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Tom Wolfe, human dignity, and “the right stuff”

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.

(Left) Author Tom Wolfe participates in the White House Salute to American Authors in March 2004 (image via Wikipedia). (Right) The Mercury Seven, photographed in March 1960 (image via flickr.com/nasacommons).

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.

About Titus Techera 7 Articles
Titus Techera is the host of the American Cinema Foundation podcasts, a contributor to Law & Liberty, The Federalist, and National Review, and a grad student of political philosophy.

6 Comments

  1. Chuck Yeager does indeed fit the bill for the ideal Conservative man.

    What concerns me is the assumption that the ideals of Conservative Movement are identical with, and in no conflict with, He Who said “I AM THE WAY, the Truth, and the Life.” Under this compatibilist view, there is just as much greatness and wisdom in the writings of Marcus Aurelius as there is in the writings of the Apostle Paul.

    But the real truth is that most important truths taught by the Apostle Paul are mostly rejected and mocked by Marcus Aurelius. Recognition of this eternal conflict has all been getting lost ever since the great supposed merger between Pagan Conservatism and Christianity (I’ll let the historians debate and decide when this supposed or attempted merger commenced–in the time of Trump, Reagan, Adam Smith, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Hegel, Erasmus, Constantine, or whenever).

    I know that this opinion makes me, and people like me, outsiders and irrelevant to all the key movements of today, a time when Christians are flocking to the self-avowed non-Christian and self-avowed Nietzsche follower, Jordan Peterson, as the greatest teacher of Christianity.

    But once in a while, I feel moved to think that I should say something, “like a voice crying in the wilderness.” Whether is this is just my vanity talking, or something more worthy, the Most High God will decide.

  2. This is a highly intelligent, thoughtful homily on the right stuff embodied in Tom Wolfe’s writing and insights into human nature.

  3. Thanks for writing this article, Titus. I’ve been hoping for a good while that Tom Wolfe had another book in him—a novel, preferably– and now can’t help but wonder if there’s a completed, or near-completed, “next one” that we might still look forward to.

    Tom Wolfe wrote the most mesmerizing chapter in modern literature. If you’ve never read Wolfe’s novel “A Man In Full”, just pick up a copy (say, next time you’re at a Barnes and Noble, or the library, or whatever), start reading at chapter 19 and see if you can stop reading before the chapter ends.

    Titus writes that “Most people are not Chuck Yeager” which, of course, is true. So in chapter 19 of “Full” Wolfe gives us instead the anonymous, slight-of-build, self-doubting, book-reading but very intense early-twentyish new “fish” on the (prison cell-) block, Conrad.

    Warning: you might end up reading chapter 20, too. Wouldn’t be a waste of time.
    And thank you Tom Wolfe for your good work.

  4. To Joel,

    Wolfe did have at least one later book, an account of how much of modern architecture contributes to the destruction of society, the family and all else! See “From Bauhaus to Our House” (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1981). Bauhaus was the post-World War School founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar Germany, before he and others emigrated with the virus to the United States. And so the story begins–celebrated on the book cover-flap for its “high comedy and intellectual excitement.” Glass, concrete, anonymity, corporate image. Near the end Wolfe quotes the post-modern architect, Philip Johnson: “What’s in their minds [members of the typical corporate board] as to what a building is, I’m not quite sure. It’s like saying, ‘THAT is a house!’ when you finally see a saltbox.” Yes, the short book reads like a novel. But you just can’t make this stuff up.

    • Peter,
      Sounds interesting, thanks much. I’ve also enjoyed Wolfe’s non-fiction though I haven’t yet checked out the piece you’re describing. I definitely will. I believe “Back to Blood” is his last novel and I’ve been pining for yet another for—what?— a few years now, I believe. Several months ago, I ran into an avid reader of Wolfe and asked him if there was any news. Turned out, this gentleman like you has a gift for making the complex less complex and had just finished reading Wolfe’s apparently recent labors on linguistics (and Chomsky). Somehow, he made Wolfe’s efforts therein not only semi-understandable but quite fascinating and relevant, as well. Still, any serious work on linguistics would fly far too over my head for me to chug it down straight, so I haven’t gone looking for it. By the way, I much appreciate your article about “Lay Evangelization and ‘the smell of the sheep’”. Might you write an article about ambiguity? Much has been written about “relativism”, as in The Dictatorship of Relativism, etc. Can ambiguity be intrinsically evil? Or not? What is it? Is it related to relativism? Is it in and of itself neutral, so that something that is ambiguous can be “interpreted” willy-nilly as something consistent with the timelessly good and beautiful? Are we living in a Dictatorship of Ambiguity? Is our Church living there? (And I duly apologize for using “whatever” in the comment to which you responded here.)

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