on St. Paul and Minneapolis) and was written with a very specific aim, as Wylie himself explained in an essay of 1954: “In my currently best-selling novel, Tomorrow!, I have predicted that USA, under atomic blitz, might panic and stampede simply because our people will not learn the lessons and the facts that their government, through FCDA [the Federal Civil Defense Authority], has tried for years to teach them” (“The ABCs of the H-Bomb” 1). In the mid-1940s Wylie had received a “Q” security clearance, which gave him access to much information not in the public domain, and subsequently became Chairman of the Special Senate Committee for Atomic Energy and expert adviser to Congress on civil defense. He was thus ideally placed to dramatize the issue of civil defense and he did this in his novel by launching a polemic against public indifference. One of Wylie's possible models for such a narrative was John Hersey's Hiroshima (1946), which drew on Thornton Wilder's novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey to dramatize disaster as an intersection between the fortunes of a number of average citizens. The method of “under-played naturalism” was attacked by some reviewers at the time but later defended by Hersey himself: “The flat style was deliberate.... A high literary manner, or a show of passion, would have brought me into the story as a mediator; I wanted to avoid such mediation, so the reader's experience would be as direct as possible” (Boyer 208). Wylie draws partly on Hersey for his description of the firestorm which follows the bombing but otherwise follows a very different method in his novel. The characters who appear in Tomorrow! are all differentiated according to their attitudes towards civil defense and, rather than embodying representative civilian instances as in Hiroshima, they personify different shades of concern or indifference. A crucial central role is occupied by the editor of one of the local newspapers who publishes a trenchant editorial on the public's inability to confront its own fears of atomic holocaust. Such fears of Armageddon, he argues, are nothing new and date back at least to the Middle Ages. What is new is a collective dissociation of deep-rooted anxieties from civilized reason: “Thus a condition is set up in which a vast majority of the citizens, unable to acknowledge with their minds the dread that eats at their blind hearts, loses all contact with reality” (“X-Day Minus Sixty” §2:124-25). There is an absolute congruence between the editor's words and narrative comments like the following: “It was a time where Americans once again refused to face certain realities that glared at them with an ever-increasing balefulness” (“X-Day Minus Ninety” §3:49). Where Hersey deliberately limited his scope to the perceptual horizons of his characters, Wylie repeatedly contrasts the willful ignorance of his characters with the awareness of the narrator. Of course another crucial difference from Hersey's narrative is that Wylie is engaging with the psychological issue of expectancy. Furthermore there is no sharp separation of civilians from the military since each of the main families described has members in the army.               

Tomorrow! foregrounds the possibility of attack in its first chapters as a subject for debate, confronting a public dread which Wylie describes elsewhere as a “repressed superhysteria.” Ironically scientists have rendered apocalypse literally possible as pestilence and famine, and the novel's title self-evidently insists on the imminence of disaster.9 At the beginning of the novel Wylie outlines the history of the “sister cities” as a microcosm of America itself, in effect narrating a series of beginnings (the establishment of settlements, trade, industry, and so on). Counter-pointed against that narrative, the section-headings supply an apocalyptic “bomb-time” counting down from the disaster-point (“X-day minus 90”). The designation of the day of attack by a sign and its immediate sequel by “It” indicates a suppressed referent which is immediately comprehensible but never spoken. It is also symbolically appropriate and consistent with other narratives of the period that the attack comes on Christmas Day. The UK title of C.M. Kornbluth's 1955 account of a Russian invasion is Christmas Eve and Alfred Coppel's post-holocaust narrative Dark December (1960) also pivots around the Christmas season. The obvious implication is an ironic perception of a celebration of peace being the actual occasion of warfare.                

