Describing Wolfe's Descriptions: Does he have the right stuff?

Quinn Kenworthy, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

Throughout The Right Stuff Tom Wolfe describes his characters and places in great detail, placing his reader at times in the desert, in the cockpit, on the runway, or at the local bar after the sun goes down. His attention to detail does not just merely add to the text, it is the text. The heart of Wolfe's prose lies in his descriptions of physical landscapes and the characters that occupy them. Wolfe describes the Mojave Desert:

Muroc was up in the high elevations of the Mojave Desert. It looked like some fossil landscape that had long since been left behind by the rest of terrestrial evolution. It was full of huge dry lake beds, the biggest being Rogers Lake. Other than sagebrush the only vegetation was Joshua trees, twisted freaks of the plant world that looked like a cross between cactus and Japanese bonsai. They had a dark petrified green color and horribly crippled branches. At dusk the Joshua trees stood out in silhouette on the fossil wasteland like some arthritic nightmare. [36]

A few pages later, Wolfe describes the X-1 and Yeager's responsibilities in reaching Mach 1:

The X-1 looked like a fat orange swallow with white markings. But it was really just a length of pipe with four rocket chambers in it. I had a tiny cockpit and a needle nose, two little straight blades (only three and a half inches thick at the thickest part) for wings, and a tail assembly set up high to avoid the "sonic wash" from the wings. Even though his side was throbbing and his right arm felt practically useless, Yeager figured he could grit his teeth and get through the flight -- except for on specific move he had to make. In the rocket launches, the X-1, which held only two and half minutes' worth of fuel, was carried up to twenty-six thousand feet underneath a B-29. At seven thousand feet, Yeager was to climb down a ladder from the bomb bay of the B-29 to the open doorway of the X-1, hook up the oxygen system and the radio microphone and earphones, and put his crash helmet on and prepare for the launch, which would come at twenty-five thousand feet. This helmet was a homemade number. [42]

These two descriptions, the first of a place and the second of the aircraft and Yeager's process, both use different techniques to inform the reader. Do the two descriptions use similar techniques? What are these techniques? How does Wolfe successfully describe a place and process that many of his readers are unfamiliar with?

In these passages Wolfe uses broad and specific descriptions, bringing the reader into the desert and the cockpit of X-1. In the second passage Wolfe is very specific, using technical language to explain the X-1 and the process Yeager must endure to reach Mach 1. Does Wolfe lose something in this specificity? Is the reader lost in his technical language? How does the last line, "This helmet was a homemade number" bring us back away from the technical or is his sudden shift to a more casual language too quick? Is Wolfe's specificity necessary?

Is one passage more effective? What makes an effective description? Does an author need to boost his credibility with numbers and a technical language or do lines like "At dusk the Joshua trees stood out in silhouette on the fossil wasteland like some arthritic nightmare" make the reader trust him in the same way?


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Last modified 5 November 2003