Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Philip Wylie: curmudgeon, fisherman

When author Philip Wylie wasn’t enraging the American political Right or the political Left with books and articles critical of most of the sacred cows in society, he was fishing — and writing about fishing.

Philip Wylie
Wylie, whose scathing indictment of motherhood in America, A Generation of Vipers (1942) earned him the enmity of millions, also delighted millions more with the stories of fictional deep sea fishermen Captain Crunch Adams and his comical first mate, Desperate Smith. The adventures of Crunch and Des, published in Saturday Evening Post were must-reads for generations of real-life sportsmen and armchair adventurers alike.

The stories were collected into books, seven in all, and published in the 1940s and 1950s. Two of those books The Best of Crunch and Des (1954) and Treasure Cruise and other Stories (1956) are in the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA. A third Wylie saltwater fishing book, Denizens of the Deep (1953) also is part of the collection.

Wylie was a remarkably prolific writer who published mostly from the late 1920s through the 1950s. He was everywhere: you could read him in books and magazine articles, see his work in movies and on television. He also wrote radio programs and syndicated newspaper columns.

A1930 novel, Gladiator, concerns a scientist whose research develops a serum that gives superhuman abilities to his son, who dies disillusioned and frustrated from living in a world that encourages mediocrity. The story is said by some to be the inspiration for Superman, though the creators of Superman have never acknowledged the connection. He wrote a screenplay adaptation for H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. A Redbook article he wrote was the basis of the musical Springtime in the Rockies (1942).

His novel, The Disappearance (1951), examined what would happen if suddenly the male and female populations of the world disappeared from each other’s presence. The men’s world was a social disaster but functioned mechanically. The women’s world fails materially because they can’t operate the machinery to keep it running, a notion that even in the 1950s drew criticism.

It was A Generation of Vipers, though, that drew the greatest cries of protest from American readers. In it he called the American mother the “great emasculator.” He continued: “She smokes thirty cigarettes a day, chews gum, and consumes tons of bonbons and petits fours … She plays bridge with the stupid voracity of a hammerhead shark, which cannot see what it is trying to gobble but never stops snapping its jaws and roiling the waves with its tail.”

The book became something of a sacred gospel among the youth of the 1960s, whose distain for the conventions of American life seemed to match Wylie’s outlook. Ever the equal opportunity curmudgeon, Wylie published a scathing attack on liberalism and the counterculture with the 1971 book, Sons and Daughters of Mom. He died the same year.

Like Ozymandias, much of what Wylie wrote has sunk beneath the sands of time, entirely forgotten, or merely a footnote to history. More enduring are his Crunch and Des stories. In the 1950s, they spawned a 1955 NBC television show starring Forrest Tucker. Filmed in Bermuda, it was set in the Bahamas. In Wylie’s stories, though, Captain Crunch is based in Key West. Crunch Adams is an ex-prize fighter. The stories are deft character studies of the people who charter The Poseidon.  The two, along with Adams’ wife, Sari, contend with all manner of personalities and are drawn into all sorts of delightful adventures.

Wiley, along with novelist Ernest Hemingway and dress shop entrepreneur Michael Lerner, was one of the early officers of the International Game Fishing Association, the keeper of world records in sport fishing. As late as 1990, his daughter, behavioral biologist Karen Wylie Pryor, published a collection of his fishing stories.

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