Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces The Right Stuff Analysis
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.)
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