In The Right Stuff Tom Wolfe follows the life and careers of pilots whose participation in America’s newly founded space program made them into heroes. Wolfe depicts the “Original Seven” of Project Mercury to show the ways in which politics and the press media took seven men and molded them into a fleet of brave and moral epitomes that the American public could watch with feeling and pride. Katharine Gorman in 2007 similarly observed, “Wolfe exposes the unspoken truths behind these heroes and explains how contrived national heroes such as the seven good pilots-turned-astronauts actually are” (“Heroes Exposed”). In fact, at certain moments in the text, Wolfe goes beyond only exposing the unspoken and into unconcealed commentary of more specific ideas like the politician’s role in engineering these men into astronauts.

Once John’s plane touched down at Patrick on February 23, the wave became so big it simply carried everyone along with it. The fellows and the wives and the children were all out at Patrick, waiting for John’s plane, and the Vice-President was on hand, along with about two hundred reporters. Johnson was right up there at the head of the mob with Annie and the two children. He had gotten next to her at last. Johnson was right beside her now, out at Patrick, oozing protocol all over her and craning and straining his huge swollen head around, straining to get at John and pour Texas all over him. The plane arrives and John disembarks, a tremendous cheer goes up, a cry from the throat, from the diaphragm, from the solar plexus, and they bring Annie and the two children forward . . . the holy icons . . . the Wife and the Children . . . the Solid Backing on the Home Front . . . and John is too much! He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handkerchief and dabs his eye, wipes away a tear! And some little guy from NASA stretched out his hand and took the used handkerchief . . . so that it could be preserved in the Smithsonian! (With this handkerchief Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr., wiped away a tear upon being reunited with his wife after his historic earth-orbital fight.) [pp. 276-77]

Here, Wolfe offers, as Gorman called it, “an unspoken truth” about Johnson’s behavior. The statement “Johnson had gotten next to her at last” exposes that the Vice-President’s intent was close physical proximity to the Glenn family. Wolfe then comments upon this “truth” by creating a derisive cartoon out of Johnson’s movement and appearance. Wolfe calls particular attention to the way Johnson “oozed protocol all over” while “craning and straining his huge swollen head around.” Wolfe portrays Johnson as ill or diseased in his distention and ooziness, and distinctly negative in the way Johnson manipulates the situation by attaching himself to “the holy icons.” Wolfe discloses Johnson’s priorities and then illustrates them as sick. Thus, Wolfe employs a more conventional journalistic objectivity, “John’s plane touched down at Patrick on February 23,” relating the narrative of a reunion, including certain individual agendas. Wolfe then unhesitatingly overlays this narrative with comments from his own subjective experience of the event.

Questions

1. Wolfe portrays that the public views the Original Seven as heroes. Does Wolfe buy into this as well? How can the reader see his point of view?

2. Wolfe opens his work with graphic descriptions of plane crashes. The details that he relates are truly gross. “Near the huge gash was . . . tree disease . . . some sort of brownish lumpy sac up in the branches around it, as if the disease had caused the sap to ooze out and fester and congeal—except that it couldn’t be sap because it was streaked with blood.” (p.6) In fact, the sac is a man’s head. In the rest of the text, this level of graphic detail does not have a large presence. What does this early onset of nauseating detail do to the reader? What does it prime us for?

3. Wolfe repeats certain phrases at several points in his text. For example, Wolfe epitheticaly refers to John Glenn as the “Presbyterian Pilot” and the pilots’ families’ as “the Solid Backing on the Home Front.” Wolfe also often repeats, “Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving” to describe the cycle of alcohol abuse many of the pilots engage in. What does Wolfe accomplish by creating this language? Does it involve any in-group/out-group producing behaviors?

4. How do the heroes Wolfe depicts compare to those depicted in Carlyle’s On Heroes? Carlyle emphasized the need for personable characteristics like sincerity as necessary in a hero. Based on what Wolfe relates to the reader about the political and media control over the astronauts’ public facades, would Carlyle call these men heroes?

References

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe

Last modified 5 April 2011