"A Nation’s Journey from Awareness to Denial: Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking" by Christina Cain Whitney
Christina Cain Whitney is a doctoral candidate at the University of Denver, Denver, Colorardo, USA. Email:
As articles of popular culture, widely read, editorial works serve to illuminate historical periods of our nation’s past. Consider the cultural information gleaned from Jonathan Edward’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” or the pithy relevance of Ben Franklin’s “Common Sense.” Texts such as these allow study of the eighteenth century with a focus on popular, yet uniquely American concerns such as Puritanism, self-determination, and frugality. The three way intersection of religion, politics, and economics that fueled our nation’s controversial inception and flavored early American authors’ works continues to fire American public imagination, and thus, shapes popular taste in reading material, especially of the editorial variety. As a result, vital historical context can be drawn from analysis of popular, and therefore not always literary, works.
The rapid post-war transition of the United States from the quasi-socialist, functionally agnostic, passive democracy of Roosevelt’s early years to Eisenhower’s Dynamic Conservative State deserves study in order to provide deeper context for the shift in high literary tastes of the time (from Modern to Post-Modern) and the fall from favor of many Cold War black-listees. Literary artifacts from the era are necessarily self-referencing of their own context, so a “skimming”, so to speak, of the top layer of popular reading of the time provides superior insight into the social atmosphere of the period (Hooker 82). By comparing the reception history of Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers—a high strung polemic from 1942—and the obsequious Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale published a decade later, one begins to understand the pressures, both political and domestic, that led a country back into the pews. Both books dealt with religion, politics, and economics, although not exclusively, in the case of Wylie’s Generation. What separates and thus makes study illuminating is the difference in tone between the two books. While Wylie makes the case against the blending of superficial religious fervor with economic gain as inherently hypocritical, Peale prescribes just such a blending of spiritual and material “rewards” to the burgeoning ranks of middle class salesman of the 1950s. The irony lies in the fact that both books enjoyed tremendous success with similar audiences, while espousing completely antithetical doctrines. That the same readers who applauded Wylie’s vindictiveness would embrace Peale’s superficial positivism indicates significant changes in the religious, political and economic philosophy of the average U.S. reader.
The effects of the changing national character are observed in all three aspects of American life with which these two books deal. Religious demographics shifted during the decade that separated Generation of Vipers and The Power of Positive Thinking. In the late 1930s, as the U. S. emerged from a depression and stared down the barrel of another World War, statistics on American faith remained stable at roughly 40% of the population reporting regular participation in religious services, a figure that had not budged more than a point or two since the turn of the 19th century (La Rue). Then, American attendance surged during the 1950’s, that hallowed decade of domestic bliss, international success, and popular culture frenzy. Douglas T. Miller cites in The Fifties: The Way We Really Were that, “In the fifties, however, all faiths and all classes were influenced” by the increased religiosity of the nation, which could lead to the conclusion that renewed faithfulness resulted from social as opposed to spiritual pressures (X). While it is important to note the widespread nature of the phenomenon for context, the rise in Christian church attendance most directly concerns the analysis of Wylie’s and Peale’s reception history and purpose. Commentary from the period casts church attendance as the result of rising social pressure, part of the newly defined suburban experience. “Everybody knows that church life is booming in the U.S., and there are plenty of statistics to prove it,” begins a Time article from 1955 in which Christian church attendance –both Protestant and Catholic—is estimated at around 60% (“Those Church Statistics”). Other sources list the statistical jump less dramatically, with church attendance ranging from 49-55%, but every source concurs on one point: Christian church attendance rose dramatically during the 1950’s, a relatively stable, prosperous period in American history.
