Making Heroes in The Right Stuff

Will Goodman '05, 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

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"Alas," Thomas Carlyle lamented, "the hero from of old has had to cramp himself into strange shapes." For the astronauts (John Glenn excluded) who are the subjects of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, the hero role is a strange shape indeed. Wolfe explains how the astronauts are picked out by the government, cleaned up, toned up, and resold by the media as heroes for public adulation, even when the real men are not exactly as advertised. And this hero-making process is not exclusive to the men; their entire families become objects for reverence and consumption. In the following paragraph, Wolfe describes the beginning of the hero images, shaped by Life Magazine's exclusive stories on the first astronauts:

Whether by design or not, Life had seized upon the idea that Luce's fellow Presbyterian John Glenn had put forth in the first press conference: "I don't think any of us could really go on with something like this if we didn't have pretty good backing at home." Pretty good backing? Perfect backing they were going to have: seven flawless cameo-faced dolls sitting in the family room with their pageboy bobs in place, ready to offer any and all aid to the brave lads. There was something crazy about it, but it was marvelous. The week before, in the September 14, 1959, issue, Life had ushered Gus and the other fellows out onto the Pope's balcony with a cover story headlined READY TO MAKE HISTORY that left no doubt whatsoever that these were the seven bravest men and the seven greatest pilots in American history, even if it was necessary to go easy on the details. Now Life was leading Betty and the other wives out onto that balcony. [pp. 124-125]

The Life headline is splendidly ironic: "READY TO MAKE HISTORY." Making history, reforming it to fit the public's liking, is exactly Life's intention for the article. Wolfe uses the metaphor of the Pope on his balcony, giving illustrating the moral and physical sainthood that has been thrown onto the astronauts and their families.

Questions for Discussion

Wolfe opens the first chapter of The Right Stuff with a scene of Jane Conrad, a test-pilot's wife, frantically awaiting news about her husband after an accident at his airbase. Here, he also revisits the behind-the-scenes women who also became objects of adoration with their astronaut husbands. What does this attention to the wives' stories do for Wolfe's narrative? How do we view the astronauts differently as a result of the glimpses into their family lives?

While Life clearly set out to create an image of the astronaut-hero as a moral and physical ideal for 1950s America, Wolfe's purpose in The Right Stuff is very different, instead showing the astronauts as real, flawed, and above all, human. Do you think Wolfe is criticizing hero worship in general, or is he redefining heroes for a new generation and a new social and political context? Would the astronauts be worthy heroes for Carlyle?

Throughout The Right Stuff, Wolfe repeatedly uses the same catch phrases and metaphors, such as "Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving" (e.g. 27, 103 and "Little Indians" (e.g. pp 7, 8, 9). In the paragraph above, Wolfe compares the Life stories to putting the astronauts onto "the Pope's balcony," a metaphor that he introduces on page 103. Why would Wolfe keep coming back to these same phrases and metaphors, even at the risk of sounding redundant? What effect does the repetition have on us as readers?

In this section, the voice of the narrator is highly distinguishable as an outside commentator, but there is never any identification of the narrator's character - there is no "I" in the narration. How does Wolfe convey his ethos as the author without explicitly putting himself into the story? How does his style come across differently from Joan Didion's clear first-person narration in The White Album?


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

Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe Victorian courses

Last modified 13 April 2005