Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff unearths the silliness and bombast of a group of people whom the American public might like to remain mysterious. Commercial and military pilots assume responsibility for passengers' lives and military successes, yet Wolfe portrays them as shameless braggarts who would rather die than abort a flight test. Roughly equal parts awe and ridicule, The Right Stuff chronicles the allure of flight. Wolfe's vivid character sketches firmly establish pilots as a self-structured in-group, with trends and lingo all their own.
Yeager had just turned thirty. Bridgeman was thirty-seven. It didn't dawn on him until later that Yeager always called him son. At the time it had seemed perfectly natural. Somehow Yeager was like the big daddy of the skies over the dome of the world. In keeping with the eternal code, of course, for anyone to have suggested any such thing would have been to invite hideous ridicule. There were even other pilots with enough Pilot Ego to believe that they were actually better than this drawlin' hot dog. But no one would contest the fact that as of that time, the 1950's, Chuck Yeager was at the top of the pyramid, number one among all the True Brothers.
And that voice . . . started drifting down from on high. At first the tower at Edwards began to notice that all of a sudden there were an awful lot of test pilots up there with West Virginia drawls. And pretty soon there were an awful lot of fighter pilots up there with West Virginia drawls. The air space over Edwards was getting so caint-hardly super-cool day by day, it was terrible. And then that lollygaggin' poker-hollow air space began to spread, because the test pilots and fighter pilots from Edwards were considered the pick of the litter and had a cachet all their own, wherever they went, and other towers and other controllers began to notice that it was getting awfully drawly and down-home up there, although they didn't know exactly why. And then, because the military is the training ground for practically all airline pilots, it spread further, until airline passengers all over America began to hear that awshuckin' driftin' gone-fishin' Mud River voice coming from the cockpit . . . "Now, folks, uh . . . this is the captain . . . ummmm . . . We've got a little ol' red light up her on the control panel that's tryin' to tell us that the landin' gears're not . . . uh . . . lockin' into position . . . "[67-8]
But so what! What could possibly go wrong! We've obviously got a man up there in the cockpit who doesn't have a nerve in his body! He's made of 100 percent righteous victory-rolling True Brotherly stuff.
Wolfe's characteristic command of his characters' manner of speech charts a dialectical trend among pilots as it spreads from Chuck Yeager and his cohorts to pilots across the country. The second paragraph of the passage mirrors the proliferation of Yeager's dialect, becoming increasingly West-Virginian in style as the paragraph progresses. In the passage's final paragraph, the reader observes a change in voice as the speaker changes from Wolfe-as-pilot to Wolfe-as-passenger. The sudden shift emphasizes the contrast between the in-group of pilots and the out-group of the American flying public.
1. In the third paragraph, the pilot is referred to in the singular (he), while the passengers use the plural (we). What is Wolfe trying to convey by creating these distinctions? Where might the co-pilot and flight crew fit into this structure?
2. Like Chatwin, Wolfe's narrative relies on weaving together small elements of his story to form the narrative fabric. How does Wolfe's use of sensationalism and scope (e.g. zooming out from a specific story to a broad generalization) make his writing different from Chatwin's?
3. Wolfe's phrase "the right stuff" gains qualifiers throughout the narrative, becoming "100 percent righteous victory-rolling True Brotherly stuff" in this passage. How does Wolfe use this gradual phrase building as a technique?
4. How do Wolfe's catchphrases like "True Brother." "Pilot Ego," etc . . . function within the text? Are they symbolic, descriptive, clichˇ, hyperbolic or something else? Why might Wolfe choose to capitalize some phrases he repeats but not others?
5. How does Wolfe control rhythm and pace through the use of phrases like "of course" in the first paragraph and "folks" in the second paragraph
Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.
Last modified Journalistic One-Upsmanship in The Right Stuff