The economic and political climates of the nation shifted dramatically as well during the decade between Generation of Vipers and The Power of Positive Thinking. With the end of World War II, America entered an unmatched period of economic prosperity. Gross domestic product rose 300% between the years 1942 and 1952, the respective publishing dates of Generation and Power, and children could expect to triple their parents’ salary (Bureau of Economic Analysis). American families became rapacious in their consumerism, as war-time factories simply converted operations to produce consumer goods, and suburban families rushed to keep up with the Joneses. Economic excess blended with political conservatism, as FDR’s sweeping socialist reforms, seen as welcome interferences during the 1930s, were curtailed by Eisenhower. In keeping with his conservative economic policy, Eisenhower encouraged a conservative social policy as well. Intellectuals and starlets alike were blacklisted by Senator Joseph McCarthy for their former participation in the Communist Party, their sexuality, or their Jewish faith, and the Senator acted with the approval of the reigning Republican Party. With such radical changes in the religious, economic and political spheres of American life, the values of middle-class America, where popular culture dwells, likewise shifted.
To consider the habits of typical Americans from this era with a view toward a values discussion might seem inappropriate for a scholarly investigation if it were not for the fact that values prescription is the purpose of both primary texts. Wylie in Generation of Vipers condemns the superficial, often financially motivated religiosity of the church-going public of the 1940’s, fashioning himself in the image of Christ when He throws the vendors out of the temple in Jerusalem. By contrast, Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking describes a very different type of Christianity, and through it Jesus Christ, Capitalist, emerges as a staple of the 1950’s. Close readings of both works’ religious commentaries and analysis of their reception histories reveal the economic and political forces surrounding each. Despite the differences in the cultural climates of their respective decades and their antithetical moral prescriptions, both books were hailed as moral lightening rods of a generation. By understanding the religious, political, and economic influences on popular culture artifacts such as Generation of Vipers and The Power of Positive Thinking, the effects of those influences on more sophisticated literature become clearer.
No stranger to the fringes of the reading public with his science fiction repertoire, Philip Wylie burst onto the popular reading scene in 1942 with his diatribe against all things considered beyond criticism in American culture, Generation of Vipers. By the time of Vipers’ publication, the established author had written well over twenty novels, and countless magazine articles. However, the publication of Vipers ended a dry spell, if not in productivity, then definitely in critical attention. Finnley Wren (1934), what Wylie’s biographer Truman Keefer believes to be his masterpiece, had gone un-acclaimed by critics who may have been too nervous about the book’s anti-American tones during the beleaguered 1930s (Keefer 76). Disappointed but not dissuaded, Wylie returned to his theme in the winter of 1941, this time changing genres from novel to editorial. The repackaging of these messages from Finnley Wren in the non-fiction, polemic Generation of Vipers was so blunt a statement that the power of Wylie’s convictions could not be ignored, and as such, they struck a cord with American readers in the midst of World War II.
In Generation of Vipers, no one is spared. An equal opportunity offender, Wylie attacks entire sections of the American population, mainly based on vocation. Scientists, physicians, clergymen, even dear old Mom herself receive Wylie’s scathing evaluations. Heavily steeped in Jungian psychology, Wylie’s criticism invokes every aspect of American life and those who live it for their inability to recognize the external forces that keep them behaving in detrimental and illogical ways (Barshay 76-77). Though Wylie bases his assertions in Jungian method, he carefully avoids dogmatic adherence to Karl Jung’s ideas. Such overdependence on the psychologist would go against the book’s aim of exposing blind devotion as an excuse for the ignorance, hypocrisy, and superficiality. Wylie dedicates eighteen essays to denouncing school, home, and state as blind entities that cannot help others because the people within the institutions do not recognize and respond appropriately to their own motives, nor to external forces exerted by influential people in powerful positions. His comments on the Christian church’s role in America provide the keenest focus for the acidity of his argument and the most appropriate example of religious candor in the book.
