In a foreword to the 1983 paperback reprint of The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe writes thatimmediately following the First World War a certain fashion set in among writers in Europe and soon spread to their obedient colonial counterparts in the United States. War was looked upon as inherently monstrous, and those who waged it—namely, military officers—were looked upon as brutes and philistines. . . . The only proper protagonist for a tale of war was an enlisted man, and he was to be presented not as a hero but as Everyman, as much a victim of war as any civilian. . . . The Right Stuff became the story of why men were willing . . . to take on such [high] odds [for death] in an era literary people had long since characterized as the age of the anti-hero.
Wolfe is speaking here of the unapologetically heroic mode in which The Right Stuff is written. In a century in which literature is filled with such antiheroes as the desperately wounded Jake Barnes in Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises or, a generation later, the tragically beleaguered Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s landmark 1949 drama Death of a Salesman, the nonliterary public seems never to have lost its taste for the kind of old-fashioned valor symbolized by the Mercury astronauts. In an ostensible effort to bridge this gap between literary output and public taste, Wolfe creates in The Right Stuff what might be termed a latter-day heroic mode, drawing upon elements from the ancient Greek epic, the Old Testament, and the medieval romance. In its scope and tone, The Right Stuff can truly be called a modern epic—a work of literature that chronicles the deeds of great persons engaged in a heroic quest. In The Right Stuff, the quest is for the “control of the heavens,” and the nemesis is the seemingly invulnerable Soviet Union.
Biblical imagery abounds in the book, lending an appropriate tone of religious fervor to America’s space race and to the zeal with which the book’s heroes seek “the right stuff.” In describing the test pilots’ climb up the mythic pyramid described above, Wolfe appropriates Calvinist terminology: Those who make it to the top are “the elect,” “the anointed,” while those who fall behind are, presumably, “damned.” The very term “the right stuff” is at times transmuted into “the righteous stuff,” as though those who possess it have been chosen by the gods of the sky. The force that kept each of Yeager’s predecessors from breaking Mach 1 is called a “demon,” so that in breaking the sound barrier, Yeager becomes by implication a Sir Gawain-like knight subduing a celestial Green Knight, or Saint George slaying a dragon. (It should not be thought, however, that the book’s heroes ever consciously conceive of themselves in such grandiose terms; indeed, part of possessing “the right stuff” is being unable or unwilling to articulate it, to give it a name. The heroic imagery in the book is very much an interpolation by a mythmaking narrator.)
The most carefully sustained biblical image in the book is that of the single combat warrior. In chapter 5, Wolfe writes that “in single combat the mightiest soldier of one army would fight the mightiest soldier of the other army as a substitute for a pitched battle between the entire forces.” He goes on to explain this “ancient superstition of warfare” as having its roots not in a concern for minimizing human bloodshed but rather in mysticism: The will of the gods could be determined by the outcome of...
(This entire section contains 1263 words.)
the single combat. Wolfe cites as the most famous incident of single combat the Old Testament battle between David and the giant Goliath, a story which seemed to find a modern counterpart in the underdog United States’ battle for the heavens with the seemingly infallible Goliath of the Soviet Union. Without even realizing it, says Wolfe, the American public was responding to some deep primordial instinct, some long-forgotten ancestral ritual, by showering the Mercury astronauts with adulation such as the country had never seen before.
Indeed, the hoopla surrounding the space program is a vital part of The Right Stuff. Wolfe is careful to point out that the history-making experiments with the X series at Muroc Field and Edwards Air Force Base were conducted largely in secret; even Yeager’s breaking of Mach 1 received little publicity, partly because of the government’s insistence on secrecy. Thus Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Deke Slayton, and the rest of the astronauts, reared as they were in the austerity and secrecy inherent in military test flying, were unprepared for the massive press coverage accorded the Mercury program. Having gone overnight from the obscurity of test flying to the white-hot spotlight of astronauthood, both the astronauts and their wives found themselves uncomfortable in the roles of national heroes. The only real exception was the photogenic John Glenn, adored by the press for his all-American image, whose hunger for publicity contrasted sharply with the shyness of his wife, Annie. Throughout the book, the ambitious Glenn is treated ambiguously by Wolfe, as though “the right stuff” were tainted in Glenn’s case with a certain sanctimoniousness.
Press coverage of the Mercury program is never far from Wolfe’s mind in The Right Stuff; the book constantly asks whether the heroism of the astronauts attracted the press or whether the press created an astronaut cult. Wolfe, himself a journalist, is comic and incisive in his treatment of “the fourth estate,” characterizing it variously as “the genteel beast” and “the Victorian gent,” labels which emphasize the tendency of the press to observe an often inappropriate decorum in covering the space program. While Wolfe’s book is concerned with the colorful truth behind the astronaut myth, contemporary press coverage consistently sanitized the astronauts’ images, right down to airbrushing the blemishes off the wives’ faces in publicity photographs. Wolfe covers in depth the conservative image created by the partnership between the Mercury program and Life magazine, which early bought the exclusive rights to the astronauts’ stories and became the official medium between the seven astronauts and a public hungry for whitewashed versions of their lives.
It is no accident that this carefully structured book begins and ends with Chuck Yeager, who all along symbolizes the original meaning of “the right stuff.” Wolfe seems concerned with how the original quiet bravery of the test pilot was compromised and eventually perverted by the space program, until the rough-and-ready world of Yeager and Edwards Air Force Base was lost in the maze of cameras and microphones surrounding the Mercury astronauts. The book provides a forceful argument that the X series test flights carried on at Edwards from the late 1940’s through the early 1960’s, though overshadowed by the attention accorded the Mercury program, were in fact of much greater technological and historical importance than the space program. Certainly at the Mercury program’s inception, the “true brethren” at Edwards considered the astronauts, deprived as they were of real control over the computer-operated space capsule, something less than pilots. By the end of the book, however, the astronauts have become the epitome of “the righteous stuff,” and the same test pilots who had once been critical of the fledgling space program are opting for astronaut training over military test flight. In ending The Right Stuff with Yeager once more looking death in the face in the skies over the California desert, Wolfe seems to be writing an epitaph for the sort of unsung bravery that existed before the news cameras and the flashbulbs changed things forever.