As the author of “The Pump House Gang” Wolfe captured the mindset of a society by adopting his characters’ voice and mannerisms, and in The Right Stuff, he does the same. Wolfe explores the relationship between publicity and the spirit of the astronauts, tracing how the media affects public perception which affects the astronauts’ pride. In the following passage, Wolfe asserts his reliability as a narrator by establishing himself as the only person to see through the glamour of the press is Wolfe himself. Everyone else, except for the test pilots who question with wounded egos, “‘Are astronauts even pilots?’” (157), believes anything printed in Life, including the astronauts themselves.

This being the fraternal bulletin, Life, the notion of “the first three” struck Slayton, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, and Gordon Cooper as a humiliation. In their minds they were now labeled “the Other Four.” There were now the First Three and the Other Four. They had been. . . left behind! In some hard-to-define way, it was the equivalent of washing out.

Life really did it up in the best Life style. They flew the First Three and the First Three Wives and the First Three Children down to the Cape and took a lot of Inseparable Astronaut Family pictures on Cocoa Beach. The results were bizarre evidence of the determination of the Proper Gent to make everything come out in a seemly fashion. For a start, the travel schedules of the astronauts had made an absolute hash of ordinary home life. To show three astronauts having an outing with their families at the same time, even in different locations, would have been stretching the truth considerable. To present such a spectacle at the Cape- which was, in effect, off limits to wives- was an absolute howler. On top of that, if you were going to put astronaut families together for a frolic on the beach, you could scarcely come up with a less likely combination than the Glenns, the Grissoms, and the Shepards- the clans of the Deacon, the Hoosier Grit, and the Icy Commander. They would have passed like ships in the night in even the calmest of times, and these were not the calmest of times. Not even Life with all its powers of orchestration (and they were great) could make it come out right. They ran a big double-truck picture of the First Three and their wives and broods, the glorious First Three tribe, out on the hardtack sands of Cocoa Beach, engrossed (the caption would have one believe) in the sight of an exploratory rocket rising from the base several miles away. In fact, they looked like three families from warring parts of our restless globe who had never laid eyes on each other until they were washed up upon this godforsaken shore together after a shipwreck, shivering morosely in their leisure togs staring off into the distance, desperately scanning the horizon for rescue vessels, preferably three of them, flying different flags. [The Right Stuff, 191-92]

Wolfe often assumes the voice of his character in narration, making hard to discern when he passes judgment as the author, but here his clear mocking reveals a negative impression of the media. With tongue in cheek, Wolfe refers to media as the “Proper Gent” who glosses over flaws in order to always depict the astronauts as the American ideal. Wolfe’s diction conveys his perception of farce- Life “with all its powers of orchestration” “presents” a “spectacle,” much like a ringmaster presents a circus act. Anna Sussman '04 questions whether this criticism “sets him up, as the author, as an opposing force, bringing the whole truth to the reader in its uncut, ugly entirety.” Because Wolfe recognizes fabrication, the reader trusts him to strive for accuracy, yet Wolfe’s flare for the dramatic leads the reader astray. In this passage, the description of the photo of the three astronaut families is so powerful and easy to imagine, yet the coldness he suggests does not mesh with a later image of wives bonding over their common media encounters and supporting each other before interviews. Although Wolfe presents his story as truth, his haste to hypothesize to characterize interferes with objectivity, resulting in another semi-contrived portrayal of the astronauts.

Questions

1. Wolfe sums up each astronaut’s persona with a quick epithet, making Glenn “the Deacon,” Grissom “the Hoosier Grit,” and Shepard “the Icy Commander.” Are these depictions from Wolfe’s perspective or are they the astronauts’ impressions of each other?

2. On the first mention of “notion of ‘the first three,’” Wolfe leaves each word lowercase, and only after capitalizing “‘the Other Four’” does he begin to use “First Three” as a title. Why does Wolfe repeat this label? How does capitalization change the meaning?

3. Wolfe describes the astronaut’s families with words that typically pertain to animals (“tribe,” “clans,” “brood”). What is the effect of using words in a context that does not match their connotation?

4. In both The Right Stuff and “The Pump House Gang,” Wolfe latches onto a phrase that captures his characters’ greatest fear. In The Right Stuff, it is being “left behind,” and in The Pump House Gang, it is “hairing out.” “Hair refers to courage. A guy who ‘has a lot of hair’ is courageous; a guy who ‘hairs out’ is yellow.” (The Pump House Gang, 34) What is the effect of using his characters’ voice to portray their fears?

References

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


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe

Last modified 7 April 2011