If Heroes and Hero Worship, by that "Victorian Gent" Thomas Carlyle, is a piece of fiction posing as non-fiction, Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff is just the opposite: non-fiction dressed as a novel, omnipresent narrative hedged in by newspaper columns. Both Carlyle and Wolfe are straddling genres. Carlyle, as an eminent practitioner of Ars Oratoria, gives lectures that reject science, that omit, in many cases, historical evidence (see Odin and Johnson), in favor of a romantic rubric of meritorious rises, of Horatio Algers, Carlyle among them, waiting to reap the rewards of their ascent. Wolfe, novelist, new journalist, fedora-wearing dandy, had yet to complete a "traditional novel" when The Right Stuff was published in 1979; in it he clasps that "old genre" in a fatal embrace as he consciously effaces the boundaries between journalism -- its third person objectivity -- and the novel's tropes and narrative strategies. In the process we get a report, a genealogy that follows Yeager's drawl as it wafts up from a West-Virginia coal mine into the cock-pits and cabins of commercial aircraft. And Pete Conrad not only evinces the hot-dogging fighter pilot but the "invisible ziggurat," the stair-case to fighter pilot heaven -- one that, in post-war America, is shifting as astronauts replace test-pilots in the fraternal order of those with the "right stuff."
The careful deployment of the term "the right stuff" is itself revealing of the differences between Carlyle and Wolfe: for Wolfe, the right stuff is a semantic point of departure, not a destination on the map marked -- what makes a hero. As the word choice suggests, the stuff that makes a man great is not precise or quantifiable -- in the case of the flying ace it is an aureole, an effluvium, not a saintly halo, which hovers around a helmet or swagger or grin. The wall that Carlyle hits -- his trouble in pinning down a hero-for-the-ages -- is the one that Wolfe drives through (Writing & Drinking and Drinking & Driving!): namely, he finds that a hero is precisely that which cannot be defined; that the hero is her-o today and gone tomorrow as the shifting valuation of astronauts and fighter-pilots (and chimps) post-Sputnik attests. Wolfe takes Carlyle's hero out of his social vacuum and places him, examines him within the context of a highly-secret, highly-dangerous world of test rockets and g-forces, atmospheric rolls and dives, vaulting sea-skillets posing as carrier decks. This is no longer history as the biography of great men but the history of a group of men with an intangible élan -- of courage (?) -- that makes them willing, no, downright eager!, to push the envelope of life and speed and height and endurance.
It is worth noting that Wolfe never applies the term hero to either the fighter-jocks or astronauts -- that moniker is used only by the press, by Life Magazine (that Victorian gentleman again!), to create an air-brushed image of national pride. Naming the pilot hero empties him of his agency, his personality: he ceases being a pilot and, as is the case with the Mercury astronauts, becomes a passenger, a chimp. Yet, in some sense, this is a logical extension of Carlyle, at least his contradiction, the wall he bumps his head on, which is that that a hero is always named before the fact -- and that hero-worship, the only historical constant in Carlyle's binary of greatness, is what forms the hero.
The space war was on. They were risking their lives for their country, for their people, in "the fateful testing" versus the powerful 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 status . . . before the fact . . . of a single-combat warrior. . . .
The following month, May, the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, of which McCormack was a member, called the seven astronauts before them in closed session. So the brave lads went to the Capitol for the secret proceedings . . . It became immediately apparent that . . . no one had anything pertinent to ask them and nothing to tell them . . . .The congressmen in the room just wanted to see them, to use their position to arrange a personal audience, to gaze upon them with their own eyes across the committee table, no more than four feet away, to shake hands with them, occupy the same space on earth with them for an hour or so, fawn over them, pay homage to them, bathe in their magical aura, feel the radiation of their righteous stuff, salute them, wish upon them the smile of God . . . and do their bit in bestowing honor upon them before the fact . . . upon our little Davids . . . before they got up on top of the rockets to face the Russians, death, flames, and fragmentation. (Ours all blow up!) [pp. 98-99]
What is going on here with the congressmen? Are we witnessing some good-old fashioned hero worship? If so -- and it does seem so -- what is the difference between hero worship here and as Carlyle conceives of it? What is Wolfe's point that a hero is given his title before the fact? What purpose does this serve?
What is the relationship between the hero and the right stuff? Are they part and parcel of the same package or they are diametrically opposed? How do they both relate to death, a willingness to die?
What is the difference between Carlyle's great men, who channel the spirit of their times in the form of a challenge, and the space that heroes occupy in 1950s America? Are these heroes' agents of change or are they tools of national ideology, mere bureaucratic pawns? Is their a difference, and if there is, what does Wolfe mean by placing his heroes within this infernal structure?
Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
Last modified 27 April 2004