Throughout the work, Wylie explodes the modern notion of Christianity and its relationship to organized religion, challenging the authority of the church over the individual. His first attack involves Church and sex. Wylie points to the inherent futility and assumed hypocrisy of church leaders who try to control the sexual appetites of “the non-Protestant and non-Catholic majority” (74). Not only does he view the attempt as pointless, he further cites the sexual morals instilled by churches as dangerous to national health with anecdotal evidence of pastors advising servicemen abroad against contraception (67). He further questions the power of organized religion over individual’s lives as he criticizes the group nature of most Christian religions. Wylie claims men and women attend services out of instinctual habit, a recalling of ancient pagan rites, a rote action that fits more with mob mentality than true spiritualism (111). Even progressive Christians are not spared, as he pokes fun at scientists who need to prove the existence of God. Since science is not to be trusted either, his prescription for Christian scientists is to examine their Bibles more closely. His judgment is that there is an inherent disconnect between science and faith, and that working to reconcile the two suggests hypocrisy or even worse, dogmatic brainwashing on the part of the Church (158). By tying Christian church attendance to the value charged issues of the 1940’s, his overall thesis gains relevance to the common reader.
Organized religion has always endured the slings and arrows from the socially disgruntled. Luther was not the first to hammer a list of failures to a church wall. What sets Wylie apart from the ordinary malcontent is that he goes beyond an attack on mere organized religion and its twentieth century manifestation in American protestant churches. In keeping with his thesis of splitting layers of dogma down to the essential spiritual character of religion, he hits Christianity where it lives— in Jesus Christ himself. In the penultimate chapter of Wylie’s book, “The Man on the Cross” Wylie levels his critical scope at the Christian Messiah. He paints Jesus as a disheartened Jewish mystic, trained in Oriental philosophy to believe that the only hope for mankind lay in their ability to understand their deepest motives, and through that understanding, work for personal and common good (289). Suddenly, Jesus becomes a Jungian, as Wylie portrays Christ in line with the author’s own purpose in Generation of Vipers. Wylie writes, “Christ had powerful flashes of insight into the deep nature of man’s consciousness and he used every device he could invent to try to reveal the process of the insight to those who would listen” (293). However, Jesus, just like preachers, scientists, and Mom, gets taken to task for his lack of self-perception, for falling for his own image, and ultimately, believing his own dogma.
The root of Jesus’ inadequacy, according to Wylie, was his insistence on his own divinity, which lead to hypocrisy:
His tendency . . . to identify himself with God, the prophets and the Decalogue of his own church, increased the muddle. Thus his flashes of enlightened counsel about conduct and attitude conflict with his repetitions of church dogma so that we find for example—on the one hand, traces of his great tolerance for people, and on the other, a vilification of people that is scarcely surpassed by the barbarities of the prophets in the Old Testament. (292)
Wylie provides a brutal Jungian analysis of Jesus, and finds him inherently, humanly flawed. He describes Jesus’ striking the barren fig tree as a temper fit. Even the formerly sacred crucifixion Wylie labels as an avoidable suicide, brought about by Christ’s own bitter, imperturbable pride (293). With his assertion that Christ’s crucifixion was the result of the Christian Messiah’s own pride, Wylie’s indictment of Jesus as a failure gains validity. He demonstrates that not only did Jesus fail in his mission to enlighten mankind, but his hubris was so great that he gave up long before the end of his days, allowing himself to die to satisfy his self-pity.
Wylie further traces the source of Christ’s pride to dogma. Ultimately, according to Wylie, Christ failed because of his inability to escape the pressures and codes of his own religion and society, the very same sins Wylie accuses modern Americans of committing. “He does not seem to have become aware completely of dogma. And no church before him, and no church after him has ever understood the reason for it,” he writes at the end of his dissection of Christ’s failures as a savior and as a man (294). Wylie views Christ’s claim to be the Son of God as a manifestation of his inability to recognize the drive of his own ego toward deification: “His inadequate study of his own nature led him to say that he had come to save sinners . . . but when people offended him by not recognizing his works or his person it caused him to stand and curse them to worse oblivion than Sodom’s” (292). Wylie therefore roots his indictment of the Christian church in his evaluation of Jesus, its founder, as slave to his own unexamined delusions of grandeur.