Tomorrow! traces out the psychological reactions to each phase of disaster. When “Condition Red” is announced, panic seizes the city. The editor Coley watches events from the heights of his high-rise block: “It was like looking down at ants in an anthill calamity. He could see what was happening, both in the mass and to individuals” (“X-Day” §12:267). The dwarfing perspective, the sounds of lament and the sudden corning of the “Light” encode the spectacle as a travesty of the Day of Judgment. In her survey of traditional apocalypses, however, Lois Parkinson Zamora states that the attendant imagery had to be lurid to “convey the power of God's retributive justice” (11). In the absence of such a spiritual framework Wylie cannot rationalize the spectacle as a transition towards a desirable end. Instead it is described as a process of erasure:

On the sidewalks, for a part of a second, on sidewalks boiling like forgotten tea, were dark stains that had been people, tens of thousands of people. The Light went over the whole great area, like a thing switched on, and people miles away, hundreds of people looking at it, lost their sight. The air, of a sudden, for a long way became hotter than boiling water, hotter than melted lead, hotter than steel coming white from electric furnaces. . . .
                The plutonium fist followed:
                It hammered across Front Street, Madison, Adams, Jefferson and Washington, along Central Avenue and rushed forward. The blast extinguished a billion sudden flames and started a million in the debris it stacked in its wake.
                Under the intense globe of light, meantime, for a mile in every direction the city disappeared. In the mile beyond, every building was bashed and buffeted. Homes fell by thousands on their inhabitants. Great institutions collapsed.
                The fist swung on, weaker now, taking the lighter structures and all the glass, the windows everywhere, hurling them indoors, speed-slung fragments, ten million stabbing daggers, slashing scimitars, slicing guillotines.
                Invisible, from the dangling body of light, the rays fell.
                Men did not feel them.
                But atoms responded, sucking up the particles of energy, storing them greedily to give them forth later, in a blind vengeance of the inanimate upon the yet-alive.
                Men felt the fist, the heat, but not the unseeable death that rode in swift consort with the explosion. (“X-Day” §12:269-270)

Not only does the bomb level everything. The distinction between the animate and inanimate collapses. Wylie carefully uses the human and the familiar as measures of scale, although the narrative voice cannot articulate any conceivable witness since all observers would be killed. He also draws out the duration of the event, distinguishing between fractions of a second in order to explain the sequence from flash to blast and emanation of rays. The latter, most deadly of all, operate beyond the limits of the human sensorium; and the passage gains an extraordinary power by diminishing human figures within a spatial field where forces are expending their energies. Description has now moved symbolically beyond the bounds of human perception, involving itself in a self-contradictory attempt to render imaginable the horrific actuality of atomic attack.        

Wylie's exploration of human reactions to the catastrophe—the fragmentation of perception, struggle of emergency services, outbreak of looting, etc.—gives way to a continuation of combat which lifts the scale of destruction on to a different level altogether. When Russia requests surrender, America responds by exploding a “dirty” H-bomb (coated in cobalt) in the Baltic. This can only be imagined through a hypothetical external observer on Mars: “In the ensuing dark, a thing swelled above the western edge of Russia, alight, alive, of a size to bulge beyond the last particles of earth's air” (“X-Day” §16:353). This epilogue fractures the novel since it shifts its focus from civil defense to winning the “last war” for freedom. This shift damages the novel's essentially local focus and demonstrates the incipient obsolescence of Wylie's main subject. By the end of the fifties he had become convinced that the proliferation and sophistication of H-bombs had rendered civil defense an impossibility. As usual in his writings Wylie homed in on perceptions of likely scenarios and a 1960 article, “Why I believe there will be no All-Out War,” attacked the “belief, almost as absolute as a religious faith, that they [the leaders] and the rest of the people of the land must have a change to `win' any war—whatever the megatonnage of weapons used against it, whatever their numbers, and however swiftly they are missile delivered” (22).                

This naive triumphalism is attacked in Wylie's 1963 novel Triumph where one character records:

There were also lots of prophetic books and movies about total war in the atomic age, and all of them were practically as mistaken as plain people and politicians and the Pentagon planners. In all of them that I recall, except for one, we Americans took dreadful punishment and then rose from the ground like those Greek-legend soldiers—Jason's men—and defeated the Soviets and set the world free. That one, which came closer to reality so far as the Northern Hemisphere is concerned, showed how everybody on earth died. (§9:96; emphasis in original).

