Single Combat as Sacrifice: Modern Heroism in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff

Alexa Van Brunt '04, English 156 (Victorians and Moderns), Brown University, Spring 2004

Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff epitomizes the so-called New Journalism of the later twentieth century. This form of journalism not only imparts the facts, but does so in a novelistic form, replete with characterization (or caricaturization), symbolism, and moralistic pontification. By encapsulating the enthusiastic and maddened mood of late-1950s America, a country caught in the juncture of mere flight and glorified space travel, Wolfe uses this literary genre to extol the modern hero, the combatant in a new frontier, one who pushes the "outer envelope". Wolfe does not only exalt this valiant military figure, however, as the author's style is rife with sarcastic undertones and judgments about a nation, populace, and press willing to regale men with hero status in order to motivate them to the sacrificial altar. Wolfe reveals this type of hero -- the sacrificial warrior in single combat -- as a throwback to the pre-Christian era, in which Old Testament David and Goliath represent the champions of their respective tribes, the Philistines and Israelites. In the duo's battle to the death, the fate of much larger entities are at stake; two men are sacrificed in order to determine a competition on a greater scale. In the midst of Wolfe's often-jocular journalistic nonfiction novel, he simultaneously depicts a historical occurrence in less blithe terms. The author describes a time in which a nation built up their champions so that they would willingly surrender as sacrifices to the state.

Naturally the brave lads chosen for single combat enjoyed a very special status in the army and among their people. . . . They were revered and extolled, songs and poems were written about them, every reasonable comfort and honor was given them and women and children and even grown men were moved to tears in their presence. Part of this outpouring of emotion and attention was the simple response of a grateful people to men who were willing to risk their lives to protect them. But there was also a certain calculation behind it. The steady pressure of fame and honor tended to embolden the lads still further by constantly reminding them that the fate of the entire people was involved in their performance in battle. At the same time -- and this was no small thing in such high-risk occupation -- the honor and glory were in many cases rewards before the fact;on account, as it were. Archaic cultures were quite willing to elevate their single-combat fighters to heroic status even before their blood was let, because it was such an effective incentive. Any young man who entered the corps would get his rewards here on earth, "up front", to use the current phrase, come what may. [97]

America's treatment of the "seven bravest lads in America", the guinea pigs of the Mercury project, reflects Wolfe's depiction of the ancient worship of the single-combat fighter. In the bi-nation space war, each previous and future battle is pared down to one illustrious combat mission -- reaching the suboribital sphere in a machine powered (or at least accompanied) by man.

The space war was on. They were risking their lives for their country, for their people, in "the fateful testing" versus the Soviet Integral. And even though the archaic term itself had disappeared from memory, they would receive all the homage, all the fame, all the honor and heroic statusÉbefore the factÉof the single-combat warrior. [98]

Questions

How does Wolfe's notion of the military hero contrast Carlyle's ideals of heroism? Specifically, does the figure of the single-combatant, molded and elevated by society, meld with Carlyle's Hero as Prophet, as Poet, as Man of Letters in any way? How does Wolfe's single-combat example deviate from Carlyle's reflections on the hero in history? Similarly, do Wolfe's theories on the hero completely contradict Carlyle's, or can they both be interwoven into a comprehensive theory of heroes and hero worship in the modern day?

Would you say that Carlyle utilizes an equivalent "New Journalistic" style in his own lectures on the heroic in history? Do both authors' usage of historical examples in illustrating their own points create the same effect?

Wolfe's notion of the modern hero's role in society is embedded within the larger network of character profiles and role descriptions that serve to further his story of America's entrance into the space age. Do you feel there is a division between Wolfe's personal opinions about the events that transpired in this era and his more colorful descriptions of the period in which he acts solely as a narrator of the national mood? Where does this division occur? Do you feel Carlyle and Wolfe have similar displays of subjectivity in their literary creations?

References

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


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe On Heroes and Hero-Worship

Last modified 26 April 2004