For popular literature, Wylie’s assessment of Christ was risky because it could have potentially alienated a very large audience of practicing Christians. According to traditional Christian belief structure—both Protestant and Catholic—Wylie’s chapter on Jesus is heresy, as a denial of the divinity of Christ is a denial of the basic tenet of Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. One might imagine that church leaders and lay Christians were outraged. After all, when these ideas were presented more subtly in Finley Wrenn several years before, the general consensus was distaste, and the novel failed both critically and monetarily. Yet the reception history for Wylie’s Generation of Vipers is exactly the opposite from Finley Wrenn. Since the non-fiction Generation contained even blunter statements than the failed Wrenn, the publisher only printed 4,000 copies of the new work (Barshay 76). Contrary to the publisher’s prediction, all 4,000 copies sold out within a week. Despite the controversial topics and vicious tone of the book, Generation of Vipers was not banned by any major religious organizations and was instead embraced by mid-century Christian reformers (“Censored”). Leaders of major religious colleges seemed to view Wylie as an erstwhile Martin Luther, and they welcomed his critique of their ministries. In the 1954 edition, Wylie wrote in his new introduction that he had heard from over 60,000 readers throughout the 1940s, most of whom were positive. He further stated that Bible classes, Protestant and Catholic alike, used his book as part of their curriculum (Wylie xii). With Generation of Vipers, Wylie finally achieved what he had attempted with Finley Wrenn; cultural conditions allowed the ideal matching of his book’s purpose with a receptive audience. Wylie Biographer Clifford Bentau states, “Generation of Vipers was a blockbuster. The reception was nothing less than phenomenal” (25).
That the public did not take significant offense at Wylie’s attack on Christ specifically can be attributed to two reasons. First and foremost, Wylie himself did not see his attack on the character of God on Earth as anti-spiritual. Rather, he believed exposing Christ’s human failures to be in keeping with the larger thesis of Generation of Vipers, the stripping away of Americans’ superficial, ineffectual habits to reveal their inner lives as wanting of courage and truth, neither of which Wylie thought the nation would achieve without a sea change in the church. Denouncing Jesus as a failure became an essential aspect of Wylie’s American Jeremiad, “a genre where the reader is accused of falling well below specified ideals” (Seed 236). Attacking Christ was necessary to lay preparations for the attack of the more immediate enemy: organized Christian religions and the unexamined role they played in the nation’s secular culture. In Vipers, Wylie attacked churches for selling their faith like goods: “Every solitary one of them has a particular bill of goods to sell that is recommended as the one and only true, divine, inspired, fundamental, literal, real, one-dollar-the-bottle-elixir of sweet-and-bleeding Jesus Christ and none genuine without his signature” (300-301). The profiting of faith by faith disgusted Wylie, and very few critics and common readers alike held it against him. After all, he carried on the very tradition of Christ himself in the title of his book, a quote from Matthew 3:7, “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, ‘O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’” (KJV)
The second reason that Wylie’s candid discussion of Christ received genial interest lay in the external factors affecting the larger triangulate of religion, economics and politics. World war, flu pandemics, economic depression—harsh reality, not mere phantoms of fear, concerned the minds of ordinary men and women. Wylie’s accusations echoed the public’s soul searching, as national trauma followed national trauma. Conventional wisdom follows that a nation humbled, as the U.S. had been by Depression and War, listens to its prophets. Thus Wylie’s message was embraced, if not wholly understood, or dismissed as harmless. In fact one reviewer felt that most of Wylie’s claims had already been said before. John Chamberlain of the New York Times wrote in his book review of Vipers, “Where has Philip Wylie been all these years? Here he is ringing in the new year, with a book which sounds like a regurgitation of everything that has been said about our civilization by every jaundiced Jeremiah” (9).
Despite controversial topics and negative tone, Vipers continued to sell over 5,000 hardback editions a year until the 1958 publication of the paperback edition, when sales finally dipped (Keefer 102). Unlike publishing today, paperback editions were not a sign of success, so much as a sign that a book’s popularity had tapered off. By the mid-1950s, the public’s taste had changed, and although Generation of Vipers had enjoyed a successful run for a non-fiction work, it drifted into obscurity. The same audience that had lauded a strident reminder of its failures in 1942 enjoyed a far gentler approach by the 1950s.
