John Glenn and The Hero as Prophet

Lauren Smith MA '05, English 156 (Victorians and Moderns), Brown University, Spring 2004

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Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff tells the heroic tale of the first seven astronauts selected by NASA to embark on "Project Mercury," North America's answer to the Soviet space program. Complementing the personal histories of the astronauts with technical descriptions of their flight equipment, Wolfe's journalistic-novel presents a gripping tale of these larger-than-life pioneers of space travel. From the get-go, he depicts these men as the chosen few, the elite ace flyers who aspired to nothing less than "control of the heavens" (54). A stand-out in his biographic accounts, Wolfe's profile of John Glenn reveals the qualities necessary to "climb the pyramid" and defy all odds against him, even death itself. Glenn's airtight Presbyterian faith constitutes a particular brand of heroism, one which earns him the name of "the flying monk" (105). Moreover, his earnest pursuit of "clean living" and a formidable flying record strongly evoke the Hero as Prophet depicted in Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History".

Like Muhammad, Glenn comes from a non-metropolitan background (the country) and does everything with sincerity and a clean conscience. Also like Muhammad, his behavior and beliefs are sometimes received with discouraging opposition. However, Glenn differs in one important aspect from Carlyle's selfless, un-conceited hero: he is decidedly ambitious and self-conscious of his desire for greatness. Although at first his religious faith seems to simply inspire confidence, it becomes apparent that Glenn's Presbyterianism actually fuels his egotism. Glenn's self-assured pursuit of glory contrasts Carlyle's representation of Muhammad's more organic path towards greatness. Although Muhammad was also "appointed by Nature" and he is just as sincere as Glenn, he did not see himself as aspiring to a "career of ambition" (Carlyle 54). The passage below explains Glenn's perception of his faith, providing important points of contrast with Muhammad's life as a prophet.

There was no contradiction whatsoever between the 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. In a away, Presbyterianism was tailor-made for people who intended to make it in this world, as well as on the Plains of Heaven; which was a good thing, because John Glenn, with his sunny round freckled country-boy face, was as ambitions as any pilot who had ever hauled his happy burden of self-esteem up the pyramid. [106]

Discussion Questions

How might we compare this passage to Carlyle's statement, "While others walk in formulas and heresays, contented enough to dwell there, this man could not screen himself in formulas; he was alone with his own soul and the reality of things" (54)? Is John Glenn walking in a formula? Is he any less of a hero because of his self-conscious ambition? Is his awareness of his ambitions, his "invisible ego," in conflict with his Christian faith, which presumably teaches humility and selflessness?

Glenn may be elected by God to conquer space, but, as this passage suggests, his success appears both notional and preexistent; the Presbyterian faith was "tailor-made" to facilitate his almost pre-destined rise to success. If he possesses "the right stuff," that inborn essence of the true hero, then does his faith secure him a place among history's giants? In other words, how does Wolfe link destiny, faith, and heroism? How is Glenn's election by God different from Muhammad's? How can we compare their awareness of their divine appointments?

Wolfe writes that Glenn's sincerity is a sign that he has the "right stuff." When others ridicule him for exercising above and beyond the norm, for instance, Glenn persists because "he happened to be completely sincere in the way he was going about this thing" (106). How does Glenn's sincerity differ from Muhammad's sincerity, which "does not call itself sincere" (45)?

Do Wolfe and Carlyle see a connection between Glenn and Muhammad's humble beginnings in the country/nature? How do these men's origins outside urban centers shape their future heroism?


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