In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe writes about the lives of America's first astronauts, and explores the American public's mythification of seven good test pilots. One major creator of the public's heroic vision of the astronauts is the popular press, a body Wolfe frequently likens to a doddering Victorian Gent who glorifies the men by playing up their heroic traits and ignoring their unseemly, human qualities.
In the below passage, Wolfe discusses how the Gent portrays the astronauts as a homogenous collection of modest, small-town, Protestant golden boys. Life Magazine, like Thomas Carlyle, seeks heros to praise. When it finds the astronauts are fallible men, Life omits their lack of military experience, atheism, estranged families, and egoism and bakes them into a big heroic American pie to serve to its readers.
In Carlyle's On Heroes and Hero Worship, manifestations of the hero become less and less powerful as history progresses. The hero descends from divinity to channeler of the divine, to groping leader who rules in what he hopes is a divine way. The Right Stuff suggests a continuation of the Carlylean descent of the hero. In the modern age, the hero is a fictional character, an idol of the divine crafted by the media.
Americans seemed to be deriving profound satisfaction from the fact that the astronauts turned the conventional notions of Glamour upside down. It was assumed--and the Genteel Beast kept underlining the point--that the seven astronauts were the greatest pilots and bravest men in America precisely because of the wholesome circumstances of their backgrounds: small towns, Protestant values, strong families, the simple life. Henry Luce, Life's founder and boss of bosses, had not played a major role, other than parting with the money, in making the astronaut deal, but eventually he came to look upon them as his boys. Luce was a great Presbyterian, and the Mercury astronauts looked like seven incarnations of Presbyterianism. [p. 111]
How do the upbringings, lifestyles and religious beliefs of the heroes in The Right Stuff compare with those of the heroes of On Heroes?
To what extent do men make themselves into heroes in The Right Stuff, and to what extent are they passively made into heroes? How does this compare with Carlyle's ideas of hero formation?
John Glenn is the closest to Life Magazine's ideal of the good Protestant astro-hero. How does he fall short of this ideal?
Who besides the media has a hand in shaping the myth of the astronauts? Is the modern hero-myth merely a pawn to be manipulated by various forces in a cultural and political power struggle? Or does he still, like Carlyle's heroes, influence others with his vision?
Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
Last modified 26 April 2004