Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff and the idea of the Hero

Zoe Ripple '05, English 156 (Victorians and Moderns), Brown University, Spring 2004

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In the passages below, Tom Wolfe describes the heroes of "single combat," a "forgotten term" of old used to describe unusually brave men called upon to represent their armies and cultures in battle. Practiced in ancient China, written about in Old Testament stories and found in stories about Mohammed, single combat is grounded in both magical traditions and the realities of war: that single combat is found in so many different cultures indicates a universal desire among human beings to create and nominate great, heroic men. Wolfe indicates that seeking out heroes is a universal, basic human need, for the press seeks to deify these seven men, though they know not why. This description of these "heroic" men seems to contrast with the intellectual and spiritual heroics that Thomas Carlyle writes of in On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History. Despite their differences, however, both authors privilege a special brand or type of exceptional person, who enjoy "special status" in the world. Both authors speak of the acute need for heroes in the world, as deep thinkers, deep seers, exemplars and protectors

Even so, why was the press aroused to create instant heroes out of these seven men? This was not a question that James Reston or the pilots themselves or anyone at NASA could have answered at the time, because the very language of the proposition had long since been abandoned and forgotten. The forgotten term, left behind in the superstitious past, was single combat . . . . In single combat the mightiest soldier of one army would fight the mightiest soldier of the other army as a substitute for a pitched battle between the entire forces.

Naturally brave lads chosen for single combat enjoyed a very special status in the army and among their people (David was installed in the royal household and eventually superceded Saul's own sons and became king.) They were revered and extolled, songs and poems were written about them, every reasonable comfort and honor was given them, and women and children and even grown men were moved to tears in their presence. [95-97]


Do you get the sense that Wolfe approves of the "heroification" of these seven men?

How does the hero of old compare to the hero now?

How do Carlyle and Wolfe's conceptions of heroes converge or diverge?

What does Wolfe require of the hero, what purpose does the hero serve in this passage, and how does this compare to what Carlyle expects of and explains about the hero?

Although the press does not know the "forgotten term" nor the history of single combat, they make heroes out of the seven men in any case. Wolfe suggests that there is something in human nature that makes us want to create heroes for ourselves and our cultures -- why do we do this, and how has the figure of the hero changed over time?


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

Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe On Heroes and Hero-Worship

Last modified 27 April 2004