John Glenn: Prophet, Poet, or Astronaut?

Claire Dunnington '05, English 156 (Victorians and Moderns), Brown University, Spring 2004

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In his book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe spends significant time describing the appearances, demeanors, and words of the seven astronauts-to-be. He focuses especially on John Glenn, the most charismatic of the group and its de-facto leader -- at least in the eyes of the media. Glenn shocks his compatriots, most of whom are quite reticent and content to allow their flying skills to shine more than their words, when he launches into an explanation of his religious beliefs at the Washington Press Conference. Glenn responds to questions about his affiliation by relating the astronauts' project to religion. This slightly confuses the other astronauts but creates a public image for Glenn as the most heroic of the seven heroes.

"I am a Presbyterian," he says, "a Protestant Presbyterian, and I take my religion very seriously, as a matter of fact." He starts to tell them about all the Sunday schools he has taught at and the church boards he has served on and all the church work that he and his wife and children have done. "I was brought up believing that you are placed on earth here more or less with sort of a fifty-fifty proposition, and this is what I still believe. We are placed here with certain talents and capabilities. It is up to each of us to use those talents and capabilities as best you can. If you do that, I think there is a power greater than any of us that will place the opportunities in our way, and if we use our talents properly, we will be living the kind of life we should live." [95]


1. Glenn labels his sect of Christianity carefully, doubling back in his speech to clarify that he is a Protestant Presbyterian. Is Glenn an example of a prophet for the modern era? If so, how does this new model of a so-called prophet differ from Carlyle's definition? Since Carlyle used Mohammed as an example in a speech for a Christian audience, can Glenn be seen as a religious prophet and hero for those in the American public who are non-Christian, or non-Protestant, even though he defines his affiliation so precisely?

2. Does Glenn fit into a modified version of Carlyle's hero as poet, given his ability to charm the public through words? Are the astronauts creating an entirely new category of hero?

3. In describing the criteria for heroes, Carlyle mentions humility and sincerity as two necessary characteristics. Are these at odds with Wolfe's description of the general personality-type and ego characteristic of the fighter pilot? In his speech, does Glenn manage to create an identity which bridges the opposing definitions and if so, how?

4. Immediately following Glenn's speech is the statement "Jesus Christ -- share it, brother" (95). Wolfe often writes in what seems to be the voice of a certain group -- in this case, the rest of the astronauts. How does this style differ from Carlyle's? Does Wolfe ever analyze through his own viewpoint or give his own opinion?


Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1983.

Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe On Heroes and Hero-Worship

Last modified: 26 April 2004