In The Right Stuff Tom Wolfe practices his new journalism, a sort of intensive immersion, through which he manages to make sense of the mechanisms underlying the cultural phenomena he explores and thus present them with a remarkable depth. He takes on the role of the omniscient narrator, giving events and characters the detail and emotional weight of a novel. This approach seems to work because Wolfe positions himself as the one who gets it, the privileged one who can probe beneath the surface and understand the core of an experience, in a way that not even the characters themselves can. A significant part of this method relies on the distinction between his interpretation of events and that of other journalists. Wolfe characterizes the mainstream American press as “a Victorian Gent” who insists on establishing “the proper emotion, the seemly sentiment, the fitting moral tone” for national events [95]. For this Victorian Gent, “all information that muddied the tone and weakened the feeling should simply be thrown down the memory hole” [95]. The mainstream press, then, does not acknowledge any nuance that might interfere with whatever has been deemed the appropriate narrative, and thus, as Irene Chen writes in “Life Underneath the Glossy Pages,” “what history and the press has done is polish the truth into a narrative that largely misunderstands the motivations of these men and the context.” The following passage describing Louise Shepard’s experience in the hours leading up to her husband’s take-off exemplifies Wolfe’s ability to penetrate the apparent surface of things in a way that the other press cannot.

Louise hadn’t even had all that much opportunity to sit in front of the television set and let the tension build. She had gotten up before dawn, in the dark, to fix breakfast for everybody who was staying in the house, and then there was the whole business of fixing coffee and whatnot for the other good folks as they arrived . . . until before she knew it she was caught up in the same psychology that works at a wake. She was suddenly the central figure in a Wake for My Husband — in his hour of danger, however, rather than his house of death. The secret of the wake for the dead was that it put the widow on stage, whether she liked it or not. In the very moment in which, if left alone, she might be crushed by grief, she was suddenly thrust into the role of hostess and star of the show. It’s free! It’s open house! Anybody can come on in and gawk! Of course, the widow can still turn on the waterworks — but it takes more nerve to do that in front of a great gawking mob than it does to be the brave little lady, serving the coffee and the cakes. For someone as dignified as Louise Shepard, there was no question as to how it was going to come out. As hostess and main character in this scene, what else was there for the pilot’s wife to do but set about pulling everybody together? The press, the ravenous but genteel Beast out there upon the lawn, did not know it but he was covering not the Anguished Wife at Lift-offÉbut the Honorable Mrs. Commander Astronaut at HomeÉin the first wake, not for the dead, but for the Gravely EndangeredÉLouise didn’t even have time to collapse in neurasthenic paralysis over the possible fate of her husband. It was all that the star and hostess could do to get back to the TV room in time for the final minutes of the countdown, to watch the flames roaring out of the Redstone’s nozzles. [203]

Wolfe positions the press as doubly removed from the understanding that he garners — not only do they not realize that they are not covering the “Anguished Wife at Lift-off” but they also do not see the reasons behind this like Wolfe does. When, immediately following this passage, Wolfe writes, in Louise’s voice, “with all the world wondering about the state of her soul at this moment . . . what kind of face should she have on?” he expresses a sentiment that only he, as the journalist cognizant of the inner workings of the events and people, would ever even wonder about.

Questions

1. How does Wolfe’s use of words and phrases indicative of acting — “the widow on stage,” “star of the show” — impact your impression of his privileged insight in the above passage?

2. Though Wolfe positions himself as the privileged narrator, do you trust his interpretation? To what extent should we believe him?

3. How does Wolfe’s detached but extremely detailed narration compare to Joan Didion’s narrative style?

References

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe

Last modified 8 April 2011