Heroes, Speech, and the Media

Tatiana Kuzmowycz '06, English 156 (Victorians and Moderns), Brown University, Spring 2004

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Thomas Wolfe's The Right Stuff describes the heroic nature of men involved in flight and space programs, and their daily battle with death to preserve the "right stuff." Wolfe, as the title suggests, highlights the concept of the "right stuff," the essence of heroism and perfection, which qualifies pilots and astronauts in their missions and flights. The hero that Wolfe presents in his nonfiction work teeters on the boundaries of life and death, risking his life to break records and bring pride to war-inflicted America. The seven astronauts presented in The Right Stuff risk their lives for America, struggling to uphold America's prestigious and superior status against the challenging Soviets. Wolfe examines the individual stories of the seven men, yet it is John Glenn's image that lingers in America's mind. Glenn exemplifies heroism, yet also provides America with an image of patriotism and perfection. Glenn, a hero, communicates to the masses. His smile, presence, patriotic speeches and ideals saturate America with patriotism and elevate his heroic status. The individual communication of John Glenn allows America to learn of the seven brave men, but the media also reveals their stories. Life magazine undertakes the task of publishing the stories of these seven men and their families, instantly elevating their heroic status. The presence of the press and media within Wolfe's work cannot be ignored; Life begins to tell the tale of these astronauts before they even enter space to perform heroic feats. They become heroes instantly, whether they deserve this status or not. America begins to see the heroic astronauts through Glenn.

The guy had the halo turned on at all times! Glenn had all the verbal skills that Gus lacked, and yet he didn't seem glib or smooth about it...he had beamed that freckled smile on TV and just charmed the hell out of everybody...Glenn, who was sitting here next to him painting some gaddamned amazing picture of the Perfect Pilot wrapped up in a cocoon of House & Hearth and God & Flag. [91]

His ability to communicate to America through press conferences, interviews, and his smile alone, aroused jealousy with his peers.

Each of them had an eye on Glenn, all right. Glenn's own personal conduct was a constant reminder of what the game was really all about. [103]

Glenn's heroic status sets a standard for his peers. They struggle to obtain the same status achieved by Glenn, yet, despite their valiant and near perfect efforts, they are unable. Even Schirra, who completes a "textbook flight" with utmost precision,cannot compete with the smiling, personable Glenn. What delineates Glenn from the rest of the astronauts? His communication skills threaten the other astronauts, but why? Is this an issue of pride and being able to acknowledge one's faults?

In Carlyle's On Heroes and Hero-Worship, he describes Shakespeare's power with words and communication.

How much in Shakespeare lies hid; his sorrows, his silent struggles known to himself; much that was not known at all, not speakable at all: like roots, like sap and forces working underground! Speech is great; but Silence is greater. [p108]

Does Glenn silently communicate? Carlyle emphasizes Shakespeare's quiet struggles and his internal sufferings. Is Glenn too candid about his personal life and beliefs? Is Glenn successful because he does not merely participate in a scientific and technological world but incorporates the personal?

What role does the media play in the creation of heroes, with Glenn and the other astronauts? Why does the government view the media interaction with the astronauts as potentially threatening? Is there a connection between the media and the silence suggested by Carlyle?

Carlyle also speaks of the formula which heroes must follow in order to successfully communicate their inspirational messages.

Are not all dialects "artificial"? Artificial things are not false;-nay every true Product of Nature will infallibly shape itself; we may say all artificial things are, at the starting of them, true. What we call "Formulas" are not in their origin bad; they are indispensably good. Formula is method, habitude; found wherever man is found. Formulas fashion themselves as Paths do, as beaten Highways, leading towards some sacred or high object, whither many men are bent. Consider it. One man, full of heartfelt earnest impulse, finds-out a way of doing somewhat, -- were it of uttering his soul's reverence for the Highest, were it but of fitly saluting his fellow man. [p.180]

Is NASA a ground for such formulas with their schedule flights, checklists, and predetermined programs? Are they merely placing men on the formula to success and heroic status? How do Glenn or Yaeger fit or dispel this sense of formula?

Is there a difference between Carlyle's concept of predestined heroism, where men are called upon to sing the songs of inspiration and enlightenment, and Wolfe's pilots and astronauts? Carlylye focuses on the artistic man, while Wolfe highlights men involved in a technological and scientific world. How does this construe different images of heroism?


Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

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