Exactly ten years after Wylie published Vipers, Norman Vincent Peale, a popular Protestant preacher throughout the thirties and forties, published the watershed of his career, The Power of Positive Thinking. Its message of indefatigable optimism through soft-sell Christianity was far removed from Wylie’s dire warnings in both content and tone. However, just like Wylie, Peale had chosen the ideal climate to introduce his book. As a result, The Power of Positive Thinking quickly outsold every fiction book on the market, revolutionizing the way America literally thought about itself—and for itself. The identical excitement generated by a bitter anti-religious tirade and a religiously based self-help book indicates a radical change in the religious climate of the receiving audience. In sharp contrast with Wylie’s tone and purpose, Peale writes gently and persuasively to achieve his stated goal of bringing financial success through peace with God.
Beyond tone and content, Peale’s style differs from Wylie’s allusive ramblings. In an effort to appeal to his wide audience’s concrete sensibilities, Peale includes examples that are urbane and modern, as well as folksy and full of common sense. His pitch resonated with the transitioning American public, as rural and urban populations moved to create new suburbs. He carefully included anecdotes from middle-class post-war boom culture in every chapter. For example, he writes about a Midwestern salesman in the chapter titled, “A Peaceful Mind Generates Power,” who shares the gospel with a nervous, irritating colleague, who had been prescribed nerve pills. "‘Bill, I don’t know anything about the medicine you are taking,” the first salesman tells the second, “but I can give you medicine for those nerves that will do you more good than that!’” He proceeds to pull out a Bible for the neurotic, complete with passages marked for calming and success. After a brief time, the newly happy colleague reports that, “‘I no longer need to take nerve medicine!’” (Peale 31-32). In this manner, Peale uses the Bible to usurp the modern science of psychiatry. Unlike Wylie, who emphasized science although cautioned against its dominance over common sense, Peale relegates it to the outskirts of the successful life. The dialogue between science and religion is to be expected in a largely religious work; Peale’s subtle style is what indicates the fundamental shift in audience receptivity. Where Generation of Vipers encouraged severe introspection and individual determination, The Power of Positive Thinking relies on adherence to dogma and positive faith.
From the incorporation of religion into daily life in order to increase mental health, Peale moves forward to tackle a less obvious area of religious influence: personal finances. The economic success of the Christian business man becomes his primary concern as he develops his book’s theme: the synergistic blend of religion and financial success. He instructs readers in the chapter, “Expect the Best and Get It” to repeat the daily mantra: “‘I believe God gives me the power to attain what I really want.’” Peale explains the importance of this repetition by writing, “This practice will bring all of your powers to focus on the attainment of the best. It will bring the best to you.”(108) This best is brought about most notably through success in business, which Peale ties in with other “daily affirmations” as well. Notably, this affirmation bears no resemblance to any Biblical verse, New Testament or Old Testament. Once again in contrast to Wiley, who often quoted the Bible even in diatribes against it, Peale does not cite his primary source. Equally innovative and appealing to lay audiences, Peale coined many phrases which inundated popular culture, epitomizing conservative Christianity’s relationship with financial success in the 1950s. In “The Power to Solve Personal Problems”, Peale writes of a business man who had turned his business around with the help of Jesus Christ. This man made a “merger with God.” By praying and repeating scripture, he was happier and calmer but—most importantly according to the tone of Peale’s book—his business was thriving (136-137). The mantra of “Picturize, Prayerize, Actualize” transferred to the self-help genre as a whole, and captured the appeal of the book’s thesis. That thesis, expanded from catch phrase form, is that God wants readers to have what they want. They can use the power of God to get success, an implicitly implied financial success, which in post World War II America naturally equated with happiness.
Peale’s superbly timed book possesses an unprecedented reception history. The Power of Positive Thinking sold over two million copies by 1955, just three years after its initial publication. The book suited the 1950s because it enabled people to understand and possibly excuse the casualties of a rapidly expanding economic system. It was never so much devotion to God or Jesus that brought salvation through success, but the power of religion itself, a sort of “faith in faith” (Weiss 226). People could now address their rampant consumerism as a function of the success that they achieved with their business partner, Jesus. The marriage of Christianity and capitalism enabled people to understand and possibly excuse, even welcome, the corporate boom and conspicuous consumption that hallmarked the decade as necessary functions of faith.