This one exception has been identified by Paul Brians as Nevil Shute's On the Beach (1957), which describes the experiences of a dwindling group of Australian survivors of a nuclear holocaust (Brians 347). Although there is no such resurgence in the conclusion to Tomorrow!, nevertheless that novel describes a just war to ensure the freedom of the surviving remnant and concludes with a massive imbalance between the devastation of the Soviet Union and the regional destruction of the USA.                

In Triumph Wylie radically alters his sense of an ending to undermine the very possibility of survival. The novel opens with what promises to be a weekend party at the home of millionaire Vance Farr. The group which gathers in its ethnic mixture again suggests a microcosm of the USA and Farr's house is built at the top of a Connecticut hill which is steeped in history. Farr has fitted out the tunnels under the house as a nuclear shelter so elaborate as to be an absurd denial of a national civil defense system. The second irony in the house is its name, Uxmal, since it resembles the stepped pyramids of the Mayas, i.e. of an extinct civilization. A considerable portion of the novel is taken up with the psychology of the group in Farr's shelter after nuclear war breaks out, and here a structural problem presents itself. Wylie wants to pursue the possibility of survival in shelters. On the other hand he is equally concerned to convey to the reader the sheer scale of destruction caused in a nuclear war. Initially then there is a formal separation between chapters dealing with the shelter and those dealing with the outside world. Particularly when describing the explosions of the bombs Wylie is cautious to avoid the paradoxes of Tomorrow!. Starting with a masterpiece of understatement (“the burst of a nuclear weapon is curiously different from an ordinary explosion” [Triumph §5:39]), Wylie enumerates the different phases of the blast in such a way that the reader can understand scale and sequence (from force to flash, firestorm and fallout). The city map which Wylie printed in Tomorrow! kept the bomb blasts on a human scale. Now, however, extent is conveyed through non-specific plurals and through the reversal of qualities so that the insubstantial (air) becomes “steelhard” and all edifices are reduced to fragility if not wiped out altogether:

In a roughly circular area, miles across, underneath this thing, all buildings will have been vaporized. Farther out, for more miles the thrusting ram of steel-hard air will topple the mightiest structures and sweep all lesser edifices to earth, as if their brick and stone, girders and beams were tissue paper. (Triumph §5:40)

The future tenses in these sections make it clear that the descriptions are nondiegetic and are presenting a typical hypothetical case whose rhetorical force depends on the cumulative use of terms like “millions,” “myriads,” and “multitudes.” As such terms mount up the event seems so unavoidable that hypothesis turns into narrative certainty.                

Farr and his guests are still down in their shelter, however, experiencing such blasts through the mediation of technical recording equipment. The latter offers Wylie the means to link inside to outside. A surviving TV station in Central America transmits film of explosions taken for posterity (“the surviving world needs to know”) by an aircrew who subsequently die of radiation. As the survivors in the shelter gather before the screen, holocaust becomes media spectacle, the camera panning across lunar landscapes no longer recognizable. Even when a small town seems to have escaped damage the total absence of life suggests that it has been deluged in fallout and the town thus becomes a poignant image of a lost civic order. The progression in the novel's evocation of destruction is outward and expansive so that after a second nuclear strike the entire northern hemisphere is reduced to a pock-marked wilderness swept by radioactive clouds.                

Both Tomorrow! and Triumph describe scenarios of nuclear attack where the USA reacts to preemptive strikes from the Soviet Union. In the latter case the ostensible flash point is given rather anachronistically as an invasion of Yugoslavia by “volunteer” troops, a fantasy deriving from the 1949 Cominform call to overthrow Tito's regime. The US defense system is attacked constantly by the narrator and later by Farr, speaking as Wylie's surrogate, for missing obvious inferences, failing to design a coherent plan, and above all for missing the ideological premise of Soviet Communism which was that their leaders “had always been willing to pay any price whatever to conquer the world” (Triumph §5:46). Unlike the Americans, the Russians have a “fiendishly planned” long-term strategy whereby state-selected members from all walks of life will be housed in massive underground bunkers. The Yugoslav crisis turns out to have been stage-managed so as to catch the Americans off their guard and launch a first strike which destroys two thirds of the country. A second strike is later launched to saturate the entire Western hemisphere with deadly radiation. The few surviving US submarines destroy the underground bases but are themselves destroyed in the process. Wylie then points a sardonic epitaph: “the doctrines of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Krushchev, Merov, and Grodsky were finally the cost of half a world and of the vast majority of people who once called themselves free and civilized” (Triumph §14:240).                

