The Right Stuff
Class has always been Tom Wolfe’s subject, and I suspect the reason for much of the disfavor in which he is held. In what purports to be an egalitarian society, the existence of class is the secret about which no one speaks. Class indeed was the unacknowledged secret of the Vietnam war, the first conflict in the nation’s history—although I doubt the last—fought by the American version of a Hessian class, a constituency of the dispossessed from the skid rows of the national dream, from the Appalachian hollows and the exhausted farms and the red-lined areas on the urban maps. What is astonishing about the social history of the Vietnam war is not how many people avoided it, but how many could not and did not.
For the past fifteen years, Tom Wolfe has focused his attention on the people who did not fight for the American empire. His special interest has been the aristocracies of the self-made, of surfers and dopers and car customizers, of Felicia and Leonard Bernstein, whom he seemed to see as the first moonwalkers of radical chic. For all his talk about journalism and New Journalism, much of it self-serving, Wolfe has never really been a journalist. Nor is it meaningful to call him, as Dwight Macdonald did, a “para-journalist.” Reporting to him has always been a means to a very personal, even unique end. The novelists he admires—Balzac, Zola, Dickens*—were writers who went out and reported—a socially correct funeral, say, for Balzac, the infamous Yorkshire boarding schools for Dickens—and distilled their findings into fiction. Theirs was the method Wolfe adopted, but not as a novelist. It is perhaps closest to call him an anthropologist who writes, using reported fact to contemplate the culture and its classes, to note marginal differences in station and distinction.
To Wolfe’s detractors, this is a frivolous enterprise in a world under siege from forces, natural and otherwise, gone out of control. This is the same set of mind that derogates the soft sections of The New York Times—“Living” and “Home” and “Weekend”—as frivolous, entirely overlooking the possibility that the mere presence of these sections suggests at least as much about the society as all those endless column inches on the energy crisis or the opinions on Teddy punched out three times a week by the grandees on the Op-Ed page. The clues to a culture are in its style, and Wolfe has always been a creature of style.
As if to make this point unavoidable, he took unto himself a style. There were the white suit and the white socks with clocks and the hat that looked as if it had been lifted from the head of a Marseille gangster. There was the complexion as pale as a loaf of stale Wonder bread. In fact he looked like nothing so much as a male Edith Sit-well. He used language not to explain but to distort, to create an illusion, a kind of verbal impressionism, each paragraph a fun-house mirror. “At about the age of thirteen, as I recall,” he said at the Hopwood lecture he gave in 1978 at the University of Michigan, “I became intrigued by words that began with ‘j.’ They looked marvelous to me. ‘Jaded.’ ‘Jejune.’ I didn’t even know how to pronounce ‘jejune’; in fact, to this day I have never heard anyone use the word in conversation, but I put it in every chance I had…. Pretty soon it became a noun as well as an adjective. ‘The jaded jejune of his hopes,’ that sort of thing, and finally it became a verb as well. People were jejuning each other all over the place….”
Worse yet, this parvenu refused to be a recipient of received wisdom, another clone of the liberal consensus. Wolfe was a southerner not burdened by his southernness, a southerner who did not wish, as Elizabeth Hardwick, another southerner, once said she wished, to become a New York Jewish intellectual. The New York Jewish Intellectual, however, did not escape his attention, and he was not above doing a little jejuning about the New York Jewish Intellectual’s habitat. “His is an apartment of a sort known as West Side Married Intellectual,” he wrote in “Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine.” “The rooms are big, the layout is good, but the moldings, cornices, covings, and chair rails seem to be corroding. Actually they are merely lumpy from too many coats of paint over the decades, and the parquet sections of the floor have dried out and are sprung loose from one another…. The building has a doorman but no elevator man, and on Sundays the door is manned by a janitor in gray khaki work clothes….”
With that same cold eye, Wolfe fastened on the new elites of the social frontier. Whatever the endeavor out there on the social ne plus ultra, there were those who did it better, who had the right stuff, the ineffable quality of excellence. Baby Jane Holzer, the girl of the year, was one with Big Daddy Ed Roth, the car customizer, and they were both one with Phil Spector, the first tycoon of teen, and with the margraves and margravines of radical chic. Always Wolfe was interested in why the cream rose to the top. That the stuff may have curdled and soured was of little interest to him. He was an anthropologist who had not lost faith in his method. The tensile strength of molybdenum and the color of the copy paper at The New Yorker were for him of equal importance. Why did things work? That was always Wolfe’s question.