Just as Wylie’s Generation of Vipers had benefited from the political climate of the early 1940s, so Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking benefitted from the increased conservatism of the 1950s. His simple style appealed to the readers of the era. An established, revered preacher long before the publication of The Power of Positive Thinking, his goal throughout his life as a Methodist minister had been to clearly communicate his pastoral message. He wanted to bring religion to the masses, and the masses, to him at least, needed a practical guidebook for the Bible. In his early days of preaching, his father, also a preacher, had taken him aside and criticized his style: “The job of a preacher is to simplify not to complicate . . . There’s no subject on earth that can’t be put simply, if you will just think clearly and logically about it and use plain instead of fancy language . . .” (Weiss 224). So began the career of Norman Vincent Peale, unpretentious preacher, bringing the gospel down to the masses, as opposed to uplifting the congregation to the Word. Richard Weiss writes of Peale in his analysis The American Myth of Success: From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale, “There is, then, a populistic, anti-intellectualism in Peale’s work” (225). This claim does not go unsupported in The Power of Positive Thinking. In the opening chapter, Peale comforts the intellectually lame, as Jesus would have a cripple: “Just because somebody gets an A in college doesn’t make him the greatest man n the United States, because maybe his A’s will stop when he gets his diploma and the fellow who got C’s in school will go on later to the real A’s in life” (Peale 17). Those A’s in real life are determined through financial success, something Peale’s bestseller guarantees.
Appealing to simple, anti-intellectual tastes may have been a calculated ploy on the part of Peale, especially in writing The Power of Positive Thinking. He wrote that he purposely chose to not include direct quotes from the Bible, because he doubted the public’s interest in an abstract, archaic book. He once stated in an interview with Tim Stafford for Christianity Today, “I am absolutely and thoroughly convinced that it is my mission never to use [Biblical] language to in trying to communicate with the audience . . .” (Stafford 35). His motivation to simplify Christian language was political as well. The rising conservative atmosphere of the nation’s political landscape cast intellectualism in a decidedly red light, as McCarthy labeled “liberal” artists, writers, and actors Communist.
This prejudice against intellectualism allowed Peale’s work to aspire to patriotism as well, a popular commodity in the wake of McCarthy. The label of Communist carried the implicit Marxist assumption of atheism, the understanding that religion is one of the tools monarchs and capitalists use to drive loyalty and production. As a result, 20th century communist regimes frequently persecuted former state religions. When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev began persecuting the Russian Orthodox Church again in the 1950’s (“Anti-Religious Campaigns”), the line between Communist and Capitalist became the line between Atheist and Theist. Historian Douglas Miller ties renewed religiosity to Cold War anxieties: hydrogen bombs and atomic spies (83). Christianity became a government endorsed safe-guard against state enemies. As President Eisenhower stated, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is” (Nadel 90). The country’s re-charged religious energies were attributed to the fight against communism. Eisenhower himself kicked off the enterprise stating that, “Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first, the most basic, expression of Americanism.” (Miller and Nowak 67)
Peale’s book, with its persuasive mixture of Christianity and capitalism, built upon the tradition of Max Weber’s seminal retracing of Calvinism through American economics in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. At the root of Calvinism, grandfather of most protestant denominations, lays the belief that hard work proves internal spiritualism (Weber 157). In this tradition, the greatest sin is failure to work, which will lead to economic failure as lack of success provides evidence of sloth. Therefore, Calvinism elevates business to the level of a religious calling. Success is most obviously displayed through acquisition. This acquisitiveness renounces the asceticism of older branches of Christianity, even Christ’s ministry, and allows the believer to pursue material possessions as proof of his spiritual health (159). However, Peale’s purpose, unlike Weber’s, was not to merely analyze or inform, but to condone. Peale’s work in Power took Weber’s social theory, and applied it as practice, creating a self-help book that appealed to readers seeking to defend their national materialistic character against a foreign threat.
