Pilots are bigger than Jesus

Jessica Grose 04, English 171, Brown University, Autumn 2003

Tom Wolfe presents a very specific image of the superlative American in The Right Stuff. He is a Hegelian uber-man, almost -- the kind with "the right stuff." This American is a combination of rock star, God figure, and pioneer. Wolfe uses all of these images to construct the picture of this elusive kind of man -- epitomized in the figure of Chuck Yeager.

The pilot with the "right stuff" is like a rock star because he has groupies, attracted to his surging machismo:

By 1949 the girls had become turning up at Pancho's in amazing numbers. They were young, lovely, juicy, frisky -- and there were so many of them, at all hours, every day of the week! And they were not prostitutes, despite the accusations made later. They were just . . . well, just young juicy girls in their twenties with terrific young conformations and sweet cupcakes and loamy loins. They were sometimes described with a broad sweep as "stewardesses," but only a fraction of them really were. No, they were lovely young things who arrived as mysteriously as the sea gulls who brought the squirming shrimp. They were moist labial piping little birds who had somehow learned that at this strange place in the high Mojave lived the hottest young pilots in the world and that this was where things were happening.

The pilot with the "right stuff" is God like because not only does he control the sky in his immortality, but he also guides his subordinates, the lowly mortals:

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 could contest the fact that as of that time, the 1950s, Chuck Yeager was at the top of the pyramid, number one among all the True Brothers.

The pilot with the "right stuff" is a pioneer, always looking, yearning, needing to enter into new frontier, to pave new ground:

You couldn't keep a really hot, competitive pilot away from EdwardsÉThere was a constant rivalry between NACA and the Air Force to push the rocket planes to their outer limits. On November 20, 1953, Crossfield, in the D-558-2, raised the speed record to Mach 2. Three weeks later Yeager flew the X-1A to Mach 2.4. The rocket program was quickly running out of frontiers within the atmosphere; so NACA and the Air Force began planning a new project, with a new rocket plane, the X-15, to probe altitudes as high as fifty miles, which was well beyond anything that could still be called "air".

Questions

1. In his description of the pilot groupies, Wolfe uses sexually charged, excessively feminine language to describe the women, phrases like "moist labial piping little birds." Why does he do this? Why does he compare these women to birds?

2. Wolfe uses both Christian and Pagan archetypes to describe the transcendence of Yeager (pyramids implying ancient transcendence; big daddy of the skies more of a monotheistic god-image). Why does he do this?

3. Wolfe spends a great deal of time early on in the chapter entitled Yeager describing the man's corn-fed West Virginia roots. How does this play into the image of the ideal American as pioneer? None of the men or places described in The Right Stuff in the first few chapters is at all urban. Is this an outdated concept of Americana? Is Wolfe saying that the true American exists only in wide-open spaces, frontiers?


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Last modified 3 November 2003