The Dual Lives of Heroes in The Right Stuff

Bryce R. Covert, English 156 (Victorians and Moderns), Brown University, Spring 2004

In his account of the historical race to space during the Cold War of the 1950s, The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe figures the pilots and astronauts involved with the projects as grandiose heroes in a war with the Russians. He describes the reverence that was created around these men as religious fervor and worship, much as Carlyle describes the different types of heroes throughout history in his essays on hero worship. But the interesting part about these heroes as opposed to those of Carlyle is the new addition of the press and media in the creation of these heroes for the public. Though we are allowed to see both sides of their lives, the masses are only shown the pristine public view that the astronauts and the press choose to set forward. This creates a dualism in the account of these men as we are allowed to see both their private lives and thoughts, what really happened, what their families were really feeling, etc., and also the cheery, chummy image set forth in the magazine interviews and television broadcasts.

This dichotomy is not lost on the men themselves, either. They are all fully aware of the dualism of their lives, and this is figured metaphorically when John Glenn is introduced to Kennedy's father.

The old man had had a stroke, and half his body was paralyzed, and he was sitting in a wheelchair. The President took the seven astronauts in to meet his father, and the first one he introduced him to was John. John Glenn! -- the first American to orbit the earth and challenge the Russians in the heavens. The old man, Joe Kennedy, reaches up with his one good hand to shake hands with John, and suddenly he starts crying. But the thing is, only half his face is crying, because of the stroke. One half of his face isn't moving a muscle. It's set, absolutely impassive. But the other half -- well, it's blubbering, that's the word for it. His eyebrow is curling down over his eye, the way it does when you're really bawling, and the tears are streaming out of the crevice where his eyebrow and his eye and his nose come together, and one of his nostrils is quivering and his lips are writhing and contorting on that side, and his chin is all pulled up and pitted and trembling -- but just on the one side! The other side is just staring at John, as if he saw right through him, as if he were just another Marine colonel whose career had somehow led him briefly into the White House. [pp. 278-9]

Here the old man is both a victim to the shiny, glorious image that has been bestowed on these men by the press, but is also able to see through it to who John Glenn really is, "just another Marine colonel" randomly placed into the role of hero of the nation. One side of his face "blubbers" just like the rest of the nation, worshipping the astronauts for the heroism they now supposedly posses, but the other half stays stoic, perceptive, "as if he saw right through him." He is a figure who is able to see both roles, and therefore is able to present at once the two sides to the lives of these heroes.

Questions

1. How is the duality of these men's lives figured? Is their heroism real, or a fabrication of the media in a time when heroes are needed to uplift the populace? Do the men consider themselves to be all that they are made out to be? Do we as readers consider them so?

2. What role does the press play in this account? What language is used to give them this role? How do they factor into the idea of the hero created both in the time period and in this account of a later time? How do they help to shape what becomes a hero and what doesn't?

3. How does this involvement of the press in the creation of the image of hero differ from the way Carlyle's heroes are figured? Is Carlyle similar to the press, or more to Tom Wolfe? Is there any equivalent to the media in the lives of Carlyle's heroes?

4. Are there other dualities in the lives of the astronauts? What are we to make of such fractured identities in the heroes of the nation? What does that say about the nature of a hero?

References

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


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe On Heroes and Hero-Worship

Last modified: 27 April 2004