Tom Wolfe Versus the Great Colonial Animal

Jesse Bull '05, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

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In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe attempts to analyze the mythology surrounding early rocket flight in the United States. In his role as a New Journalist, he creates the character of the traditional press as a "great colonial animal" which insists that "all information that muddied the tone and weakened the feeling should simply be thrown down the memory hole"(p.95). The reduction of the camera-crews, reporters, and gaffers into a single metaphorical beast points to a deliberate attempt at hyperbole and a distancing from his fellow journalists. Wolfe makes no attempt to be subtle in the use of such techniques. He does not use the language of fighter-jocks and his own jet-fueled lingo simply to add color here and there as transparent stylistic flair. Rather, Wolfe hits the reader over and over with phrases like "Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving" and images such as that of "the press, the seemly Gent" (p. 176) invading the astronauts' homes with his "giant toasters" (p. 246). He gives the language of his constantly shifting voice an unabashedly apparent and predominant role within the story, thereby creating a lexicon of pre-established tones and a critical voice apart from any of his subjects, including the press. When he mentions the Gent, his reader expects a certain level of sarcasm and an animalistic furor in which he does not partake. Similarly, he seems to understand and sympathize with the complex psychology of the fighter jocks while still bluntly summarizing their lifestyle in a few capitalized words.

Late the next day they flew Number 61 back to the Cape and Hangar S, where a great mob of reporters and photographers were now waiting out in the compound by the Mercury capsule that had been used for the training. The vets led the ape out of the van. As the mob closed in and the flashbulbs began exploding, the animal — brave little Ham, as he was now known — became furious. He bared his teeth. He began snapping at the bastards. It was all the vets could do to restrain him. This was immediately — on the spot! — interpreted by the press, the seemly Gent, as an understandable response to the grueling experience he had just been through. The vets took the ape back inside the van until he calmed down. Then they led him out again, trying to get him near a mockup of a Mercury capsule, where the television networks had set up cameras and tremendous lights. The reporters and photographers surged forward again, yammering, yelling, exploding more camera lights, shoving, groaning, cursing — the usual yahoo sprawl, in short — and the animal came unglued again, ready to twist the noodle off anybody he could get his hands on. This was interpreted by the Gent as a manifestation of Ham's natural fear upon laying eyes once again on the capsule, which looked precisely like the one that had propelled him into space and subjected him to such severe physical stresses.

The stresses the ape was reacting to were probably of quite another sort. Here he was, back in the compound where they had zapped him through his drills for a solid month. Just two years ago he had been captured in the jungles of Africa, separated from his mother, shipped in a cage to a goddamned desert in New Mexico, kept prisoner, prodded and shocked by a bunch of humans in white smocks, and here he was, back in a compound where they had been zapping him through their fucking drills for a solid month, and suddenly there was a whole new mob of humans on hand! Even worse than the white smocks! Louder! Crazier! Totally out of their gourds! Yammering, roaring, brawling, exploding lights beside their bug-eyed skulls! Suppose they threw him to these assholes! Fuck this

At some point in the madhouse scene out back of Hangar S, a photograph was taken in which Ham was either grinning or had on a grimace that looked like a grin in the picture. Naturally, this was the picture that went out over the wire services and was printed in newspapers throughout America. Such was the response of the happy chimpanzee to being the first ape in outer space . . . A fat happy grin . . . Such was the perfection with which the Proper Gent observed the proprieties. [pp.176-77]

Like the unhappy chimp, Wolfe says, "Fuck this," to the proprieties of the Proper Gent. He can play the straight journalist and curse and yell and joke and make astute social commentary all at the same time. He succeeds in capturing the mood of the scene while remaining completely critical, authoritative, and aloof.

Right Stuff Questions

1. How and why does Tom Wolfe manage to turn this factual simian side of the space program into an effective metaphor?

2. How does Wolfe build an authoritative case against the Gent's assumptions (even while beginning his side of the story with the word "probably")?

3. How do drastic rhythmic changes emphasize Wolfe's thematic points?

4. How does Tom Wolfe's language in scenes such as this establish itself as directly opposed to the "Proper Gent" and, in doing so, help create an aura of superiority or truth?


Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.

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Last modified 12 April 2005