Yeager's Drawl: Contagious Language in The Right Stuff

Rachel Aviv '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe describes the process by which Chuck Yeager's "caint-hardlyin' aw-shuckin'" drawl migrated North and West until it had permeated (and eventually, replaced) all forms of aviation speech -- until war pilots as well as commercial pilots were speaking in his voice. At one point in the text, it seems as if even Wolfe is trying on the voice for size. He does this at the moment in the text in which Yeager appears most impressive -- as he is preparing himself (dealing with his broken rib) to break the sound barrier:

It is time to confide in somebody, and the logical man is Jack Ridley. Ridley is not only the flight engineer but a pilot himself and a good old boy from Oklahoma to boot. He will understand about Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving through the goddamned Joshua trees. So Yeager takes Ridley off to the side in the tin hangar and says: Jack I got me a little ol' problem here.

Throughout the story, Wolfe's voice is precise, objective and spare. In this passage, though, he speaks like the pilots -- he adopts the chatty, uneducated vernacular of Yeager. What does it mean for an author to be speaking in his character's voice? What is the result of the fusion of the language of Wolfe, the journalist, with Yeager, the journalistic material?

Later on in the chapter, Wolfe describes the hostility the pilots felt towards the journalists' language: "They blurted out questions and spoke boorish words about . . . all the unspoken things! -- about fear and bravery (they would say the words!) and how you felt at such-and-such a moment! It was obscene!" How does Wolfe's language compare to that of the criticized journalists? Does he avoid their mistakes?

According to American Aviation officials, "Nothing less than control of the heavens was at stake" in putting a rocket into space. What sort of connection does Wolfe make between the so-called "control of the heavens" and the language with which it is accomplished?


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Last modified 28 October 2003