Wolfe's Truth Behind the Hardy Boys in Outer Space

Jane Porter, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

Tom Wolfe, in The Right Stuff, depicts a Cold War America in which real images and motives are often skewed. He delves into what he believes to be the realities of this time, portraying national heroes with all of their blunders and defects and providing an insight into a government whose motives were not as wholesome as they seemed. In doing so, Wolfe reveals the pesky prodding of journalists into all of the wrong aspects of issues, resulting in an overall artificial image snatched up by the public. It is important to note that not only did reporters depict inaccurate images of pilots and astronauts, but the individuals themselves also played crucial roles in consciously creating their own personas as national heroes:

It was not so much that the men wanted to come out sounding like the Hardy Boys in Outer Space -- it was just that you'd have to be an idiot to let your personal story actually get personal. Every career military officer, and especially every junior officer, knew that when it came to publicity, there was only one way to play it: with a salute stapled to your forehead. To let yourself be turned into a personality, to become colorful, to be portrayed as an egoist of a rake-hell, was only asking for grief, as many people, including General George Patton, had learned. [132]

Wolfe's prose can therefore be seen as the telling of these personal stories, which "actually get personal." He does not resist pointing out the careless drinking and driving escapades of pilots, the airbrushed images of wives on magazine covers, or the humiliating and ridiculous examinations prospective astronauts underwent. The overlooking of these details could not only be blamed on the media but also on the heroes themselves, who knowingly kept their stories well concealed.

Questions

The right stuff, described early on in the text, is regarded as an honorable trait in pilots; however, Wolfe makes it clear that such qualities are inappropriate and disgraceful for astronauts. This is made evident when looking at Pete Conrad who had the right stuff as a pilot but seemed to exude all the wrong stuff as a potential astronaut. What is the right stuff for the astronaut and how does this differ from that of the pilot? Does his description tell us something about Wolfe's regard for each of these types of men? How do his views on each differ from one another?

Wolfe writes in italics, "Our rockets always blow up," a statement repeated numerous times in slightly altered forms. What does Wolfe suggest about the general faith in the Mercury Mission with such statements and to whose perspective do such italicized phrases belong?

Why does Wolfe often interject his text with italicized words or phrases and what effect does this have on his voice as narrator, his proximity to the characters, and our acceptance of him as a reliable source?

Wolfe also scatters his text with italicized French phrases. Consider for example the following passage:

There was the same sort of esprit -- usually called patriotism but better described as joie de combat -- that had existed during the Second Word War and, among pilots (and practically no one else), during the Korean War. [114-115]

What effect does this more refined language have when juxtaposed with the crude jargon of the pilots? What importance do these word insertions have with regard to Wolfe's tone and ethos?

In the first chapter, Wolfe refers to Pete Conrad as Pete, later calling him only Conrad throughout the text. Is there any significance in this change? What shift in context does this switch represent? Does he do this often throughout the text?


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Last modified 4 November 2003