Wolfe vs. the Victorian Gent

Anna Sussman '04, English 171, Brown University, Autumn 2003

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe uses the concept of a discreet, hypocritical Victorian gentleman to symbolize the press in the late 1950s and '60s. Instead of giving its readers the whole story, the press, acting as one giant entity, decides what the public must know then delivers it, edited and retouched to perfection.

It was as if the press in America, for all its vaunted independence, were a great colonial animal, an animal made up of countless clustered organisms responding to a central nervous system. In the late 1950's (as in the late 1970's) the animal seemed determined that in all matters of national importance the proper emotion, the seemly sentiment, the fitting moral tone, should be established and should prevail; and all information that muddied the tone and weakened the feeling should simply be thrown down the memory hole. In a later period this impulse of the animal would take the form of blazing indignation about corruption, abuses of power, and even minor ethical lapses, among public officials; here, in April of 1959, it took the form of a blazing patriotic passion for the seven test pilots who had volunteered to go into space. In either case, the animal's fundamental concern remained the same: the public, the populace, the citizenry, must be provided with the correct feelings! One might regard this animal as the consummate hypocritical Victorian gent. Sentiments that one scarcely gives a second thought to in one's private life are nevertheless insisted upon in all public utterances. (And this grave gent lives on in excellent health.) [100-101]

Questions

1. Wolfe posits the "hypocritical Victorian gent" as a metaphor for America's media. Meanwhile, in his book, he describes not only this phenomena but also gives specific examples of when and how the media is behaving as such. Does this set him up, as the author, as an opposing force, bringing the whole truth to the reader in its uncut, ugly entirety? How does denouncing the press build his ethos? Is there a way in which it undercuts his ethos?

2. Given that the book was first published in the late 1970s, how does timeliness play into this statement about journalistic ethics? He says that sometimes the "seemly sentiment" can "take the form of blazing indignation about corruption, abuses of power," but that at the time of the astronauts, in April of 1959, "it took the form of a blazing patriotic passion for the seven test pilots . . . " What does the repetition of the word "blazing" do to the two feelings he is opposing?

3. The last sentence, "(And this grave gent lives on in excellent health)," is in parentheses. Is it a joking aside from the author? A warning? Why does he extend the metaphor of the gent as a living body with excellent health, instead of merely adding that this tendency to manipulate information is still practiced? How does it affect reading about the gent at later points in the book?


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Last modified 3 November 2003