The irony here is ambiguous since it could be directed solely against Communism, but the novel equally attacks the U.S. government's use of war games and routine “doomsday” scenarios in its defense planning. East and West are both (unequally) indicted for their militarism and materialism. At the end of the novel, Nevil Shute notwithstanding, Farr and his companions are rescued by helicopters from an Australian carrier and taken away from an America which will have “no name.” Clearly there is no suggestion here of transforming apocalypse, only of national erasure. One of the survivors recites Psalm 23 as he emerges, metaphorically encoding the shelter as the “valley of the shadow of death” and other parallels present themselves. The protagonist of the novel, a brilliant physicist, reflects on the radioactive plasma contained in “bottles” in a research establishment and of course the nuclear holocaust depicts the bursting forth of this material from “vials of wrath.” The novel shadows the figures of apocalypse in other respects, always with the deity as an absence. In the Book of Revelation God comes in a cloud, while the mushroom cloud here functions as a secularized sign of destruction. The thunder, lightning, and devastating fire similarly signify the spiralling of military technology out of human control. And, as already suggested, the alignment of nations cannot be read as the godly confronting the ungodly because part of Wylie's purpose is to show his own nation's slippage into worshipping the false god of materialism. However potent the external threat is from Russia, Wylie ultimately writes America's status as a superpower into the novel as a negative quality, for the failure of the USA to anticipate war results in worldwide destruction. Triumph in that sense concentrates just as ironic a spotlight on internal American failings as does Wylie's last novel which engages with ecological destruction.                  

By the end of the sixties Wylie's interest had shifted to ecology. In 1970 he agreed to write a television show about a future America where everyone has to live in airtight underground cities, a script he then rewrote in novel form as Los Angeles: A.D. 2017 (Keefer 151-52). His last novel, The End of the Dream (1972), is one of Wylie's most experimental works structurally since it is a polyphonic novel on ecological disaster with a broad variety of narrative means included within its chronicle sequence. The anonymous prologue introduces Willard Gulliver, the editor/narrator who is compiling a record of ecological disasters from the archive of the Foundation for Human Conservancy. Gulliver's first section consists of a series of excerpts culled from another book—1975: Date of No Return by one George Washington Packett—and subsequent sections assemble articles, excerpts from radio and TV programmes, and so on. Although the styles and sentiments of most narrators overlap, they are kept formally distinct by their separate roles. Thus Packett introduces the general issue of impending ecological disaster while Gulliver assembles the specifics to document the case.                  

Wylie's method owes much to Wells's The Shape of Things to Come (1933), a work which he viewed with considerable respect. This “history,” like Wylie's own “novel,” writes its own generic indeterminacy into the text by having it edited by a character who cannot quite decide what to make of the “dream book of Dr. Philip Raven.” It might be a “conditional prophecy in the Hebrew manner produced, in a quasi-inspired mood” (Wells §0:15); on the other hand its sentiments are at odds with Raven's public utterances. In other words its congruence is skewed throughout. Although the editor respects Raven, the dream book turns out to be a defective manuscript with lacunae (on the British repression in India, for example) which degenerates in its last section into an “untidy mass of notes.” Like The End of the Dream Wells's work incorporates quotations from other works such as the notebooks of the artist Ariston Theotocopulos and repeatedly draws attention to the difficulties of its own transcription. Broadly speaking, Wells is negotiating between an ideal of rational planning and an actuality that history might just be a series of random accidents. These alternatives remain unresolved to the very end. Raven is utterly startled by a worldwide epidemic which sweeps the globe in the mid-1950s and by the rise of a transport monopoly to world dominance. In other words Wells establishes a tension between Raven's sibylline warnings and the cautious formulations of his “editor.”                

