Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff is, above all, an investigation of self-confidence. The pilots he profiles are cocky to a dangerous degree, and go to great lengths to put themselves in harm's way. Either "Flying & Drinking" or "Drinking & Driving" or with any of their other reckless behaviors, the belief that one has the elusive "Right Stuff" keeps these men alive — or sends them to their deaths.
The pilots' drive to suceed in their small, competitive world brings them to the Joan Didion mantra, "we tell ourselves stories in order to live." We tales of bravery in the harsher conditions, or narratives of their righteous lives, the stories these men tell are their justification for living a life that could very well end at any moment. In the passage below, John Glenn explains why he has the Right Stuff, although not as explicitly as some of his peers would. Glenn's self-percieved right stuff is made of traditional American values, and it serves to pacify both the authorities and his own reasoning. He turns on the halo and lies, like any of the pilots would, to get to live the life he needs to live.
"I am a Presbytarian," he says, "a Protestant Presbytarian, and I take my religion very seriously, as a matter of fact." He starts telling them about all the Sunday schools he has taught at and the church boards he has served on and all the church work that he and his wife and his children have done. "I was brought up believing that you are placed on earth here more of less with sort of a fifty-fifty proposition, and this is what I still believe. We are placed here with certain talents and capabilities. It is up to each of us to use those talents and capabilities as best you can. If you do that, I think there is a power greater than any of us that will place the opportunities in our way, and if we use out talents properly, we will be living the kind of life we should live."
Jesus Christ — share it, brother. You can see the boys cutting glances from either end of the table up at this flying churchman Gus is sitting next to. They're seated in alphabetical order, with Scott Carpenter at one end and Deke Slayton at the other and Glenn in the middle. What can anybody say as a follow-up to this man and his speeches about the Wife and the Children and the Family and Sunday School and God? What can you for, say that as a matter of fact you can get along just as well without any of them as long as they'll let you fly? That didn't seem very prudent. (Turn on the halo — and lie!) You could see these pilots struggling to put up enough chips to stay in the God & Family fame with this pious Marine named Glenn.
Although the style of writing in this passage is undoubtably Wolfian, it brings to mind Chatwin and McPhee in its treatment of the subject's modus operendi. Both Chatwin and McPhee describe people in a way that makes you question their way of life. While they do in a subtle way, for example McPhee's Donna, Wolfe comes on strong and call people out for what they do.
1. Does Wolfe believe Glenn is betraying the others, doing what he has to, or sharing what he truly believes?
2. Is an "ends justify the means" philosophy part of "the right stuff"?
3. Why does he quote Glenn before discussing the sentiment in the room? Does this lead the reader to believe Glenn in the cause of uneasiness amongst the men?
4. How does Wolfe use capitalization? How does he use punctuation, in particular "&" signs?
Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.
Last modified 27 November 2007