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 magazine, “Charles Lindbergh is the heir of all we like to think is best in America. He is of the stuff out of which have been made the pioneers that opened up the wilderness, first on the Atlantic coast, and then in our great West. His are the qualities which we, as a people, must nourish.”
The public imagination, then and since, was drawing on a rich tradition in American culture, the potentiality of the unaided self, the ideal of individualism. By linking Lindbergh with the American past, the frontier, the world of outer space, opened up by the flight, became inevitably a new frontier. So the long distance flight of an airplane, the achievement of a highly advanced and organized technology, became the occasion of hymns of praise for the solitary and unaided man. And while the American public celebrated the past, by linking Lindbergh with the frontier tradition, it also celebrated the machine which made the flight possible and the modern world it represented. The New York Times wrote at the time, “Lindbergh is the son of that omnipotent Dedalus whose ingenuity has created the modern world.” Modern industry had created a new America. The Times went on: what Lindbergh “means by the Spirit of St. Louis is really the spirit of America. The mechanical genius, which is discerned in Henry Ford as well as in Charles A. Lindbergh, is in the very atmosphere of the country.”
Lindbergh himself emphasized this meaning of his flight by always saying “We.” The plane, the Wright engine, were not to go unnoticed. At a ceremony in Washington, he said the flight was not “the act of a single pilot. It was the culmination of twenty years of aeronautical research and the assembling together of all that was practicable and best in American aviation.” The flight “represented American industry.” The president of the United States agreed. “I am told,” said Calvin Coolidge, “that more than 100 separate companies furnished materials, parts, or service in its construction.” On the day of the fiftieth anniversary, ALCOA took a full-page ad in The New York Times, with “WE” in bold capitals to stress the importance of corporate enterprise in the making of modern America.
The ambivalence one finds in the celebration of Lindbergh pervades his entire life. On one side, the dramatic flight to Paris, the conquest of space by what Lindbergh called “that wonderful motor”; his tour of the country after his flight to Paris, to all forty-eight states, to demonstrate the reliability of aircraft as a mode of travel and communication, its annihilation of traditional attitudes toward time and space; his work with Dr. Alexis Carrel on the transplantation of human organs, the artificial extension of human life through medical technology; his quick recognition and support of Professor Goddard at Clark University and his research on rockets which later led to the devastation of the cities of Europe in World War II, put men on the moon, and now threatens with global disaster the very global community which modern technology has created.
Charles Lindbergh was the creation of, the publicist for, and one of the shapers of technical, interdependent, and advanced industrial society, the world we live in. Yet, on the other side, we have also our memory of Lindbergh as the “lone” eagle, the individualist conquering all obstacles by his will, the child of nature’s woods and streams in Minnesota; the shy and private man who strove increasingly to avoid the public world he helped to create, who turned more and more toward primitive societies and the simplest of things; the aviator who said, if he had to choose between birds and airplanes, he would choose birds; who as a boy had tinkered with motorcycles and machines, and as a man became the ecologist who wished finally to leave civilization behind because, as he said before his death, “I do not want to be a member of the generation that through blindness and indifference destroys the quality of life on our planet.”
Little wonder that Lindbergh has been at the center of the national imagination. His entire life raises central questions for modern America. Will the power of modern technology fulfill the promise of American life, create a world free from pain and degrading labor? Or does a society built upon the power of the machine mean the negation of the individual, the denial of human felicity, the despoliation of the landscape, a world from which even blue whales and the primitive tribes of the Philippines cannot escape?
There are moments in the history of a society when a person, or an event, brings into sharp and dramatic focus the values, the ideals, the aspirations of a people. Lindbergh’s flight was such a moment. Americans projected onto Lindbergh’s flight and his life two contradictory ways of reading the American experience. One view had it that America represented an escape from history and the limitations of organized social life, an emergence into a new and open world with the self-sufficient individual at its center, in a world of nature free from the discipline and restraints of social institutions. The other view had it that America represented progress, the advance of civilization, the further development of organization, the elaboration of the social and economic institutions which make the power of modern society possible.
Of course Lindbergh only dramatized these ways of apprehending American experience, the meaning of American society. But the celebration of Lindbergh, to the degree we are conscious of why we are interested in him, might lead us to understand better the meaning of American society, not just the meaning of Lindbergh’s flight and life.
What makes Lindbergh Alone hard to read is that it lacks a critical point of view, which would allow us to understand what Lindbergh is all about. The first chapter presents a counterpoint between Lindbergh’s flight, “an encounter on the highest pitch of consciousness between an individual with his assortment of hard-won skills and some impersonal, unknowable God in nature,” and the “farce” of modern air travel, as “we sit eating our pale chicken and waxy chocolate mousse, or watching a movie, or merely dozing over the unread pages of a magazine.” The consequence was unforeseen, of course, not Lindbergh’s intention back in those pioneering days of heroic aviation. “Aviation had become big business,” Brendan Gill writes, but he goes on to say that Lindbergh “was himself a part of big business, and yet he was able to maintain the appearance of being separate from it.”
Mr. Gill names the problem but does not pursue it. The same reticence, the unwillingness to press at a problem once defined, pervades the book, most remarkably in its emphasis on Lindbergh “alone.” As in the traditional telling of the tale, Brendan Gill seems to affirm the virtue of the lone hero: “The simplicity and perfection of the flight were thanks in large part to the fact that it was the handiwork of a single man…. It had been experienced by him alone.”
