The Hero as Pilot in The Right Stuff

Sherry Lewkowicz '06, English 156 (Victorians and Moderns), Brown University, Spring 2004

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe depicts the hero as pilot. In the following passage, Wolfe describes the incredible exhilaration the pilot feels with every flight he makes. His euphoria is accompanied by a sense of immense superiority to all those below who in their simple humdrum lives will never experience "this righteous zone." The hero as one who is fully aware of his own greatness and who feels intensely superior to others is quite different from the heroes presented by Thomas Carlyle in his collection of essays On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. Whereas Carlyle's heroes often possess deep humility and a devotion to and interest in their fellow man, the pilot as hero is self-important and always supremely interested in becoming a better and more respected pilot:

To take off in an F-100 at dawn and cut in the afterburner and hurtle twenty-five thousand feet up into the sky so suddenly that you felt not like a bird but like a trajectory, yet with full control, full control of five tons of thrust, all of which flowed from your will and through your fingertips, with the huge engine right beneath you, so close that it was as if you were riding it bareback, until you leveled out and went supersonic, an event registered on earth by a tremendous cracking boom that shook windows, but up here only by the fact that you now felt utterly free of the earth -- to describe it, even to wife, child, near ones and dear ones, seemed impossible. So the pilot kept it to himself, along with an even more indescribable . . . an even more sinfully inconfessable . . . feeling of superiority, appropriate to him and to his kind, lone bearers of the right stuff.

From up here at dawn the pilot looked down . . . and began to wonder: How can all of them down there, those poor souls who will soon be waking up and trudging out of their minute rectangles and inching along their little noodle highways toward whatever slots and grooves make up their everyday lives -- how could they live like that, with such earnestness, if they had the faintest idea of what it was like up here in this righteous zone?

But of course! Not only the washed-out, grounded, and dead pilots had been left behind -- but also all of those millions of sleepwalking soul who never even attempted the great gamble. The entire world below . . . left behind. Only at this point can one begin to understand just how big, how titanic, the ego of the military pilot could be. [28-29]

Questions

1. How does the notion of "left behind" relate to Wolfe's construction of the pilot as hero? Why is it so important that the hero not be "left behind" and continue climbing "the Ziggurat" of flying skill and prowess? How does a view of the world as "left behind" come into play when Pete Conrad is not accepted in the astronaut program and realizes he has been left behind? (see p. 84)

2. How does the hero as someone who possesses great physical power, strength, and agility compare to Carlyle's heroes? How would Carlyle feel about the pilot as hero, versus the man of letters, who uses language and words to wield power, or the hero as King whose power is derived from his people, or the hero as Prophet whose power comes from the devotion and worship of his followers . . . . Is the pilot a more solitary hero? What are the implications of a hero with such strong independence (or you might say alienation)?

3. When the pilots who have been selected as astronauts for Project Mercury are questioned about their personal lives during a press conference, Wolfe shows how the single-mindedness and arrogance of these pilots has diminished their sense of value for other areas of their life, such as their home and family:

The first reporter who raised his hand wanted to know from each of them whether his wife and children had "had anything to say about this."

Wife and children?

. . . 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. [89-91]

Why is patriotism a higher value for the pilots than family or religion? Does patriotism, rather than devotion to one's family or religion, perhaps better agree with the "titanic" ego of the pilot? Why does patriotism, especially the idea of risking one's life for one's country, especially appeal to these pilots?

References

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe On Heroes and Hero-Worship

Last modified 27 April 2004