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The Right Stuff ()


Mr. Doggett's Suggested Summer Reading for Students

    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. . .any fool could do that. . . . No, the
    idea. . .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. . . . There was a seemingly infinite series of tests. . .a dizzy progression of steps and
    ledges. . .a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the
    way up that pyramid that you were one 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.
           -Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff

I don't know whether Tom Wolfe invented New Journalism or merely noticed that it was aborning,  even he would probably credit Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, but he's certainly one of the greatest practitioners and The Right Stuff one of his greatest achievements.  The essence of this "new" writing style was that non-fiction writers would write with a distinct authorial voice and would utilize the techniques of the novel.  Most importantly,  rather than having the story exist solely to convey facts, the facts were to serve the story.  This allowed the writer some license to play with reality a little, as long as the story remained "true" and it allowed the writer to aim for telling big truths, those which would frequently lie beyond the perspective of a conventional story.

All of these innovations are brilliantly on display here.  Every paragraph of the book reeks of Tom Wolfe, from the capitalization of certain concepts (it not just the right stuff, it's The Right Stuff) to the snarky jabs at myriad puffed up targets.  By using the structure of a novel, he gives the story a conceptual coherence that straight reportage might not have offered--thus, he starts with Yeager and the first supersonic jets, then presents the story of the Mercury program, then returns to Yeager and the end of the effort to build jets that would actually have traveled into space.  All of this seems uniquely suited to satire or parody or simply viscious attack, indeed, Wolfe has used the stylistic conventions of New Journalism for just these purposes in books like "Radical Chic" and "Bauhaus to Our House" to brilliant effect.  But an interesting thing happens in The Right Stuff.  Even though we hear that snide voice trying to speak out periodically, Wolfe is so smitten by the jet pilots and astronauts and their wives that he writes about, that these devices are turned on their collective head and they become the accouterments of a kind of conscious, but unabashed, myth making.

In the end, the book becomes a sort of American Ring of the Nibelungen or Iliad.  I remember when  Philip Kaufman's movie version came out, people were a little disconcerted by the stylized story-telling, but it seemed to me that he had handled the material exactly right, like the libretto for a Grand Opera.  As a newish country and a fairly secular one, we don't have many myths or fables (with the notable exception of the Western), but what Tom Wolfe serves up here, is a quintessential American epic, complete with archetypes and leitmotifs and the lot.  By looking back at the "real" events through the lens of his book, we can actually penetrate to truths about our culture and our national character that would not have been apparent in a straightforward history of the Space Program.

This is a great book and Wolfe is one of our greatest writers.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A+)

  

Websites:

Tom Wolfe Links:

    -ESSAY: The Building That Isn't There (TOM WOLFE, 10/12/03, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The Building That Isn't There, Cont'd: One of the most important buildings in the history of 20th-century architecture will soon be vaporized. (TOM WOLFE, 10/13/03, NY Times)
    -AUDIO: A TimesTalks Event: Tom Wolfe (NY Times, 3/08/03)
    -QUESTIONS: Tom Wolfe: Following his participation in the TimesTalks series on March 8, the author answered NYTimes.com readers' questions. (NY Times, April 24, 2003)
    -ESSAY: REVOLUTIONARIES: how the Manhattan Institute changed New York City and America (Tom Wolfe, January 30, 2003, NY Post)
    -ESSAY: Idea Fashions of the Eighties: After Marx, What? (Tom Wolfe, January 1984, Imprimis)
    -PROFILE: Status Reporter: Tom Wolfe's advice: Escape the "parenthesis states" and explore America (JOSEPH RAGO, March 11, 2006, Opinion Journal)
    -INTERVIEW: Mummy Wrap: an interview with Tom Wolfe (George Neumayr, 1/10/2005, American Spectator)
    -ESSAY: Bush's Official Reading List, and a Racy Omission (ELISABETH BUMILLER, 2/07/05, NY Times)
    Modern, All Too Modern: Tom Wolfe's new novel, largely reviewed as a satiric report on the sexual mores of today's college students, is fundamentally about the nature of the human will.: a review of of I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe (S. T. Karnick, Books & Culture)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Tom Wolfe - A Clear Eye for Human Biodiversity (Steve Sailer, January 02, 2005, V-Dare)
    -REVIEW: of I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe (Dana B. Vachon, American Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of I am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe (Ken Masugi, Claremont.org)
    -REVIEW: of I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe (Priya Jain, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe (S. T. Karnick, Books & Culture)

Book-related and General Links:
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: Tom Wolfe (NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: TOM WOLFE, MATERIAL BOY (Rand Richards Cooper, Commonweal)
    -Tom Wolfe: A Man in Full
    -TRIBUTE: Brilliant Careers: Tom Wolfe In  tangerine-flaked praise of the white-suited sprite
 whose electrically charged trochaic hammerlines jolted journalism out of its genteel New Yorker slumber (Cary Tennis, Salon)
    -REVIEW: The Sky Is Our Domain (C. D. B. BRYAN, NY Times)
    -Movie site
    -ESSAY: Disciplines: What do a Jesuit priest, a Canadian communications theorist, and Darwin II all have in common? (Tom Wolfe, Forbes)
    -Article: by TOM WOLFE SORRY, BUT YOUR SOUL JUST DIED (Forbes)
    -Caricature from The Atlantic
    -CBC Interview
    -INTERVIEW (Steve Hammer NUVO Newsweekly)
    -Tom Wolfe: The Satirist of Society (Caitlin Allen, Brighton High School)
    -Creative Nonfiction: Writers and Their Works
    -TOM WOLFE'S NEW JOURNALISM PICKS
    -NEW JOURNALISM by Dave Selden, Jr.
    -Parajournalism II: Wolfe and The New Yorker (DWIGHT MACDONALD, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Right Stuff (USAF site, Eric D. Brown, Capt, USAF)
    -REVIEW:  of A Man in Full (Sven Birkerts, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW of A Man in Full: From he-man to holy man (Salon)
    -REVIEW of Ambush at Fort Bragg (Salon)
    -REVIEW of A Man in Full, The White Stuff (jeffrey eugenides, Voice Literary Supplement)
    -The Birth of Way New Journalism (Joshua Quittner,  HotWired)
    -In Gonzo We Trust: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson as Popular Culture Icon An Essay for Popular Culture: Explorations in Theory and Practice SoSc 4990.06 By: Rev. Dominic Ali for Professor Joe Galbo April. 26, 1993
    -FORUM The Magazine of the Florida Humanities Council: The Space Issue
    -John Glenn, American Hero: The Right Stuff (PBS)
    -Reel Life: Why Sam Shephard has the Right Stuff  by Philip Kaufman (SF Examiner)
    -Space Race: An Exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum
    -From the Earth to the Moon (Companion to the HBO series)
    -NASA History Home Page
    -The National Space Society
    -Space and Flight
    -Space Center Houston
    -Space Daily
    -Space Today
    -etext SPACE EXPLORATION:  FROM TALISMAN OF THE PAST TO GATEWAY FOR THE FUTURE© John F. Graham

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