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The Right Stuff ()

National Book Award: Non-Fiction

    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.


Grade: (A+)


Tom Wolfe Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Tom Wolfe
    -INDEX: Tom Wolfe (Harper's)
    -INDEX: Tom Wolfe (Esquire)
-ESSAY: Tom Wolfe Appreciates "Studs Lonigan" (Tom Wolfe, Top Ten Books)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Studs Terkel and Tom Wolfe discuss architecture and Wolfe's book, From Bauhaus to Our House (Studs Terkel Radio Archive, BROADCAST: Nov. 16, 1981)
    -ESSAY: The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Tom Wolfe, Esquire)
    -ESSAY: The Marvelous Mouth of Cassius Clay: The year before he became Muhammad Ali forever, legendary writer Tom Wolfe spent a week and a half with the legend (Tom Wolfe, Esquire)
    -ESSAY: The Birth of ‘The New Journalism’; Eyewitness Report (Tom Wolfe, New York)
    -ESSAY: Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s (Tom Wolfe, New York)
    -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 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)
    -ESSAY: Stalking the billion-footed beast: A literary manifesto for the new social novel (Tom Wolfe, Harper's)
    -ESSAY: THE LAST AMERICAN HERO IS JUNIOR JOHNSON. YES! (Tom Wolfe, 3/01/1965, Esquire)
    -AUDIO: The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!
-PODCAST: The Wolfe in the White Suit (w/ Osita Nwanevu): Writer Osita Nwanevu joins to discuss the life and work of novelist and "new journalist" Tom Wolfe. (Know your Enemy, 7/05/24)
-ESSAY: The Electric Kool-Aid Conservative Tom Wolfe was no radical. (Osita Nwanevu/January 5, 2024, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: Why does no one write like Tom Wolfe any more?: In a polarised culture, appetite for the late writer’s brand of wry conservative satire has waned – and he is partly to blame. (Nick Burns, 12/28/23, New Statesman)
    -TRIBUTE: The Statustician!:Tom Wolfe was death on intellectual pretension, and he mocked those who always sought out the worst in America. (JOSEPH EPSTEIN, May 24, 2018, Weekly Standard)
    -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: The author in full: Tom Wolfe: Wolfe excelled at capturing human foibles and petty vanities; anything deeper than that escaped him (Chilton Williamson, Jr., 11/11/20, The Spectator)
    -INTERVIEW: Tom Wolfe on how speech made us human (Steve Heilig, March 16, 2008, SF Gate)
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr.: Tom Wolfe and The Painted Word (Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr., Episode S0191, Recorded on July 9, 1975)
    -PROFILE: The Ice Cream Man with the Clean White Suit (Alex Belth, The Stacks Reader)
    -EXCERPT: Wolfe and Breslin and the Birth of New York Magazine (Richard Kluger, From The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune)
    -ESSAY: Tom Wolfe: The Satirist Whose Wit Hardened into Contempt 1930-2018 (KEVIN BAKER, December 30, 2018, Politico)
-ESSAY: Bush's Official Reading List, and a Racy Omission (ELISABETH BUMILLER, 2/07/05, NY Times)
-ESSAY: Against De-Materialization: Tom Wolfe in the Age of NFTs (Julia Friedman and David Hawkes, 09 Mar 2022, Quillette)
    -ESSAY: ‘Radical Chic’: Still Cringey After All These Years: Like author Tom Wolfe's caustic take in 1970, radicalism is being cultivated today in the best penthouses and corporate suites. (JAMES PINKERTON, 6/10/20, American Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of The Purple Decades: A Reader by Tom Wolfe (James Walcott, NY Review of Books)
    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,
    -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)
-REVIEW: of The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe (Andrew Zwart, Books & Culture)


    -REVIEW: of Radical Wolfe (Stephen Silver, Splice Today)
    -REVIEW: of Radical Wolfe, directed by Richard Dewey (John Tierney, City Journal)
    -ESSAY: Tom Wolfe’s Worldview Came Into Focus In New York (Christopher Bonanos, September 2023, Vulture)
    -PODCAST: Richard Dewey, John Tierney: Discussing the New Tom Wolfe Documentary (City Journal: 10 Blocks podcast, 9/15/23)
    -FILM REVIEW: Radical Wolfe (Titus Techera, Religion & Liberty)
    -TV REVIEW: Less Than Half ‘A Man in Full’: One of US television’s most experienced and talented writers has made a mess of Tom Wolfe’s second novel. (Kevin Mims, 13 May 2024, Quillette)

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)
    -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
    -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
    -TRUBUTE: When Chuck Yeager Caught the Demon: The legendary pilot who first broke the sound barrier died yesterday at age 97. (WARD CARROLL, DECEMBER 8, 2020, The Bulwark)