No such marked dissonance operates in The End of the Dream partly because Raven's position is occupied by Miles Smythe, the leader of the ecological movement, who is, however, not an author himself. Rather than edit a single text then, Willard Gulliver has to assemble a collage of different voices which, as in John Dos Passos' USA, collectively articulate the environmental anxieties of the country. Gulliver himself witnesses Black Valentine's Day, a massive blackout in New York and the North East, but this role is then picked up by a whole series of different characters. One of the supporting premises of the novel is that Nature is a whole system which knows no boundaries, and Wylie takes care to situate his characters geographically so as to relate them to the entire nation. Thus a Vietnam veteran in Kentucky helplessly watches as his children are boiled alive in the local river which has been polluted by a nearby nuclear reactor. The media in Wylie's novel on the whole perform a positive function in transforming local events into national news. The vet's voice is channelled through a TV documentary, later transcribed in the text. Wylie reserves a special status for investigative journalism in this context, as we shall see. He pursues a populist method of assembling instances of eye-witness accounts, letters, notes on a mysterious green slime, etc., which dramatizes ecological inquiry as a spontaneous and collective undertaking, not the hobby-horse of a few cranks. Diversity of voice carries its own special plausibility and, if anything, tends to understate the apocalyptic dimension of what is being described. Radio announcements during the Eastern blackout tersely give only the bare facts of the attendant air-crashes; or a 19-year old Floridian gives an interview account of an invasion by predatory worm-like creatures from the sea (“vibes”) which plays down scale and concentrates instead on the immediate practicalities of avoiding death.                  

Clifford P. Bendan has commented dismissively that “political and social questions” are absent from The End of the Dream (59) and in the process totally misreads the novel. Wylie's post-war writings return again and again to the political right of the American people to know and The End of the Dream is ultimately concerned with the circulation of knowledge. Hence the sheer diversity of narrative means, and hence the political core of the novel. Mikhail Bakhtin draws attention to two broad kinds of discourse which might operate within a novel: the “internally persuasive,” which quickly becomes appropriated by its receiver, and the externally authoritative, which is imposed from outside (345). Wylie plays on the special value of the former and ridicules the latter in a particular scene where one General Thompson addresses a secret meeting on industrial pollution. The circumstances of the meeting establish a “for your ears only” sense of privilege in the listeners, further reinforced by the general's declaration that he has been uniquely “authorized by the Chiefs of Staff” to disclose information. The members present, however, deflate his authority through their questions, thereby demonstrating that the situation can be resolved only through dialogue, not through fiat.               

Although authority figures are repeatedly mocked in this novel, Wylie dramatizes the sinister power of the establishment in suppressing information. An editorial in a newspaper makes the point about a potato blight: “No means of silencing those who had the facts seems to have been too cunning, illegal or unethical, even criminal in many cases...” (EOD §11.4:95). The specific case polemically challenges the reader's identification of government with legality and aligns industry with officialdom and secrecy. The latter has its melodrama. A Louisiana rice farmer notes a blight on his crop which might be coming from a nearby plant experiment station, writes to the Foundation for Human Conservancy, and then is found dead after a suspicious “hunting accident.” Investigators from the Foundation find all roads to the plant closed and are taken into “protective custody” by marshalls. The function of the establishment in this novel is to conceal, while the method of the novel is to enact disclosure. So classified documents are included within the text on pollution from reactor fuels where the president is advised to suppress the information permanently for fear of creating a “credibility gap.” It is no coincidence that the novel should refer several times to Richard Nixon, whose presidency was characterized by running battles with the press and an obsession with secrecy amounting to paranoia: Nixon set up a special White House group (the “Plumbers”) to stop leaks; Wylie shows how leaks might operate for the public good. A member of the President's Special Commission on the water supply leaks the top secret report because its contents are so appalling, differentiating from the versions which will be received by the public and by Congress. Nixon was hostile to the environmental movement which he perceived as damaging the economy. In 1971, ironically using exactly the same sort of Biblical statements on consequences as Wylie places within the novel but for diametrically opposite reasons, he complained: “We have gone overboard on the environment—and are going to reap the whirlwind for our excesses” (Ambrose 460). More generally, Wylie extends the mania for secrecy of the Nixon years right into the next millennium as a constant refusal to inform the public for reasons of commercial and political vested interest.                 

