Tumult in the Clouds

Lindbergh Alone

by Brendan Gill
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 216 pp., $11.95

Charles Lindbergh
Charles Lindbergh; drawing by David Levine

Lindbergh Alone is a hard book to read. True, sentences parse, and Brendan Gill’s prose runs smoothly. But what makes the book hard to read is that it is unclear what the book is about. It is about Lindbergh, of course, but what about him?

The book, the physical book itself, leads one to expect a piece of nostalgia produced for the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Lindbergh’s flight to Paris. The front of the dust jacket has the young pilot in breeches standing before his silver, single-winged plane, the “Spirit of St. Louis,” with the epochal date, May 21, 1927, dramatically circled in red. The back cover reproduces the front page of the Sunday New York Times, May 22, which announced the news in a triple banner headline, with every story on the page related to the flight. The end papers in faded sepia reproduce the commemorative ten-cent “Lindbergh Air Mail” stamp, with the “Spirit of St. Louis” midway on its course between the new world and the old, dwarfing both continents.

Inside, one finds 216 cream-colored pages, heavily leaded, spacious margins; no table of contents, no chapter headings, no bibliography, no index, only a last page of “photo credits.” The photographs are unnumbered; according to the jacket there are eighty-six. The first is a double-page spread of the muddy airstrip, Roosevelt Field, Long Island, little more than a cleared pasture. The last, though, is not of Le Bourget airport in Paris (that gets its spread on pp. 148-149), but a snapshot of a small boy intently poling a rickety, homemade raft along a river. What is the connection between Lindbergh alone with his plane and the young boy alone on his raft?

Brendan Gill of course did not design the book. But the same questions trouble his text. How are we to understand Lindbergh? His flight? Why should the technological triumph of the machine over the laws of nature evoke, nostalgically, the image of a simple uncomplicated past in harmony with the world of nature?

Our historical memory tends to repress the fact that the Atlantic was not unconquered when Lindbergh flew; dirigibles, seaplanes, even a heavier-than-air land plane eight years before, in 1919, had flown the Atlantic. But since the moment of his flight, the dominant theme in the ecstatic response of Americans has been that Lindbergh did it alone: Lindbergh, Alone. Lindbergh was compared at the time to the independent and self-sufficient heroes of history, his feat the triumph of a single man’s will. He was “the young Lochinvar who came out of the West and flew all unarmed and all alone.” A tag from Kipling was a favorite: “He travels the fastest who travels alone.” The National Geographic Society, when it presented a medal to Lindbergh, had written on the scroll: “Courage, when it goes alone, has ever caught men’s imaginations.” According to one popular…

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