Heroes Exposed in The Right Stuff

Katharine Gorman '07, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe presents a number of potentially heroic men and then follows them to investigate to what extent the men actually become heroes. In doing so, Wolfe exposes the unspoken truths behind these heroes and explains how contrived national heroes such as the seven good pilots-turned-astronauts actually are. In the passage below Wolfe describes a scene at a press conference wherein the seven chosen ones are for the first time revealed to the public and willingly or perhaps are made, to surrender their true qualities for consumer-appropriate, mythical all-American identities.

If anybody asked Gus — like right now — if he were religious, a family man, and a patriot, he would say yes, he was religious, and yes, he was a family man, and yes, he was a patriot. But the firmest conviction of the three was about being a patriot. When Gus said he would gladly ride a Mercury rocket for the sake of his country, he meant it. . . . Now as for being a family man...aw, hell...he meant to be a family man, but somehow his career, or something, always got in the way. . . . But how different was he from the other pilots at this table, if the truth were known-except for this unbelievable Marine, Glenn, who was sitting here next to him painting some goddamned amazing picture of the Perfect Pilot wrapped up in a cocoon of Home & Hearth and God & Flag! Neither he nor any of the others set about altering that picture, however....Henceforth, they would be served up inside the biggest slice of Mom's Pie you could imagine. [pp 91-94]

Wolfe relates to the reader how the mainstream media, what he calls "the Victorian Gent," portrays the astronauts as an ideal collection of handsome, small-town, Protestant, brave American men. Later in the chapter, Wolfe reveals how Life Magazine too omits any imperfect qualities these seven men (and their wives) possess: broken homes, lack of experience, blemishes, and inarticulateness.

Questions

Wolfe has identified an instance of serious disconnections between who the public thinks these seven men are and who they really are; between the definition of hero and what a hero actually is. What makes a hero? How much agency do these seven astronauts have in their formation? Is their heroism real

How do the heroes in The Right Stuff compare to the heroes Carlyle speaks of in "On Heroes"? How does their formation compare?

Wolfe uses the phrase "Home & Hearth and God & Flag" in this passage which is similar to the phrase, "Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Flying" he repeats often throughout the book. What is the effect of this similarity on this passage? What does the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence do here; it seems to do more than merely emphasize the statement.


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Last modified 14 February 2005