It might appear from the discussion so far that The End of the Dream has moved right away from the spectre of nuclear war but such is not the case. An intertextual reference to Orwell within the novel helps to locate this issue. A literary journalist briefly considers the applicability of Nineteen Eighty-Four to the contemporary situation and concludes firstly that “ours is still a democracy” and secondly that common environmental problems are breaking down the hostility between the two power blocs. We must remember, however, that no single voice in the novel carries unquestioned authority and Gulliver has in fact criticized this journalist for his unjustified confidence in technology. More importantly, the novel contradicts the journalist's optimism when China interprets a “Black Blight” on rice as imperialist aggression and is poised to launch missiles against the USA. There is therefore in this novel a continuity between nuclear fears and the environmental anxieties which Rachel Carson, one of Wylie's sources, had already exploited in her 1962 study of pesticide pollution, Silent Spring, which opens with a “Fable for Tomorrow” describing a midwest town rendered ghostly by pollution:

The roadsides, once so attractive, were now lined with brown and withered vegetation as though swept by fire.... In the gutters under the eaves and between the shingles of the roofs, a white granular powder still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and streams.... No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves. (4)

The concept of enemy is relocated within the home environment just as in Wylie's novel the terminology of nuclear attack—“Condition Red,” for instance —is transposed on to the environmental scene. The USA is still described as a militarily driven economy long after the early Cold War and future Middle East War. Again and again Wylie presents actual and hypothetical military projects as a series of attacks against the environment. Thus the city of Cleveland is destroyed by a massive explosion which recalls the measurement of damage after atomic attack in Tomorrow!. The novel ironically underscores the analogy: “The blast was actually `atomic' in its force. This force has been calculated by readings from gauges at three sites...[which] agree the blast at `ground zero' had a force of twenty-one kilotons” covers the fact that the explosion was caused by leakage from a chemical plant “doing work essential for national defense” (EOD §2.11:162). “Defense” here turns into an unplanned attack by the US military establishment on its own citizens.                

If nature is perceived as a system with its own homoeostatic balances then the early displacement of the biblical threat “vengeance is mine” from the voice of the deity to that of nature herself indicates that Wylie is dealing here in secular apocalypse. As in his earlier writings on nuclear attack this novel gains much of its force from using documentary techniques. But scientific explanation is buttressed by a recognition of the unchangeable processes of nature: “The laws of nature are absolute, inviolable and, when disobeyed, unforgiving. If there should be a God, then He made those laws” (EOD §3.3: 200). “God” functions here somewhere between a spiritual hypothesis and a personification of the unpredictable mechanisms in the environment which will strike back against human abuse. For Robert Howard Barshay, Wylie in this novel “saw himself as a Hebrew prophet dealing with the Protestant themes of grace and damnation...” (67). We have already encountered different examples of Wylie striking an admonitory role towards his country. The End of the Dream partly traces out the activities of Miles Smythe, who from an early age perceives a calling to save America from environmental disasters. He is described variously as a “colossus” and a “powerhouse” of the ecological movement, driving it along by sheer force of energy (he is a physical as well as intellectual giant). Smythe speaks with a voice of thunder at the beginning of the novel but by the end has been reduced to a figure of impotence, weeping in helpless solitude. Smythe embodies the drive of the novel as a whole, namely to reveal likely consequences in the most literal sense of “apocalyptic.” Expectation of imminent disaster colours the way this novel handles time and differentiates it from The Shape of Things to Come. In the latter Wells never loses the possibility that the millennium might usher in a new era of rational state planning whereas Wylie traces out a series of ever-increasing ecological disasters starting from small-scale accidents in the 1970s through larger-scale disasters in the 1980s. The narrative halts around the millennium with cataclysms where the planet seems to be tearing itself apart.                