The calculating nature of Peale’s work marks another difference between The Power of Positive Thinking and Generation of Vipers. Although the Wylie had explored the themes of Vipers, his actual execution of the text occurred without preparation or second drafts. According to Keefer, Wylie wrote Generation of Vipers in two months time, rarely leaving his New York apartment, hardly taking time to eat or sleep. He wrote in a fugue of emotion, with little self-censoring of his tone or language.
By contrast, Peale seems to have been selling both religion and politics long before the publication of The Power of Positive Thinking. His sermons throughout the prior decades showed a strong capitalist leaning, even the denial of helping the poor. He seemed to see the welfare state as a dangerous, socialist tendency. As early as 1936, in a sermon at a New York church, Peale addressed the “worthy and well meaning social enthusiasm” of the church’s role in the New Deal. He denied that the church could ever be a detriment to capitalism, and even takes a shot at the Labor Party, stating that Christians would not lead strikes. He attacked the notion that an abundance of material possessions mean a lack of spiritual health, and as though reading a page from the Calvinist play book stated in a sermon,
It is a mistaken policy and a denial of the office of a shepherd of souls for the Christian minister to become so pugnacious and unscholarly in his preaching of social religion as to drive out of the friendly fellowship ofthe Christian Church any man simply because he has, by diligence and intelligence, made some money. (“Church Urged”)
It seems at the tail end of the Depression, with the American economic system veering closer to socialism, Peale wanted it known that Christian generosity extended to the soul, not the pocket book.
The collision of American politics with socialism brought about by Roosevelt’s Depression Era reforms indirectly determined Peale’s subject and tone in The Power of Positive Thinking. By the 1940s, concerned by the nation’s increasing economic liberalism, Peale set his sights on bigger political movements. In a 1944 sermon, he condemned Communism and Fascism as failing in Europe, and warned his audience that the ideas were looking for new places to take root. Peale, in keeping with his anti-intellectual persona, declared that fascism and communism were ultimately the same thing, both to be denounced as one giant ill that could threaten the United States without defense. “We need some genuine and square shooting American of judicial temperament, one who is not a propagandist and who has no fish to fry to write a book in which he will lump them all . . .and consign them both to where they belong”( “Peale Sees No Room for European ‘Isms’”). Using anti-intellectualism, Peale gained traction with the false equation of Communism with the more immediate threat of Fascism, when in truth, the two European “-isms” were pitted against each other. By capitalizing on ignorance-bred fear, Peale garnered a loyal group of followers who believed he spoke against all things anti-American. In this manner, he groomed an audience for his master work.
With The Power of Positive Thinking, Peale seems to have elected himself that square shooting, judicious, non-propagandist without a political agenda for which he asked in his sermon. Phillip Wylie would have pointed out that Peale had fallen into the trap of believing his own hype. In the calling and appointing of himself as an agent of American thought, Peale becomes the ideal example of a man that created, believed, and profited from his own dogma. Despite their opposite styles and presentation of radically different values, both books enjoyed enormous popularity perhaps because they were both so well tuned to their time, discussing religion and economics according to the political atmosphere of their respective decades.
Ultimately, the reason the 1940’s bore Generation of Vipers and the 1950’s bore The Power of Positive Thinking is political. In the 1940’s, despite the war, it seems it was still safe, for a time, to be critical of the American public. In 1942, Wylie found a strong American audience. He did not write for the uneducated masses, but he did write for the masses, and he expected them to be educated and capable of understanding his thesis. Remarkably, they did, to some extent. His war time Jeremiad was taken to heart, and whether loved or loathed, it seemed to enthrall the public immensely by the sheer daring, intellectualism, and passion of the invective. Wylie warns his readers in his original subtitle to the 1942 edition that they are embarking on a “Survey of Moral Want and Philosophical Discourse Suitable Only for the Strong . . .” (Keefer 96). By far and large, they accepted his challenge.
