The Press: Marking Differences in Wolfe's The Right Stuff

Tommy Burns '06, English 156 (Victorians and Moderns), Brown University, Spring 2004

Tom Wolfe opens his nonfiction-novel by strictly characterizing fighter pilots as remarkably different from the civilian population. He goes beyond describing their barren habitats or the odd locations of their bases as markers of their separation, and questions what intangible, potentially indescribable, traits make them modern heroes. If Wolfe is going to characterize this group as different and removed, he must explore how they maintain a level of separation from the rest of us. Wolfe uses the institute of the press as a lens through which to view those that stand out. This maneuver serves two purposes. Firstly, it demonstrates the paradox of those blessed with "the right stuff." The press invades their privacy, attempts to use the language of this "blessed fraternity." Because members of the press appear to be outsiders, this only serves to make clearer the separation between a regular man and someone truly great. Yet, without the sometimes painful exposition of such a difference the pilot's ego would not be able to swell to such large proportions. The other effect of regarding normal press agents in this way serves to help separate Wolfe's work from normal journalism. He has an insider's view, and is able to create a type of "new journalism." Throughout his descriptions, he relies heavily upon the tone of an insider. The press described in his book is embarrassingly novice, yet crucial to the pilot's growing reputation:

Yeager and the rocket pilots who soon joined him at Muroc had a hard time dealing with the publicity. On the one hand, they hated the process. It meant talking to reporters and other fruit flies who always covered, eager for the juiceÉand invariably got the facts screwed up . . . But that wasn't really the problem, was it! The real problem was that reporters violated the invisibly walls of the fraternity. They blurted out questions and spoke boorish words aboutÉall the unspoken things! -- about gear and bravery (they would say the words!) and how you felt at such-and such a moment! It was obscene! They presumed a knowledge and an intimacy they did not have and had not right to. Some aviation writer would sidle up and say, "I hear Jenkins augered in. That's too bad." Augered in! -- a phrase that belonged exclusively to the fraternity! -- coming from the lips of this ant who was left behind the moment Jenkins made his first step up the pyramid long, long ago. It was repulsive! But on the other hand . . . one's healthy pilot ego loved the glory -- wallowed in it! -- lapped it up! -- no doubt about it! The Pilot Ego -- ego didn't come any bigger! [pp.47-48]

Questions

Who is in control in the situation Wolfe describes above? The pilots or the press? The press is described as novice "fruit flies," while the pilots are described to lap up the praise. Is this a symbiotic relationship? If so, what does it say about modern heroes' egos if they must rely on such a seemingly subservient class?

Wolfe appears to sometimes break from his narrative and speak directly to the reader. Such separations are often made clear through italics and brazen changes in tone. What does such a technique say about not only Wolfe's style, but about his role as a reporter? Is such a practice used so he is able to differentiate himself from other obsessed members of the press , or to more closely examine the relationship presented above?

If Wolfe's writing is an example of the "new journalism," is the above description of the press an effort to mark his journalism as decidedly different? He appears to be transcending both the role of observer and reporter through his intimate portrayal of certain incidents and relationships, and does such a move give him a better chance to explore those possessing the "right stuff"?

References

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe On Heroes and Hero-Worship

Last modified 26 April 2004