Heroes and Heroism
For a generation of Americans, Charles A. Lindbergh defined what heroism was all about. While traditional understandings of heroism generally imply victory over some sort of enemy, Lindbergh’s heroic action entailed braving the elements and the laws of physics and making his airplane stay aloft for thirty-three hours. His was a type of heroism that was particular to his day, which was a time when technology was new enough to be fascinating and not comprehensive enough to be frightening. From the time of the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903 to Lindbergh’s flight in 1927, the idea of airplane travel had become common, but it was always associated with short distances. The amount of time it took to travel between America and Europe, which had been measured in months at the start of the 1800s and in weeks at the start of the 1900s, was suddenly measured in hours, and making this mind-boggling feat conceivable to average people was not accomplished by an abstract corporation but by a single, handsome individual.
It is Lindbergh’s individuality, as much as anything, that made him a hero in the eyes of the world. The cockpit of an aircraft was much more complex than anything most people had ever experienced, but imaginations could grasp the idea of his being isolated in a small, dark space, with no connection to the world at large. As more and more machines imposed themselves upon civilization, there was something almost primitive about the idea of his flight, with the wind blowing in his face and the bright stars above. And at the same time, he was in control of his machine, making it achieve what no machine ever had. According to Berg’s account, Lindbergh had the perfect blend of brains, charm, and self-assurance to fit the role of a hero for his time.
One of the things that made the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby such a huge news story was the way that it presented such an extreme reversal from all that the public knew about their hero. If the 1929 flight was taken as a sign of one individual’s ability to triumph over natural forces, the kidnapping drama showed how vulnerable anyone, even the most celebrated man on the planet, could be. An attack on Lindbergh’s person could be fought off with the macho strength that the public had come to expect from its heroes. Even an attack on Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who as an adult had her own life and responsibilities, would not be as horrifying as the threat to the couple’s child. While the flight across the Atlantic was considered a triumph over impossible conditions, the kidnapping episode was a true test of Lindbergh’s character, an impossible situation of which he could not gain control.
The public, though sympathetic, could not see how controlled Lindbergh was during this ordeal. Although the kidnappers had the upper hand and could not be provoked without putting young Charlie in danger, Lindbergh still kept a cool head and did what little he could to...
(The entire section is 1,307 words.)