Authenticity and The Right Stuff

Paul Merrylees, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

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In Tom Wolfe's 1980 bestseller, The Right Stuff, he creates for his readers a panoramic, continually unfolding image of the entry by the United States into the age of rocket-powered jet fighters and rudimentary space-flight, and of the heroic men who made it happen: the men with the right stuff. The book is a narrative by one glib, gigantic voice that encompasses the various dialects and pet-phrases of the nation as it describes the people involved with and the events leading up to America's first forays into outer space. This voice seems detached, aloof, above or beyond-it all, and almost omniscient as it conjures up one episode after the next with near-cinematic intensity, suggesting with its sweeping gestures and its seemingly perfect-pitch rendering of situation after situation, a kind of total knowledge. Wolfe describes the press conference to announce the results of the selection process for the Mercury mission as if he were Gus Grissom, one of the astronauts who has been chosen to ride the rocket:

When Betty gave birth to their first child, Scott, Gus was at an important part in his flight training and couldn't get to Indiana for that, either. He gets on the phone and says to her: "Well, you tell me what you really want me to do"...and she says "Well, I guess you ought not to interrupt your training." In fact, he didn't quite manage to see his first child until six months later. Now, that sort of thing could happen in the service, because a fellow could get sent overseas at a moments notice. But he, Gus, hadn't been sent anywhere except down the road to Arizona . . .

Then the air force did send him overseas, to Korea, and Betty went back to Indiana again. Korea! He loved it! ...He wanted to stay there! But the bastards made him come back. Somehow he and Betty managed to get by through all this. He gruffed a lot of Hoosier gus gruffisms at her and she gruffed some back at him . . .

How different was he from the other pilots at this table, if the truth were known -- except for this unbelieveable Marine, Glenn, who was sitting here next to him painting some goddamned amazing picture of the Perfect Pilot wrapped up in a cocoon of Home & Hearth and God & Flag!

Throughout this passage, Wolfe uses a number of techniques to draw you in and to make you feel as if you were in fact in the presence of Grissom, not just hearing a report about his character or his actions. He puts sentiments that are ostensibly Gus' into the narrative, remarking how "the bastards made him come back" from Korea when "he wanted to stay there!", and on "this unbelievable Marine, Glenn." Is the picture that emerges in any substantive way faithful to Grissom, or to Glenn? Does Wolfe merely create caricatures of these people?

When Wolfe mixes formulations like "Home & Hearth" and "God & Flag" (complete with ampersands!) with his exposition of a real person's point of view, does it convey some judgemental orientation toward what he is describing? Does Wolfe throw these bits of American culture in for ornamentation or to communicate something else, such as his own masterfulness as an observer and writer?

Can Wolfe's style be described as authentic? Does he ever actually tell you what he thinks? Does he ever just report the facts?

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Last modified 10 November 2003