Philip Gordon Wylie
By: Joshua Glenn | Categories: HiLo Heroes, Radium Age SF

The splenetic, prolific writer PHILIP GORDON WYLIE (1902-71) studied science, mathematics, and psychology in an effort to understand why 20th-century humankind was so narrow-minded, hypocritical, conventional, and — as a result — mediocre. In the Twenties, he was a spokesman for the sexually liberated “now” generation; in the Thirties, he wrote the screenplay for the Buster Crabbe vehicle King of the Jungle; in the Forties, he was an adviser to the chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee for Atomic Energy; in the Fifties, his magazine writing popularized orchid cultivation and sport fishing. (All of which demonstrates that idlers — Wylie’s 1933 Harper’s essay, “The Quitter as Hero,” champions “liquidity” over stick-to-it-iveness — aren’t lazy.) I’m particularly interested in Wylie’s influence on science fiction’s “superman” meme, via his 1930 novel Gladiator, in which a super-strong, invulnerable man builds a fortress of solitude, adopts a secret identity, and vows to aid humankind (before despairing of flawed mortals), and via his even more pessimistic superman novel, The Savage Gentleman (1932). He is best known today, however, for his 1933 novel When Worlds Collide (written with Edwin Balmer), in which scientists rescue a group of men and women, and bear witness to the collapse of civilization, just before the Earth is destroyed; and for the 1942 nonfiction bestseller Generation of Vipers, which lambastes politicians, professors, businessmen, preachers, and — in a chapter for which he will never be forgiven, though this reader suspects that Wylie was a proto-feminist outraged by the debased condition of American women — what he called the unhealthy cult of “Momism.”


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Tony Hancock, Joseph Beuys, Ian Dury, Edward Lear, Katharine Hepburn, George Carlin.

READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled (1894-1903) Generation.

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Joshua Glenn is an author, publisher, and semiotic analyst. He is co-author (with Mark Kingwell and the cartoonist Seth) of THE IDLER'S GLOSSARY and THE WAGE SLAVE'S GLOSSARY, co-editor of the object-oriented story collections TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY and (with Rob Walker) SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS, and co-author (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen) of the family activities guide UNBORED and three forthcoming spinoffs, including UNBORED Games. He is editor of HILOBROW and publisher of the Radium Age science fiction imprint HiLoBooks. Also: Glenn manages a secretive online community known as the Hermenautic Circle; he is founding editor of the e-book club Save the Adventure; and he's a frequent co-host of Boing Boing's podcast GWEEK. In the ’00s, Glenn was an editor, columnist, and blogger for the Boston Globe's IDEAS section, he co-founded the international semiotics website SEMIONAUT, and contributed to CABINET, SLATE, and elsewhere. In the ’90s, he published the high-lowbrow zine/journal HERMENAUT, worked as a dotcom and magazine editor, and contributed to THE BAFFLER, FEED, and elsewhere. His publishing company is King Mixer, LLC; and his semiotic analysis consultancy is Semiovox LLC. He lives in Boston with his wife and children.