This mechanical engineer of class had the ability to infuriate, to drive otherwise sane and sensible people clear around the bend. Renata Adler once seriously considered pouring a can of tomato soup over Wolfe’s head during a symposium at which they were both panelists, but reticence prevailed over Dada intentions. (Years later I asked Renata Adler how she had proposed to open the can. She replied matter-of-factly that she had a can opener in her bag along with the can.)
The question remains why Wolfe was like catnip to so many people. There was of course his instinct for self-promotion, the screeds about the New Journalism and the Death of the Novel. And then he did poach on the sacred burial grounds of The New Yorker. And he was in no small part responsible for the social devaluation of the Black Panther Party. But all these social irritants beg the question. The answer is, I think, simple: Wolfe has never sought a passport, visa, or green card into the literary life. He was an outsider and content to remain one. There lately has been an attempt on the part of his more antic admirers to cloak him in the mantle of an American Céline, an attempt both wrong and misguided. Tom Wolfe is unique. He is also very good.
Which brings us to The Right Stuff.
In The Right Stuff, Wolfe observes the most rarefied aristocracy of all, that flying fraternity that has skipped through the sound barrier into space, the men who circumnavigated and finally walked on the moon. Theirs was a style he found transcendent, and from it he concocted a theory that bravery can only flourish in a social milieu or context where there is no honorable alternative to it. “Not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life…any fool can do that.” No: the bravery that enables a man to sit in a metal firecracker, a roman candle with 367,000 pounds of thrust—and do it again and again and again “with an uncritical willingness to face danger.” This truly was “the ineffable quality,” the right stuff.
The metaphysics here get a little misty, since, for Wolfe. Baby Jane Holzer and Big Daddy Ed Roth and Phil Spector and Felicia and Leonard Bernstein also had some ineffable quality, the right stuff, but it had to do with style, not bravery. It is on the special style of the astronauts’ bravery where Wolfe is most precise, for there he is on that social turf where he has staked his claim. The high priests of the right stuff were the test pilots from whose numbers most of the original astronauts were drawn. They were unknown and underpaid, at peace in a world whose “holy coordinates” were “Flying & Drinking” and “Drinking & Driving” and, when the little woman had her back turned, “Driving & Balling.” Wolfe puts everything in its slot, the low pay and the hardscrabble bases and the military housing furnished with the detritus of overseas tours. There is the officer who knocks on the door after a husband has crashed, “a pillar of coolness…bearing the bad news on ice, like a fish.” There is Charles Yeager, the personification of the right stuff, the first man to break the sound barrier, and he did it with ribs broken in a drunken midnight horseback ride a few days before the flight, and no, he did not bother to tell the flight surgeon, that would have been the wrong stuff.
Wolfe describes it all, even death, with relish. “Burned beyond recognition” was the “artful euphemism” for a pilot who had “crunched” or “augered in,” for a body that looked
like an enormous fowl that has burned up in a stove, burned a blackish brown all over, greasy and blistered, fried, in a word, with not only the entire face and all the hair and the ears burned off, not to mention all the clothing, but also the hands and feet, with what remains of the arms and legs bent at the knees and elbows and burned into absolutely rigid angles, burned a greasy, blackish brown…this ornamentum of some mother’s eye…reduced to a charred hulk with wings and shanks sticking out of it.
It did not seem to matter to these aristocrats that the Navy’s actuaries had figured that, given twenty years of military flying with no combat, the chances of a fatal crash were one in four. In their gospel, “the figures were averages, and averages applied only to those with average stuff.” Out there on the salt flats and high desert and low rent coastal barrens where planes were tested, the isolation engendered a certain Junkers mentality. “They looked upon themselves as men who lived by higher standards of behavior than civilians, as men who were the bearers and protectors of the most important values of American life…who maintained a sense of honor while civilians lived by opportunism and greed….”
It was to these few of the test-pilot fraternity that the call went for volunteers for the Mercury program in 1959. Sputnik was in the air, and so was panic: the phrases “national extinction” and “a race for survival” were abroad in the land. “The Communists,” said Lyndon Johnson, the Senate majority leader, “have established a foothold in space.” Those picked for the Mercury program would in effect be American kamikazes who would blast the Russians from that foothold—kamikazes because the sad and public fact was that out test rockets kept blowing up in the launch pad, live and in living color.
