The Savage Gentleman by Philip Wylie
Published by Bison Books (University of Nebraska Press), March 2011.
Originally published 1932.
Review copy received.
Review by Mark Yon
If known at all these days, Philip Wylie (1902-1971) is perhaps best known for his disaster novel written with Edwin Balmer, When Worlds Collide (1933), or even the George Pal produced film version (1953).
However, outside the SF world he wrote hundreds of short novels, screenplays, reviews, serials, and social comment, much of which has now become rather obscure.
Well done then to Bison Books, who have re-released a lesser-known work by this author.
First published in 1932, it is at first glance less SF and more an extension of social comment. More akin to Stranger in a Strange Land than Armageddon, it has been claimed, like his earlier novel Gladiator (1930), that it is a precursor, if not an influence on the development of the pulp hero. Whereas The Savage Gentleman is seen as perhaps an influence on The Man of Bronze, Doc Savage, Gladiator is also seen as one of the main inspirations for Superman.
According to Gary Westfahl, ‘it remains the case that Wylie succeeded in, and then abandoned, three separate writing careers. He worked as a Hollywood screenwriter; he wrote a number of well-regarded science fiction novels, and he wrote some books for a mainstream audience. But he never established himself as a leading figure in any of these fields, explaining why he is not well remembered—he was a talented visitor to several worlds, an inhabitant of none of them.’
The story starts fairly straightforwardly. At the end of the 19th century Stephen Stone, millionaire, is betrayed by his wife and as a result takes their son, Henry, to a remote and isolated island where he is brought up by Stone and two male companions, a Scotsman named McCobb and a Negro servant named Jack, without the influence of women. The first half of the book reads like a Boys-Own adventure idyll, with the men hunting, fishing and educating Henry. Thirty years or so pass. Henry’s father dies on the island. Then Stone Island is discovered by a small Scandinavian freighter and the remaining men are brought back to New York of the 1930’s: a place very different from the New York they left when Henry was an infant. We now have telephones, electricity, aeroplanes, airships. Henry also finds himself the owner of a huge news conglomerate set up by his father and run in their absence by the magnate Voorhees.
His island education has created a handsome and well built young man (a point frequently emphasised in the book) who is a great conversationalist and excellent company, well versed in etiquette, and extraordinarily nice, though one who cannot remember ever seeing a woman. Indeed his father has taught him never to trust a female and that love itself is a myth.
With such a setup, much of the remainder of this tale is how Henry adjusts to the contemporary world and the complexities of the modern woman, an issue exacerbated when he meets Marian Whitney, the granddaughter of corporate lawyer and family friend Elihu Whitney.
In summary we have here a social commentary and a book which questions the roles of gender in society in what seems to be a common theme of Wylie’s. In his introduction to this edition of Savage Gentleman, Richard A. Lupoff states that Wylie is ‘railing against womankind’, and the idea of ‘momism’. It must be said that there is a highlighting of the value of ‘men doing manly things’ here. The first thing the men do, once having deliberately beached their yacht, is clear land, and build a house, and create a farm with hunting and fishing in a manner that would make a survivalist proud.
Alternatively, thinking about the target audience of the 1930’s, this may be what the reader wants. Following such an idea, there is also great store placed on the consequential male bonding here too. It is a very male-orientated environment, albeit with a Negro male slave. (This is a point that Lupoff makes, that although Black slavery is an issue that sits uncomfortably with the readership of today, Jack is a character more subtle and respected than at first suggested.) This can be seen further reflected in the pulp fiction of the time, with the lead hero and his (typically male) buddies supporting each other through difficulties, whether it be fighting crime or even relationships with women. The gentleman, for all his social graces and suave gentility, is nevertheless still a savage when needs be, as is shown in the ending of the novel.
This is an old-fashioned view, and one which would be controversial even today. Whilst the world has moved on, this book is rather stuck in its historical context. However, rather than being the male sexist rant that the above summary may suggest, the female character, in the guise of Marian Whitney, actually suggests that Henry will only live happily ever after in a fuller, better informed life with a witty, honest, and vivacious woman.
For all of the book’s apparent male posturing, it can be quite engaging. It highlights the concerns of the US of the 1930’s – gangsters, media conglomeration, loose morals, prohibition – and makes us question whether such a life is better than the isolated island lifestyle that Henry Stone, McCobb and Jack at one point wish to return to.
A book that is meant to provoke a response, though this felt like an early prototype of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (a point further emphasised when we find that one of the business moguls here is called Harriman!)
If you can read the book in its original context, allowing for the stereotyping and racism of its day, it is and at times even funny. If nothing else, it shows us how far the genre has moved since the 1930’s. Moreover, by the end Wylie seems to suggest not a separation of the sexes but that each gender has its defined role/place and, in fact, each needs each other to enable people to reach their full potential.
Mark Yon, February 2011