Tom Wolfe's electric, energized writing in The Right Stuff traces celebrity on its path from early rise to dizzying climax to inevitable fade. With a prose style that seems to get into the minds of its subjects, Wolfe's writing is most compelling and skillful when it reflects an experience through the thoughts of its subject, not only relying on visual details to craft a scene, but utilizing short exclamations and hyperbole to complete a picture of hysteria. For each of the wives of the seven pilots-turned-astronauts, Wolfe writes almost identical scenes, depicting the disarrayed, nerve-racking, violating experience of having "mobs of reporters and cameramen and other Big Timers" invade their lawns and their homes. Though the scene is repeated for each wife as her husband makes his solo trip 50 miles into the atmosphere, breaking through an invisible barrier separating air from space, each woman experiences the shock as a total novelty; in this way, Wolfe traces the first moment of realized celebrity back to a specific time and place, suggesting that each woman must experience its effects to truly believe it. For the reader, this repetition further enhances sympathy and compassion for the characters, adding to the illusion of understanding.
Louise Shepard was not in the valley of the woeful abyss. She was here in her house in Virginia Beach — but beyond that it was hard to chart the locus of her soul at that moment. Never in the history of flight tests had the wife of a pilot been put in any such bizarre position as this. Naturally all the wives had been aware that there might be some "press interest" in the reactions of the wife and family of the first astronaut — but Louise hadn't bargained for anything like what was now going on in her front yard. Every now and then Louise's daughters would peek out the window, and the yard looked like the clay flats three hours after the Marx Midway Carnival pulls in. Mobs of reporters and cameramen and other Big Timers were out there wearing bush jackets with leather straps running this way and that and knocking back their Pepsi-Colas and Nehis and yelling to each other and mainly just milling about, crazy with the excitement of being on the scene, bawling for news of the anguished soul of Louise Shepard. They wanted a moan, a tear, some twisted features, a few inside words from friends, any goddamned thing. They were getting desperate. Give us a sign! Give us anything! Give us the diaper-service man! The diaper-service man comes down the street with his big plastic bags, smoking a cigar to provide an aromatic screen for his daily task—and they're all over him and his steamy bag. Maybe he knows the Shepards! Maybe he knows Louise! Maybe he's been in there! Maybe he knows the lay-out of chez Shepard! He locks himself in the front seat, choking on cigar smoke, and they're banging on his panel truck. "Let us in! We want to see!" They're on their knees. They're slithering in the ooze. They're interviewing the dog, the cat, the rhododendrons . . . [Wolfe, 200]
The characterization of the cameramen here is especially ironic when viewed next to the final sentence in the book, "It would have been still more impossible for [Glenn's] confreres to realize that the day might come when Americans would hear their names and say, 'Oh yes — now, which one was he?'" Wolfe depicts these paparazzi, and by default the American population itself, as fanatical and obsessive, but with the shortest of attention spans, forgetting about the astronauts almost as quickly as they became famous. Wolfe's repetition of "maybe" and his repeated use of exclamation marks in the passage emphasize the fleeting nature of fame — how quickly the American public's interest fades away once all outlets have been exhausted; once there is no one left to interview, nothing left to squeeze out, fame disappears in an extended ellipsis.
1. In previous parts of The Right Stuff Wolfe writes about the way the media created an image of the astronauts' wives as supportive, identical homemakers. Though Wolfe discloses some information to show how that image was false, he still mostly treats all of the wives in similar ways, writing about their thoughts and backgrounds as if they are identical. Does this make his book seem like a result of instead of a response to the media hype surrounding the astronauts and the false personas that arose in its wake? Or does he use this technique to further demonstrate how the wives were viewed in the nation's popular imagination?
2. Why aren't Louise's daughters' names disclosed?
3. Wolfe refers to Marx Midway Carnival and a diaper man to characterize the Shepards. What does this say about their family life and values?
4. How does Wolfe's lack of description of Louise's home contrast with the hysteria going on in her yard? How does it inform the way the reader begins to perceive the obsessive and intrusive reaction of the cameramen?
5. Wolfe starts this passage, and an entirely new section in the book, with "Louise Shepard was not in the valley of the woeful abyss." Which author that we have previously read in class does this style of an opening most remind you of? How does this short, declarative statement, from a viewpoint outside of the subject herself, set the reader up for the contrast of the next sentences, which seek to mimic the thoughts of Louise herself?
6. To what effect are the italicized words used in this passage?
Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.
Last modified 27 November 2007