Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff is about understanding the people and the times surrounding the United States’ entrance into the space race. At the heart of the story is the “right stuff” itself, the unique quality that test pilots and astronauts possessed that enabled them to brave danger not only willingly but eagerly as well.

Wolfe begins his story of the Mercury program at Edwards Air Force Base on the high desert of Southern California. Edwards becomes the mecca of the prime test pilots after Chuck Yeager reaches Mach 1 and breaks the sound barrier there in 1947. In addition to his speed record, Yeager’s coolness in a crisis, instinctual flying skills, and combat success during World War II place him at the top of the flying brotherhood and make him the standard against which all test pilots will measure themselves. Yeager and others of his elite status face death every dawn by testing new jets and arrive promptly for “beer call” at 4:00 p.m., performing flawlessly with a hangover and on little sleep. Even such recklessness was part of the mythical right stuff.

Meanwhile, the gauntlet of space travel is thrown down by the Soviet Union when it launches the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. Since many Americans fear that the Soviet Union will soon be dropping bombs from space, the United States turns in a Cold War frenzy to Wernher von Braun and the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to play “catch up” in the space race. President Dwight Eisenhower mandates the selection of seven astronauts for the Mercury program. Following stiff and rigorous competition among the best test pilots in the country (excluding non-college-educated pilots such as Yeager), the seven are chosen and burst onto the American scene as virtual “single combat warriors,” prepared to go head-to-head with the Soviets in a...

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The Right Stuff

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The ldquo;right stuff” as most recently defined by author Tom Wolfe is bravery, but it is not bravery in the simple sense. As he applies the word to America’s astronauts in his 1979 history of the space program, it refers to the quality that would enable a man to ride into the heavens on the end of a rocket and to “put his hide on the line and have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness to pull it back at the last yawning moment.” In a sense, however, Wolfe has been writing about the “right stuff” for the last fifteen years since he proclaimed the emergence of the New Journalism. His earlier subjects—Ken Kesey, Baby Jane Holzer, Big Daddy Ed Roth, Phil Spectar, and Felicia and Leonard Bernstein—also had an ineffable quality which could be termed the “right stuff.” However, in these individuals’ cases the term refers to a quality of style rather than of bravery.

Wolfe’s special interest has always been the worlds of the self-made and of the style-setters. He is, in a very real sense, a social anthropologist who uses a reporter’s eye for fact as a basis upon which to contemplate modern culture and its subtle class distinctions. Reporting as he practices it is both unique and personal. He collects facts in much the same manner and detail as Balzac and Dickens collected the materials for their fiction, but he does not distill his findings into a novel. He attempts to write journalism that reads like a novel, and although he uses the techniques of the great novelists—pages of dialogue, stream of consciousness, shifting points of view—he applies them to real people and situations in a manner that achieves a depth of information not usually reached in newspaper works.

In the 1960’s, Wolfe formalized this style of writing in what he called the New Journalism. It gained the status of a movement in 1973 with the publication of an anthology containing the work of twenty-three practitioners; it was edited by Wolfe, who designed the school and its techniques in a long introduction. By the end of the 1970’s, however, the New Journalism was, for all practical purposes, dead. The primary reason for its demise was that it was, in fact, not new. Its merging of literary and journalistic techniques was easily traced back to James Boswell, who employed it in his The Life of Samuel Johnson, and more recently Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad. Thus the New Journalism had a long tradition whose techniques were a part of the repertoires of several centuries of good writers. Yet New Journalism was limited because it could not explore character in novelistic depth and was dependent upon highly dramatic subjects for its material, while a good novelist could find his subject matter in the humdrum and elevate it to a plane of intense fascination.

In retrospect, the New Journalism was primarily a temporary turning of the attentions of major fiction writers such as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer to nonfiction. The movement did not breed its own major writers, beyond Wolfe and possibly Hunter S. Thompson. Wolfe made the style his own more completely than any other writer and imbued it with an inventiveness, zest, and comic satire. He further combined it with an ear for the vernacular matched by few writers of any period. His subject matter prior to The Right Stuff consisted of those dramatic and marginal events that typified New Journalism.

The Right Stuff appears, on the surface, to make a break with the parade of cultural footnotes that formed the basis of Wolfe’s preceding books. It is nothing less than a history of the manned space program from the point of view of the participants, particularly the astronauts. Yet through his definition of the quality of the “right stuff,” Wolfe does treat the astronauts as part of a subculture. They are part of that society of men who trained as fighter pilots riding into the unknown in unproven pieces of machinery. According to Wolfe, the “True Brotherhood of the Right Stuff” reached its peak in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. This fraternity possessed distinctive and somewhat bizarre values and a particular jargon, traced by the author to a pilot named Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier in 1947 over California’s Edwards Air Force Base flying an experimental X-1 plane. In true “right stuff” fashion, Yeager got drunk two nights before the test and went charging around the desert on a horse. He was thrown off his mount and broke two ribs, but he concealed the injury and successfully...

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The Right Stuff Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Neither a conventional historical account nor a historical novel, Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff is one of the finest extant examples of what is usually termed the “nonfiction novel,” a genre that Wolfe helped to create. In telling the factual story of the early stages of the United States’ manned spaceflight program, Wolfe uses many of the techniques of fiction. While such factual considerations as time, place, technical and scientific data, and biography are scrupulously accurate, the fictional techniques of point of view, stream of consciousness, and characterization are given free rein. Wolfe has combined the good historian’s exhaustive research and attention to detail with the novelist’s imaginative license, and the result is not only as reliable an account as one is likely to encounter of America’s love affair with spaceflight but also a highly enjoyable comic novel.

For the most part, The Right Stuff is organized in chronological order, an important exception being a flashback chapter devoted to the legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager, who throughout the book epitomizes “the right stuff.” While the entire book serves as an extended definition of the title, Wolfe succinctly defines it in the second chapter; speaking of military test pilots, from whose ranks were drawn the seven original Mercury astronauts, Wolfe writes:As to just what this ineffable quality was . . . well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. . . . No, the idea here (in the all-enclosing fraternity) seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes,...

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The Right Stuff Literary Techniques

A four-part article on the U.S. astronauts first appeared in Rolling Stone in 1973, six years before the publication of The Right...

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The Right Stuff Social Concerns

As in all his works, Wolfe shows how the events chronicled were presented to and perceived by the American public. Chuck Yeager, the...

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The Right Stuff Literary Precedents

Wolfe's originality in both style and subject is probably his most acclaimed feature. His subjects are American cultural phenomena —...

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The Right Stuff Adaptations

The Right Stuff was released as a motion picture in 1983 starring Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, Ed Harris as John Glenn, and Scott...

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The Right Stuff Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Stokes, Lisa. “Tom Wolfe’s Narratives as Stories of Growth.” Journal of American Culture 14, no. 3 (1991): 19-24. Focuses on Wolfe’s distinctive narrative voice and the relationship he establishes between his characters and narrator.

Stull, James N. “The Cultural Gamesmanship of Tom Wolfe.” Journal of American Culture 14, no. 3 (1991): 25-30. Discusses Wolfe’s use of arcane subcultures in his work, and his exploration of status within these cultures, including the fraternity of pilots in The Right Stuff.

Wolfe, Tom. “Literary Techniques of the Last Quarter of the Twentieth...

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