But one wonders. Chapter Five deals with the estrangement of Lindbergh’s parents and the first three and a half years of Lindbergh’s life; Chapter Six with his youth in the strained atmosphere of his parents’ cool and distant relation. Mr. Gill writes, “What was surely the single most important event in the forming of his character—the early breakup of his parents’ marriage—he glanced at again and again throughout his life, always to turn away from it in filial distress.” One immediately wants to ask, whose voice lies behind that “surely”? Brendan Gill’s or Charles Lindbergh’s? The two chapters constitute a troubling pastiche of psychobiography.
Lindbergh remembered in The Spirit of St. Louis the destruction by fire of his childhood home, and Gill recounts his dramatic memory of it, concluding, “something has happened not only to the house but to his parents’ marriage…they are no longer in love. And the child knows.” (Lindbergh was born on February 4, 1902. The fire occurred in August, 1905, when Lindbergh was three and one half years old. Lindbergh’s early years become a chronicle of withdrawal and isolation. In and out of schools, he did badly in them. “His failure as a student was painful enough; still more was his failure to become a member of any group.” His mother paid children in Little Falls to play with him. Lindbergh’s forebears may have been loners, but, Gill writes, “the isolation that he actually experienced was something less intentional than that and far grimmer.” He played no team sports. He did not dance or go out with girls.
The only activity in which Lindbergh engaged successfully before he flunked out of the University of Wisconsin was to become a crack shot on the ROTC rifle team, a sport in which “the more thoroughly one is cut off from everything except one’s rifle and the distant target, the better one can perform.” Gill concludes, “Nothing could sum up more poignantly the loneliness of the types of excellence that Lindbergh pursued than this: that they were always activities which required him to compete not against others but against himself. The flight to Paris was only the most extreme example of this loneliness.”
What are we to make of all this? Is Brendan Gill asking us to see the image of the clean-cut, virginal youth who did not drink or smoke, who planned everything he did with care, the American hero, as an instance of the neurotic personality of our time? He gives us some rather embarrassing examples of Lindbergh’s fondness for horseplay and practical jokes.
Lindbergh remembered, in notes written in 1969, a curious sexual prank which occurred around 1924. Gill introduces it as an instance of “Rabelaisian carnality” one would not expect of Lindbergh.
One of the cadets in my class at Brooks Field [the notes begin] frequently patronized the brothels in San Antonio’s “Spick Town.” He was a huge man and he used to brag about his activities in Spick Town. He was an extraordinarily deep sleeper.
On a hot Texas weekend afternoon, he was lying naked and asleep on top of his barracks-room bunk. He lay on his back, and his penis, proportioned to his size, was standing erect and stiff. Several cadets began discussing what action it would be appropriate to take. I suggested that we paint the penis green. (I knew where some green paint and a brush were easily available.)
Our mission accomplished, the cadet remained still sleeping and still in the same condition. We then screwed a metal “eye” into the ceiling over his bunk, passed a long string through it, fashioned a lasso at one end of the string, and ran the other end out of a window. After lassoing the penis, one cadet took station outside the window and the rest of us sat on our bunks, apparently reading or talking.
When the end of the string was pulled, the cadet woke up, rose on his elbows, and stared at his green-painted penis. He had a grand sense of humor. All he said was “Je-sus CHRIST!”
Leslie Fiedler might like to speculate on the pastoral imagery of this episode, but what of Brendan Gill? He writes, “Lindbergh was exasperated by the amount of space his successive biographers devoted to his bent for horseplay. He was acquainted with the usual psychoanalytical interpretations of practical jokes as manifestations of immature sexuality, frustrated sexuality, and the like, and he considered all such interpretations balderdash.” So much for Freud. Brendan Gill continues, “For though Lindbergh himself remained a virgin, many of his comrades were licentious in the extreme, and he often wrote candidly to his mother about the amorous escapades of one or another of his fellow-cadets or fliers.”
But we do not want to know what Lindbergh thought about psychoanalytic interpretations of his actions; we want to know what Mr. Gill thinks of them. Again, the subject is dropped, evaded.
Lindbergh Alone is a hard book to read because Brendan Gill has on his hands a large subject, the meaning of a hero. His book, in its physical appearance and in its general drift, is no more than another bit of evidence for the student of mythology. But Gill is too intelligent for that. Underneath the smooth surface, there are crosscurrents. Something is wrong, and he seems partly aware of it. There are two books to be written about Lindbergh. One would deal with the myth, the meaning imposed upon Lindbergh by the imagination of his countrymen, who were not so much interested in Lindbergh himself as they were in their own lives and in the problems of modern American society. The other would deal with the personal biography, the particular social and psychological dynamics, which led to his remarkable achievement. The public worship of that achievement means, of course, that the two books should be one book, written by someone who is both cultural historian and biographer.
Brendan Gill’s book does neither. It is both folklore and criticism, but finally neither one. If we admire Lindbergh, we must move beyond hero worship and mythology. The hero does not provide answers: he dramatizes the questions. The questions demand critical intelligence to supply an answer.
We may wish to escape the complexity and the dullness of modern society, as half of Brendan Gill seems to do. We may, as Lindbergh himself seems to have done, feel the pull of Robert Frost’s line, “Back out of all this now too much for us.” But if there is to be an escape from the strident and insistent demands of mass industrial civilization, if there is to remain territory to take off to, as the boy on the raft did, we will—paradoxically—probably have to use the organized power of the modern state to preserve it. Or, if we insist on the importance of man alone, the primacy and the potency of the single individual in American society, we are going to have to ask, at what cost? Or, can we exercise our social and political imagination to devise ways in which the institutions of a complex society may provide ways for ordinary people, not heroes, to participate in the determination of the meaning of their lives?
Lindbergh Alone begins to raise these questions, but deals with none of them.
June 23, 1977