Many test pilots were skeptical of the whole enterprise, not because of the danger, but because each Mercury mission commander would essentially be a “lab rat,” not a pilot, controlled by scientists and engineers on the ground; a “redundant component,” or what the pilots called “Spam in a can.”
An experienced zombie would do just fine. In fact considerable attention had been given to a plan to anesthetize or tranquillize the astronauts, not to keep them from panicking, but just to make sure they would lie there peacefully with their sensors on and not do something that would ruin the flight…. There was very little action that an astronaut could take in a Mercury capsule, other than abort the flight and save his own life. So he was not being trained to fly the capsule. He was being trained to ride in it.
To the true possessors of the right stuff, who perhaps lacked a sense of history, whatever their moxie, this was “a Larry Lightbulb scheme,” a job for the second team. On the whole the top test pilots did not volunteer for Mercury. In some inchoate way, the fliers who did volunteer had that sense of history, the sense that their predecessors who had broken the sound barrier were “already the old guys, the eternal remember-whens.” The volunteers were rigorously tested, physically and psychically, probed and prodded and scanned. When their sperm needed to be counted, they conjured up breasts and pudenda and belted their members for the United States of America. Their rebellion took the form of a Mexican dinner the night before a stool analysis, which the next morning produced a bolus as hard as a moon rock, studded with jalapeño pepper seeds, neatly tied with a bow.
It is with the seven who were finally chosen—Carpenter, Cooper, Glenn, Grissom, Schirra, Shepard, and Slayton—that Wolfe is at his best. John Glenn set the tone for the seven at the first press conference: God-fearing, family-loving, my country ‘tis of thee. However bewildering this characterization might have seemed to the others (Gordon Cooper was separated from his wife and Virgil Grissom was hard put to find the odd weekend to spend at home; Alan Shepard was probably a “stone atheist”), they were quick enough to see that the “halo effect” was what the public wanted, and halos were what the public was going to get.
The press—“that last Victorian Gent”—was more than willing to go along; there was an uneasy feeling that the seven were a suicide squad in the space race, that year’s moral equivalent of war. Life coughed up $500,000 (the moral equivalent here was Charles Lind-bergh selling his story to The New York Times prior to his Paris run), and the photograph of the astronaut’s wives on the magazine’s cover perfectly defined the terms preferred by the press. “Life had retouched the faces of all of them practically down to the bone. Every suggestion of a wen, a hickie, an electrolysis line, a furze of mustache, a bag, a bump…a rogue cilia of hair…had disappeared in the magic of photo retouching.” Marge Slayton’s divorce seemed to vanish from the record and Annie Glenn’s “ferocious jackhammer” stammer filtered through the machine as “a hesitation in her speech.” For the astronauts and their families, there would be no “zits, hickies, whiteheads, blackheads, goopheads, goobers, pips, acne trenches, boil volcanoes, candy-bar pustules….”
In short, the astronauts were in hog heaven, and I can think of no writer in America better equipped than Wolfe to describe hog heaven. There they were, lionized as few pilots in history had been lionized, “beamed upon by every sort of congressman, canned-food distributor, Associated Florists board chairman, and urban renewal speculator, not to mention the anonymous little cookies with their trembling little custards who simply materialized around you at the Cape.” The rule at Cape Canaveral was no wives. Instead there were Werner von Braun’s Germans “pummeling the piano…and singing the ‘Horst Wessel Song.”’ And the girls, “with stand-up jugs and full sprung thighs and conformations so taut and silky that the very sight of them practically pulled a man into the delta of priapic delirium,” toting up the astronauts like notches on a gun.
John Glenn was not amused. He called the others together and told them that with all America watching they had best keep clear of that delta of delirium; Alan Shepard told him to buzz off, not to foist his Sunday School piety on them. At best, behind their public mask of civility, the astronauts were like seven warring nations at a peace conference, and most found John Glenn a little hard to take. He was the favorite of the press, the media’s “likely choice” to make the first flight, all those freckles and the Tom Sawyer face covering up “four centuries of dissenting Protestant fervor.” He took to the PR and the politicking, even to the point of trying to get Alan Shepard kicked off the first Mercury mission and replaced by himself. He hit the road like an evangelist, gladhanding every spacecraft supplier, and when he got home he would “write cards to workers he had met on the assembly line, giving them little ‘attaboys,’ as if they were all in this together, partners in the great adventure, and he, the astronaut, would never forget his, the welding inspector’s, beaming mug.”
