The Bishop’s Boys

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Visionary and practical at the same time, the Wright brothers invented the airplane in a typically American fashion, and their story is a typically American one--which is to say, unlike the story of anyone else. Technically brilliant, financially shrewd, these two lifelong bachelors came relatively late to the problem of manned flight, but then attacked the issue without preconceived notions or elaborate theories; in the end, they succeeded where thousands of others had failed, perhaps because they had abandoned the theoretical. As Tom Crouch points out in his biography, airplanes flew for a quarter of a century before scientists could explain just why wings worked. Able to fly but not exactly able to explain how--what could be more American than that?

In fact, as THE BISHOP’S BOYS details, Wilbur and Orville Wright were quintessentially American, both in their career and in their family. Their father was an independent, even combative clergyman. As the dominant force in their lives, he inspired them to rely upon themselves and their family, and to be honest but wary in their dealings with the outside world. Indeed, the brothers found it more difficult to protect their airplane than perfect it; their suspicious, even hostile encounters with rivals and the public were, in a large part, the legacy of the battling bishop.

The story of the Wrights is an intriguing one, both personally and scientifically, and Crouch’s biography of them is excellent in both respects. Although the brothers are a central part of American folklore, until this book they remained elusive and shadowy figures, dim characters in faded photographs. Crouch brings them to life, places them and their work in the middle of their times, and makes the reader feel a part of the American scene as a new century dawned. It is an impressive achievement.