Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff chronicles the first seven American astronauts in space, but rather than simply recounting their exploits, Wolfe critiques the legendary quality of Americans' conception of these men. What is missing in the general understanding of astronauts is the context from which they evolved, which Wolfe provides through a history of piloting and a society defined by "the right stuff" and their pyramid of status. This context is largely ignored by the public, who do not comprehend the lives of these men and their families. Wolfe chooses to spend a significant portion focusing on their wives, who serve as representations of the result of exploitative media and the importance of public image.
Betty and the other wives came bursting forth like great blossoms before the ten million readers of Life in a cover story in the September 21, 1959, issue. Their faces, smooth round white things with coronas of hair, were arranged on the cover like a corsage of flowers with Rene Carpenter's face in the middle-no doubt because the editors regarded her as prettiest. But who is that? Oh, that's Trudy Cooper. And who is that ? Oh, that's Jo Schirra. And who is that ? Oh, that's . . . They hardly recognized each other! Then they saw why. Life had retouched the faces of all of them practically down to the bone. Every suggestion of a wen, a hickie, an electrolysis line, a furze of mustache, a bag, a bump, a crack in the lipstick, a rouge cilia of hair, an uneven set of the lips . . . had disappeared in the magic of photo retouching. Their pictures all looked like the pictures girls can remember from their high-school yearbooks in which so many zits, hickies, whiteheads, blackheads, goopheads, goobers, pips, acne trenches, boil volcanoes, candy-bar pustules, rash marks, tooth-brace lumps, and other blemishes have been scraped off by the photography studio, you looked like you had just healed over from plastic surgery. The headline said: SEVEN BRAVE WOMEN BEHIND THE ASTRONAUTS. 
By focusing on the wives of these men, Wolfe acknowledges the deeper story of these astronauts under the glossy pages of Life magazine. Unlike the airbrushed photos of these women, Wolfe sees every blemish. He acknowledges that what history and the press has done is polish the truth into a narrative which largely misunderstands the motivations of these men and the context of this time period. What Wolfe does is provide each individual with a voice, briefly taking on the dialogue of the characters he is describing, in order to clearly distinguish the achievements of each man to create a different society based on their own conceptions of bravery. What emerges from this book is a subtle and nuanced account of the space race, which demystifies the role of these astronauts. Wolfe attempts to strip these astronauts of their hero status, but instead imbues them with something else-an understanding of men with the right stuff .
1. Wolfe includes the details of dialogue and banter between the wives, seemingly to include them in the story. How does his characterization of the women serve to create a certain image of these astronauts' wives?
2. Wolfe creates an almost grotesque list of facial flaws in order to demonstrate the powers of retouching. Why does he focus on this detail, and how does it serve to prove a larger theme in the book?
3. How does The Right Stuff compare to Wolfe's "Pump House Gang"? Does Wolfe use similar methods of characterization?
4. Compare Wolfe's use of dialogue with that of McPhee use of dialogue. Does Wolfe use the words of other to accurately represent the sentiment his subjects, or does he use the dialogue for his own purpose?
5. Wolfe carefully provides details of the cover of the magazine, including the date, and the arrangement of the women. Why does he choose to include them? Are the value judgments ("no doubt because the editors regarded her as prettiest") Wolfe's own, or the sentiments of the women?
Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.
Last modified 15 November 2007