No one has described the new career military so well as Wolfe: the resentful wives, the low pay, the sniffing after perks and goodies, the sense of living not in a house but in housing. At Cocoa Beach, Virgil (“Gus”) Grissom and Donald (“Deke”) Slayton “in their BanLon shirts and baggy pants…reminded you…of those fellows from the neighborhood…as they head off to the Republic Auto Parts store for a set of shock absorber pads so they can prop up the 1953 Hudson Hornet on some cinderblocks and spend Saturday and Sunday underneath it beefing up the suspension.”
John Kennedy shows up to co-opt the astronauts, for all the world acting as if Camelot materialized the moment Alan Shepard splashed down safely. Lyndon Johnson sits in a limousine calling his aides “pansies, cows, gladiolas,” because they can’t get him and the TV boys in to see Annie Glenn, this housewife, and the reason Annie Glenn will not let the vice-president in is her ferocious jackhammer stammer; she has this storehouse of phrases for public occasions—“Of course” and “Certainly” and “I think so” and “Wonderful”—and after that her face contorts and her tongue is an obstacle course and not even for Lyndon Johnson will she implode over three networks. Even Sally Rand, as if fresh from the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, turns up to strip for the astronauts at a noontime July 4th cookout and cocktail party for 5,000 in Houston, her flesh “looking like the meat of a casaba melon in the winter,” the Virgin Mary of hog heaven shaking “her ancient haunches…in an absolutely baffling blessing over it all.”
This is ripe stuff, the right stuff, you might say, and it has about as much to do with space as Wolfe’s Panthers piece had to do with civil rights. Wolfe is interested in these astronauts for the same reason he was interested in the Bernsteins and in the surfers and in Baby Jane Holzer and in Big Daddy Ed Roth: because they had a panache, a style that, in the case of the astronauts, gave meaning to the low pay and the fiberboard walls. Wolfe has allowed, in an interview in The Washington Post, an essential lack of interest in space itself, and this is clear when he is dealing with the unedited transcripts of flight. His gift depends upon observation, and when he is forced to rely on research he is like a predator without his teeth. He gums the transcripts down, all but un digested; the flights pile atop one another, one barely distinguishable from the next. Alan Shepard needs to urinate and is forced to do it in his space suit. Virgil Grissom loses his capsule. John Glenn zips into orbit and it is tactless to mention that Yuri Gagarin did it first. Scott Carpenter comes down 250 miles off course and is effectively eighty-sixed from the program. A heart murmur scrubs Deke Slayton, Walter Schirra is perfect, and Gordon Cooper’s mission is hairy. It begins to seem like one long countdown; hypoxia sets in.
The problem is compounded when Wolfe leaves hog heaven and heads for the real one, when he starts to get mystical about the nature of bravery, invoking God and humanity. Wolfe always has had difficulty with abstractions. His style begins to scratch and strain when he goes after the mystical High C. It is as if he does not trust his eye, as if he must invest his findings with an importance, an Ultimate Truth, beyond what they need to carry. What the right stuff really is, finally, is the Code of the West decked out in a bubble helmet and a space suit, Johnny Ringo at 125,000 feet.
It is an “I’ve-got-it-you-haven’t” conditioned response, one-upmanship at Mach 3, 4, and 5; a style, but not a transcendent one. “Courage” and “heroism” and “the nation’s need for heroes” are abstractions, and all the abstractions provide here is a somewhat rickety frame on which Wolfe can hang his observations on the details of class and style and the marginal differences of excellence. It is in the details, not the abstractions, that Wolfe finds his subject, and it is one that he owns.
As expressed in the 1978 Avery Hop-wood Lecture at the University of Michigan, delivered extemporaneously without notes and transcribed in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 1978.↩
As expressed in the 1978 Avery Hop-wood Lecture at the University of Michigan, delivered extemporaneously without notes and transcribed in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 1978.↩