Biblical allusions underpin this progression through the fall of towers (a high-rise block in New York explodes during a blackout), plagues, a river of flames (which symbolically marks the transition from the seventies to the eighties), culminating in an “Antarctic Gehenna” triggered off by pit-fires. One of the pivotal scenes in the novel is recounted by Gulliver, who witnesses mass deaths in a New York overhung by a toxic cloud:

What I saw was almost incredible. The crowd on my side of the street at a distance of four blocks and beyond had become dwarfed. It took a moment to understand that incredible phenomenon. It was as if everybody had suddenly become two feet tall. And this strange endwarfing was spreading. The standing masses were serially shortening—and then it was plain.
                They had fallen.
                They were falling like wheat cut by an invisible reaper, one that was approaching. They were, I knew, dead. (EOD §3.2:184)

This quasi-visionary sequence inscribes the reader's scepticism into the scene by narrating the observer's struggles to understand the spectacle before him. Although Miles Smythe is the most prophetic figure in the novel, his function is dispersed among a whole series of witnesses and commentators like Gulliver, who registers a vision of mankind as a collective never distinguished from a “multitude” or “crowd.” It is almost as though he is witnessing in miniature the death of a species comparable to a different natural species, a cereal crop. In the Christian apocalypse the break down of the current world order is a herald to a new spiritual dispensation, but here and throughout the novel Wylie shows civic order collapsing without any alleviation. In Tomorrow! the emergency services help to ensure reestablishment of order but in The End of the Dream the masked national militia do little more than pile up the thousands of corpses in New York, presiding over the death of the metropolis.                

The End of the Dream presents a collage of different kinds of fictional texts in such a way as to reflect Wylie's desire, which was constant throughout his career, of addressing the whole nation. His desire to adopt the role of national conscience again and again results in a polemical tilt in his works towards the essay; and it also explains why he never stays within a single genre. Generation of Vipers is part secular sermon, part future history; Tomorrow! suspends its narrative to include an extended editorial, in effect an inset essay; and Triumph combines fictional journals and telecasts within its main narrative, which alternates between psychological investigation and imminent world history. Realism was evidently far too confining for Wylie's moral urgencies, which focus, as we have seen, on spectacles of destruction varying in scale from a local region to the entire planet. This destruction confirms the unheeded authority of the admonitory, quasi-prophetic voices which fill Wylie's writing and which usually converge on the authority of the primary narrator. Although Wylie draws on prophetic and apocalyptic patterns his works are not religious as such. On the other hand they may well include religious characters who raise biblical analogies with the works as a whole. The rigid pious analogies in When Worlds Collide give way to a more flexible and generically varied use of the apocalyptic paradigm in Wylie's writings from the Second World War onwards. Together with this flexibility comes an increasing darkness of vision. As Wylie addresses mankind's capacity for self-destruction, the regenerative phase of apocalypse, the evocation of a new order, drops out of his narratives. By his own account Wylie threw off his Presbyterian upbringing, but possible traces of its influence can be found in his repeated challenges—in The Answer and elsewhere—to the secular orthodoxy of his age.

