"A Good Presbyterian:" Religion and Heroism in Wolfe

Felicity Rose '06, English 156 (Victorians and Moderns), Brown University, Spring 2004

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What makes a hero? In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe explores the process of becoming a national hero through the story of the Mercury astronauts, a group of seven men chosen to be the first Americans into space. The moment these men were chosen, without having to lift a finger, they were turned into public idols. One of the seven, John Glenn, led the others in building an image of the astronauts as religious, patriotic and dedicated to their families. Wolfe's expansive narrative suggests that while these qualities were all true of Glenn, the other six men were not as saintly. Were they heroes anyway? Is a hero created by the public that worships him, or is there something inherent in the hero, as Carlyle suggested in his lectures on heroes and hero-worship? Wolfe complicates the simple faith that the public had in these men, yet he doesn't deny the possibility that heroes exist. Instead he presents witty and thorough portraits of the astronauts and other famous pilots of the time, leaving the final judgment up to the reader.

Being a good Presbyterian, John Glenn knew that praying in public was no violation of the faith. The faith even encouraged it; it set a salubrious example for the public. Nor did John Glenn feel the slightest discomfort because now, in post-World War II America, virtue was out of style. Sometimes he seemed to enjoy shocking people with his clean living. Even when he was no more than nine years old, he had been the kind of boy who would halt a football game to read the riot act to some other nine-year-old who said "Goddamn it" or "Aw shit" when a play didn't go right. This was an unusual gesture even where he grew up, which was New Concord, Ohio, but not so extraordinary as it might have been a lot of other places. New Concord was a sort of town, once common in America, whose peculiar origins have tended to disappear in the collective amnesia as tout le monde strives to be urbane. Which is to say, it began as a religious community. A hundred years ago any man in New Concord with ambitions that reached as high as feed-store proprietor or better joined the Presbyterian Church, and some of the awesome voltage of live Presbyterianism still existed when Glenn was growing up in the 1920's and 1930's. His father was a fireman for the B&O Railroad and a good churchgoing man and his mother was a hardworking churchgoing woman, and Glenn went to Sunday school and church and sat through hundreds of interminable Presbyterian prayers, and the church and the faith and the clean living served him well. There was no contradiction whatsoever between Presbyterian faith and ambition, even soaring ambition, even ambition grand enough to suit the invisible ego of the fighter jock. A good Presbyterian demonstrated his election by the Lord and the heavenly hosts through his success in this life. [105-6]


1. How does this passage, and the novel as a whole, treat religion? Is it simply, as the past of New Concord suggests, another way to get ahead? Is it a show? Or is it something of value -- a quality that lifts Glenn above the rest?

2. "A good Presbyterian demonstrated his election by the Lord and the heavenly hosts through his success in this life." How does this sentence relate to Carlyle's idea that all the truly Great Men succeeded in some way? Do heroes have to be successful? What about the idea that Great Men are somehow closer to God?

3. How sympathetic is this passage and the novel to John Glenn? Is Glenn the "one true hero" or simply one of the seven? Does Wolfe suggest a definition of "hero" and if so do any of the pilots/astronauts fit into it?

4. In On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Carlyle claims that insincere worship is the worst sin. Is the Presbyterianism in New Concord insincere? What is the role of ambition in religion/faith in Wolfe and in Carlyle?


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