Tom Wolfe has passed away. He was the only conservative novelist to achieve great popularity and a degree of respect in recent years, though not the honors that signal acceptance in the halls of prestige. He was, in truth, the noblest chronicler of the experiments and crisis of American freedom in the latter half of the 20th century, a man equal to the unequal times. He was both a novelist and a journalist, and his most-prized and best-sold book, The Right Stuff, is both history and novel, in a way that recalls ancient writers rather than what’s typical in our times.
Published in 1979, The Right Stuff won Wolfe the National Book Award and was made into a movie nominated for eight Oscars, winning four. This year, the movie reaches its 35th anniversary; next year is the book’s 40th. It is a story about America’s great achievements in space flight in the early years of the Cold War, and a great example of Wolfe’s attempt to teach prudence by poetic means, in storytelling.
A consideration of The Right Stuff is an especially fitting way to remember Wolfe: it is a portrayal of Stoic manliness, reasserting human dignity in the face of political crises and technological changes.
In The Right Stuff, Wolfe offers us two portraits of American manliness that show the principles of American self-government and the necessity for prudence in dealing with the crisis of modern life. It is a long book full of interesting observations, all the more persuasive for being factual, but it will have to suffice to focus on one crucial scene.
Manliness is first portrayed in the person of the romantic cowboy and man of remarkable ambition, Chuck Yeager, who risks his life to set records. The first man to break the sound barrier but never an astronaut, his achievements are bound to be surpassed because of technological progress, but his exemplary striving is unsurpassed. Yeager supplies a standard by which to judge the other pilots, who make up a second, more modern portrait of American manliness.
These are the men of the Mercury space program, who turn to space flight because America herself is turning in that direction. The Cold War competition with the Soviets compelled America to rely on new technology, and thus endangered freedom. The Mercury Seven soon won fawning press coverage, commercial advantages, and political honors the old-school manliness of Yeager did not contemplate.
First apes, then humans fly into space. The Mercury Seven become famous, and then the quarrels start. They split into two factions—one in favor of public responsibility, the other of individual liberty.
The quarrel has its roots in sexual liberation; Wolfe knew a lot about America and the changes it underwent in the 1960s. One of the astronauts is revolted by the knowledge that some of his colleagues are behaving immorally. He ties what we might call his social conservatism to a public duty. Like it or not, the American people look up to the astronauts and have entrusted them with honors they have to live up to, now that they’re in the public eye. That includes their private lives. Another of the group is revolted by this attack on his personal freedom; inasmuch as he is a competent professional, his private life is his own.
As the two factions start fighting, one man points out the real problem: the monkeys. The men are perplexed, but they begin to see that the real problem is how the scientists running the program are treating them—like monkeys. The scientists want to fly rockets and think the astronauts worthless. The pilots had been taken for mere bodies, spectacularly powerful and enduring, but essentially brainless; good for photo-ops with the press, but without any say in their enterprise, though they risked their lives. Scientists, bureaucrats, and politicians were using them, and they could not find a way to say no, because they believed they were serving their country and they were looking forward to great achievements and fame.
The conflict between personal freedom and solidarity are enduring aspects of self-government in America, and it shows itself in the tensions with the Mercury Seven. Though each is free to live as he pleases, each has chosen to dedicate himself to a great enterprise, and there is more freedom in being able to do that than in a restless ignominy. Thus, the astronauts decide to require more control of the rocket: to start with, more knowledge of what’s going on, including during flight. After all, they are not mere bodies, but also have reasoning minds. This is how Wolfe dramatizes the necessary conditions for great achievements—men standing up for their rights, putting mind and body together, discovering, in short, that they are ensouled beings.
Meanwhile, back in California, Yeager notices the rising contempt among his fellow pilots for their former colleagues, who are now astronauts. The most vulgar criticism of the astronauts—that they’re doing the job of monkeys—is voiced by the people who should least be tempted to utter it. This is Yeager’s finest moment. He explains, in one pithy retort, everything about dignity and intelligence implied in the quarrel and the prudent solution to which the astronauts were driven. He tells his friend: “Think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys, they know that, see? Well, I’ll tell you somethin’—it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that’s on TV.”
Yeager shows his nobility in his defense of men who have eclipsed his own fame. Insisting that men be treated like men and not the monkeys technology would have them be, Yeager is standing up for human dignity itself. In some ways, he has been proven replaceable, but manliness itself is still irreplaceable. There is yet room for men in the modern world.
Yeager does not stake his claim to importance simply on a willingness to risk death, which is a very rare quality, but instead on knowledge of mortality and a willingness to risk death for a worthy cause in light of that knowledge—everyone who had served in World War II, as he had, was already included in that understanding of dignity. But so is everyone who risks his life in peace time. So is every woman who gives birth.
Most people are not Chuck Yeager, but we all share this basic requirement of manliness—facing up to mortality. Faced with a temptation to separate himself bitterly from his colleagues and, implicitly, his nation—which admires them now and has forgotten him—he instead prefers to speak in a way that can bring all Americans together.
The book and the movie are both a testament to the importance and utility of having “the right stuff,” but also to the politically problematic character of saying what “the right stuff” might be. These things which apparently cannot be said in America can still be portrayed, and that’s often more persuasive than argument would be, for it speaks to our capacity for admiration before it aims to educate our minds. We can thus learn from Wolfe and repay him with our admiration, justifying his unique fame by a common good he offered all Americans.