Tom Wolfe Repeats Himself

J.D. Nasaw '08, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

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In Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, one defining word is worth a thousand words of description. Wolfe often creates catch phrases and labels that he can use over and over for indefinable qualities. The most salient example is the catch phrase that becomes Wolfe's title. In the following passage, he paradoxically attempts to define a quality that he deems ineffable, then resorts to assigning that quality a label instead.

As to just what this ineffable quality was . . . well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. The idea seemed to be that any fool could do that, if that was all that was required, just as any fool could throw away his life in the process. No, the idea here (in the all-enclosing fraternity) seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment — and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite — and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God. Nor was there a test to show whether or not a pilot had this righteous quality. There was, instead, a seemingly infinite series of testes. A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were on of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even — ultimately, God willing, one day — that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men's eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself. [p. 17]

Wolfe goes on to use the phrase "the right stuff" so much in the book that the reader becomes desensitized and almost sick of hearing the words. Although we have spent the last three hundred or so pages of hearing about a group of men that has the right stuff, it is still somewhat of an ambiguous phrase, and one wonders how easy it would be to find the quality outside of the world of piloting. Phrases and labels are an essential technique of Wolfe's literary palette and personal style. They paint Wolfe as an insider and seem to give a vivid picture of a group of people that no doubt have their own hazily defined lexicon of brotherly slang.


What is the effect of basing an entire book on an indefinable phrase? Does the reader understand the phrase by the end of the book?

Why does Wolfe try to define "the right stuff" even after he has called it an "ineffable quality?" Does it seem that he purposefully leaves the phrase slightly mysterious or is he really incapable of defining it?

Is the reader sick of Wolfe's catch phrases by the end of the book? If so, how does this compare to his use of phrases in a shorter essay like "The Pump House Gang?" If not, how does Wolfe manage to sustain the efficacy of his labels?

Wolfe often repeats sentences as well, such as in this passage:

No reader of Life would have recognized the Deke Slayton who went to the podium in a hotel convention hall to speak to the brotherhood. From the start his tone was defensive. He said he had some "stubborn, frank" comments on the role of the pilot in Project Mercury. There were people in the military, he said, who wondered "whether a college-trained chimpanzee or the village idiot might not do as well in space as an experienced test pilot." (A monkey's gonna make the first flight!) He knew there was that kind of talk going around, and it annoyed him. [p. 149]

Wolfe repeats such parenthetical sayings throughout the novel, seemingly as verbal exclamations to oppose more formal comments. What is the effect of repetition, not just of catch phrases, but also of entire sentences? Do they fit into the context of the passage or are they slightly jarring?


Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.

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Last modified 15 April 2005