                1. Wylie's attacks on Christianity are discussed in Barshay 78.
                2. The ending of the 1951 movie adaptation makes the spiritual optimism of the conclusion even more explicit than in the novel, showing a tableau of characters gazing into a sunrise with a chorus over of angelic voices. A third novel in this sequence never came to fruition because of a disagreement between Wylie and Balmer (Moskowitz 289).
                3. In this work Wylie draws on Ouspensky to suggest new ways of thinking and cites Brave New World as the extrapolation of a future world of sexual plenty.
                4. Wylie appreciated the “mordant scenery” of Ape and Essence which he saw as a “logical extension of current events,” and approved of Huxley's satirical inversions of Christianity (Opus 21 198).
                5. Harold T. Wilkins' Flying Saucers on the Attack (1954) documents many cases of mysterious phenomena which might suggest extraterrestrial visitors or secret weapons of which the public had no knowledge. That same year Wylie attacked the latter possibility since it “constitutes a vast lack of confidence in leadership. The nature of the quandary means that day by day, Americans become seekers for more psychological warfare, more nerve-shattering, more alarm” (“Flying Saucers and the Cold War” 5).
                6. The subject of smuggled bombs was dramatized in Wylie's book-length story “The Smuggled Atom Bomb,” which describes the discovery of a small ring of conspirators bringing the deadly materials into America and placing them in key cities. The story was subsequently published with others tinder the title Three to be Read (1951) and as a separate novel in the same year. Wylie's fear of the U.S. seaboard being mined by Soviet H-bombs led him in 1961 to send a detailed enquiry to Kennedy whose presidential campaign Wylie had actively supported. Kennedy took the possibility seriously enough to pass Wylie's letter on to his military advisers.
                7. “A Note on Hatred,” which focuses mainly on ethnic and class antagonisms and which is a “detached fascicle” of Simon Raven's manuscript, occurs in §11.8 of The Shape of Things to Come. Truman Frederick Keefer sums up a bland moral for this work, namely its demonstration that “the roles of the sexes are unequal in function but equal in importance to the prime goal on life—the procreation and proper upbringing of the next generation” (123).
                8. In “Communism: A Mental Illness” Lindner and Wylie describe the Marxist state as basing itself on “institutionalized paranoia” (5). In The Innocent Ambassadors, an account of a journey round the world with his wife, Wylie found himself constantly having to counter the abrasive effects of John Foster Dulles' visits. Wylie, who knew Dulles from his father, thought the latter had made a serious error in identifying Communism with atheism. Not that Wylie was any less compromising, for he saw the target as humanity itself (181).
                9. In a 1951 essay, “Terror—and the Terror Weapons,” Wylie discusses popular hysteria and recommends that the mass media show “atomic bomb casualties from nudity through the most grisly burns to evisceration, decapitation, and the like” (21). There is no evidence that they took up Wylie's suggestion.

Ambrose, Stephen E. Nixon. Volume 2: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972. London and NY, 1989.
Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination. Austin, 1990.
Barshay, Robert Howard. Philip Wylie: The Man and His Work. Washington, 1979.
Bendan, Clifford P. Still Worlds Collide: Philip Wylie. San Bernardino, 1980.
Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison, 1978.
Boyer, Paul. By the Dawn's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. NY, 1985.
Bretnor, Reginald, ed. Modern Science Fiction: lts Meaning and Future. NY, 1953.
Brians, Paul. Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1895-1984. Kent, 1987.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. London, 1969.
Derleth, August, ed. Strange Ports of Call. NY, 1948.
Keefer, Truman Frederick, Philip Wylie. Boston, 1977.
Ketterer, David. New Worlds for Old. The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature. Garden City, 1974.
Magill, Frank N., ed. Survey of Science Fiction Literature. Englewood Cliffs, 1979.
Minter, David. “The Puritan Jeremiad as Literary Form.” The American Puritan Imagination: Essays in Revaluation. Ed. Sacvan Bercovitch. Cambridge, 1974.
Moskowitz, Sam. Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction. Westport, 1963. Wells, H.G. The Shape of Things to Come. London, 1993.
Wylie, Philip. “ABCs of the H-Bomb. “ MS. Wylie archive, Princeton University.
─────. The Answer. NY: Rinehart, 1955.
─────. The Disappearance. London: Gollancz, 1972.
─────. The End of the Dream. Morley: Elmfield Press, 1972.
─────. “Flying Saucers and the Cold War.” MS. Wylie archive. Princeton University.
─────. Generation of Vipers. NY: Rinehart, 1942.
─────. The Innocent Ambassadors. NY: Rinehart, 1957.
─────. Opus 21. NY: Rinehart, 1949.
─────. “Terror and the Terror Weapons “. MS. Wylie archive. Princeton University.
─────. Tomorrow!. NY: Rinehart, 1954.
─────. Triumph. Garden City: Doubleday, 1963. 
─────. “Why I Believe there will be no All-Out War.” Rotarian 97: 22-25, September 1960.
───── and Edwin Balmer. After Worlds Collide. NY: Lippincott, 1970.
───── and Edwin Balmer. When Worlds Collide. London: Sphere, 1975.
───── and Robert Lindner. “Communism: A Mental Illness. A Study in Psychopolitics.” MS. Wylie archive. Princeton University.
Zamora, Lois Parkinson. Writing the Apocalypse: Historical Vision in Contemporary U.S. and Latin American Fiction. Cambridge, 1989.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)Back to Home