There's No "I" in Wolfe (But There is a "We")

Mike Laws '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

Tom Wolfe may have ushered in the New Journalism, may even have coined the term himself, but it seems clear fromThe Right Stuff that he still adheres to at least some of the older, more traditional rules for the genre. The absence of the first person "I" is perhaps the finest example-- an omission I think of as particularly important, since Wolfe does not cover "news" in the ordinary sense of the word. The Right Stuff seeks not to present newsworthy material in an impartial manner, but rather to go back and re-evaluate old news, to reinterpret certain significant events that once made American headlines-- and, most importantly, to place those events in a greater historical context. Surely Wolfe is offering his opinions here, strongly-formed as they may be, but they are opinions nonetheless. And yet the decision to remove the "I" masks this subjectivity; The Right Stuff would like to posit its conclusions not as personal interpretations, but as complete, incontrovertible truths. For example, when describing the press conference in which Chuck Yeager casually impugns the piloting ability of Project Mercury's astronauts (page 99 in my edition), Wolfe exclaims,

But f'r chrissake . . . Yeager was only saying what was obvious to all the rocket pilots who had flown at Edwards. Here was everybody talking as if the Mercury astronauts would be the first men to ride rockets. Yeager had done precisely that more than forty times. Fifteen other pilots had done it also, and they had reached speeds greater than three times the speed of sound and an altitude of 126,000 feet, nearly twenty-five miles, and that was just the beginning [ . . . ] All of this should have been absolutely obvious to anyone, even people who knew nothing about flying-- and surely it would become clear that anybody in Project Mercury was more of a test subject than a pilot. Two of the people they chose weren't even in Fighter Ops. [ . . .] Well, hell, what did anybody expect? Naturally they hadn't picked the seven hottest pilots they could find. They wouldn't be doing any flying! [ . . . ] A great sliding of templates was taking place inside the invisible pyramid. You could feel the old terrain crumbling, and... seven rookies were somehow being installed as the hottest numbers in flying -- and they hadn't done a goddamned thing yet but turn up at a press conference!

Now, several of Wolfe's techniques in this passage make it clear what he views as admirable, and what lamentable. The invocation of Yeager's own manner of speech ("But f'r chrissake," "Well, hell," "they hadn't done a goddamned thing yet") as a way of framing the outrage we all ought to feel over the media's glorification of these "lab rats" suggests that Wolfe shares his sentiments, and lauds him for having the gall to speak so freely to the press with regard to Project Mercury. In fact, it seems Wolfe must use a strategy such as this to get his point across; without the first-person, without the capacity to come directly out and say, "This is what I found admirable about what Yeager did that day -- his ability to shatter the myths this media was disseminating," Wolfe has to rely on a more transparent means of asserting that opinion.

What I am wondering is whether this, the omission of the "I," is actually a better way of persuading readers of one's own viewpoint. Would The Right Stuff be less convincing if Wolfe owned up to the fact that these are his opinions, that this is his unique way of construing the major events in aeronautics -- if, in other words, he used the "I"?

Does he ever come off as manipulative in his attempt to assert his personal interpretation as the grand truth, yes, the only truth? Or does he get away with it? If so, how does he? If not, why not?

Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe Victorian courses

Last modified 4 November 2003