Right Stuff, according to whom?

Sasha Khmelnik '06, English 156 (Victorians and Moderns), Brown University, Spring 2004

[Home —> Nonfiction —> Authors —> author —>Leading Questions]

In Right Stuff Tom Wolfe uses an ironic tone to address the inexplicable, what we might call heroic, drive of test-pilots in the American military. From the beginning of the novel he stipulates that the idea of heroism, like the emergence of the hero himself, is one reserved for the elite few:

The feeling was so righteous, so exalted, it could become religious. Civilians seldom understood this, either. There was no one to teach them. It was no longer the fashion for serious writers to describe the glories of war . . . . It was left to the occasional pilot with a literary flair to provide a glimpse of the pilot's self-conception in its heavenly or spiritual aspect. [p. 30]


In Carlyle's dialogue, on the other hand, the hero is defined largely by "hero-worship," the stipulation being that any man who is naturally "great" will be appropriately recognized, even if in retrospect. How might we reconcile Wolfe's philosophical conception of the hero, and Carlyle's practical one? Could Wolfe, for example, consider Johnson a hero? What role does "self-conception" play for Carlyle?

Can we manipulate Wolfe's theory of the hero to extend beyond its immediate subject of the test-pilot? What are the similarities and differences between the social structure he chooses and Carlyle's notion of the general structure of society? How would an artist fit into Wolfe's conception? What role does religion play for Wolfe?

How does the non-heroic affect the idea of "hero" in the arguments of each? Why does Wolfe begin by giving us the perspective of the test-pilot's wife?


Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.

Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe On Heroes and Hero-Worship

Last modified 26 April 2004