Tom Wolfe Versus the Great Colonial Animal
Jesse Bull '05, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005
Late the next day they flew Number 61 back to the Cape and Hangar S, where a great mob of reporters and photographers were now waiting out in the compound by the Mercury capsule that had been used for the training. The vets led the ape out of the van. As the mob closed in and the flashbulbs began exploding, the animal — brave little Ham, as he was now known — became furious. He bared his teeth. He began snapping at the bastards. It was all the vets could do to restrain him. This was immediately — on the spot! — interpreted by the press, the seemly Gent, as an understandable response to the grueling experience he had just been through. The vets took the ape back inside the van until he calmed down. Then they led him out again, trying to get him near a mockup of a Mercury capsule, where the television networks had set up cameras and tremendous lights. The reporters and photographers surged forward again, yammering, yelling, exploding more camera lights, shoving, groaning, cursing — the usual yahoo sprawl, in short — and the animal came unglued again, ready to twist the noodle off anybody he could get his hands on. This was interpreted by the Gent as a manifestation of Ham's natural fear upon laying eyes once again on the capsule, which looked precisely like the one that had propelled him into space and subjected him to such severe physical stresses.
The stresses the ape was reacting to were probably of quite another sort. Here he was, back in the compound where they had zapped him through his drills for a solid month. Just two years ago he had been captured in the jungles of Africa, separated from his mother, shipped in a cage to a goddamned desert in New Mexico, kept prisoner, prodded and shocked by a bunch of humans in white smocks, and here he was, back in a compound where they had been zapping him through their fucking drills for a solid month, and suddenly there was a whole new mob of humans on hand! Even worse than the white smocks! Louder! Crazier! Totally out of their gourds! Yammering, roaring, brawling, exploding lights beside their bug-eyed skulls! Suppose they threw him to these assholes!
At some point in the madhouse scene out back of Hangar S, a photograph was taken in which Ham was either grinning or had on a grimace that looked like a grin in the picture. Naturally, this was the picture that went out over the wire services and was printed in newspapers throughout America. Such was the response of the happy chimpanzee to being the first ape in outer space . . . A fat happy grin . . . Such was the perfection with which the Proper Gent observed the proprieties. [pp.176-77]
Like the unhappy chimp, Wolfe says, "
Right Stuff Questions
1. How and why does Tom Wolfe manage to turn this factual simian side of the space program into an effective metaphor?
2. How does Wolfe build an authoritative case against the Gent's assumptions (even while beginning his side of the story with the word "probably")?
3. How do drastic rhythmic changes emphasize Wolfe's thematic points?
4. How does Tom Wolfe's language in scenes such as this establish itself as directly opposed to the "Proper Gent" and, in doing so, help create an aura of superiority or truth?