In spite of his sharp criticism of the American way of life, which continued in essays and books all through the Red Scare of the fifties, and even until his death in 1971, Wylie enjoyed a sort of immunity against accusations of un-American sentiments. Vipers clearly communicates Wylie’s rabid anti-communism. Perhaps because of this he was one of the few intellectual public commentators that escaped the witch hunts of McCarthy, without participating in them himself. He even spoke out against them as another sign of America’s moral and mental decay, and suffered no repudiation (Keefer 130). His blunt style and vicious tone protected him in a more nuanced time. By the 1950s, the strong readers Wylie called for and found in the 1940’s were no longer strong enough to design an attack against him. As a result, he enjoyed a sort of “mad uncle in the attic” sacrosanctity.
For as the 1950’s wore on, the decade found a very different America than the one Wylie had written for, one that no longer tolerated the harsh critiques of Wylie’s book. Sales dwindled, and the book was received as more a curiosity than engaging social commentary. In its place, The Power of Positive Thinking soothed where Vipers had alarmed, in many ways the antithesis to Wylie. Peale, in direct contrast to Wylie, assured Americans that they were “A-okay,” and deserve financial success and spiritual health, that spiritual health comes not through the inward seeking of truth as Wylie prescribed, but rather the opposite—the external pursuit of material goods. Peale’s work, with its message of Christian sanctioned radical capitalism, assured readers that through hard work and repetition of power phrases, America would prosper and God would be pleased. Communism would go away, and they would learn to love the Bomb.
Although Generation of Vipers and The Power of Positive Thinking are relegated to the popular culture shelf, their analysis should not be. For literary studies, works such as these chronicle the popular culture influences during the shift from High Modernism to Post-Modernism. Wylie’s rants represent the germinal state of the Beats’ dissatisfaction, despite the fact that Wylie would never have wanted the comparison. Likewise, Peale’s populist sexism, likewise denied by the author, provides both an example of and an explanation for the malaise of female housewife poets such as Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath. For literature, the heightened conservatism of the fifties affected more than just the former members of the Communist party, homosexuals, and Jews. It had a stultifying affect on accepted members of the cannon, who were either forced to defend their art or censor it, sometimes to appease conservatives, and surprisingly, sometimes to appease the anti-conservative backlash that infiltrated the literary community.
The delicate line this forced many authors to walk is exemplified in yet another popular culture article, although this one is written by a literary icon. Flannery O’Connor wrote in the popular magazine, America, “The Church and the Fiction Writer”, in order to publicly explore the narrow space a Christian fiction writer occupied, hemmed in by conservatives and culture critics alike. To conservative readers, the staunch Catholic defended her work “A Good Man is Hard to Find” against charges of obscenity: “If we intend to encourage Catholic fiction writers, we must convince those coming along that the Church does not restrict their freedom to be artists, but ensures it.” (14). Interestingly, O’Connor was also writing in response to an attack on Christian writers for superficiality by none other than Philip Wylie, to whom she addressed, “What Mr. Wylie contends is that the Catholic writer because he believes in certain defined mysteries, cannot, by the nature of things, see straight . . .” (11). In O’Connor’s defense of her divided loyalties, lies evidence that popular culture—the resultant debris of the collision of religion, economics, and politics—deeply influenced literature, and therefore cannot be dismissed.
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- “Church Urged Not to Let Social Reforms Turn It From Main Goal of Serving Souls.” The New York Times 9 Mar. 1936: 11.
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- O’Connor, Flannery. “The Church and the Fiction Writer.” America 30 March 1957: 10-14.
- Peale, Norman Vincent. The Power of Positive Thinking. 1952. New York: Prentice Hall.
- “Peale Sees No Room for European ‘Isms’.” The New York Times 31 Jan. 1944: 20.
- Stafford, Tim. “Half-Full Christianity.” Christianity Today 21 June 1993: 35-36.
- “Those Church Statistics.” Time Magazine 31 Oct. 1955 <http://www.time.com/time/archive/preview/0,10987,807867,00.html>.
- Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Trans. TalcottParsons.1930. Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Company.
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