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

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.

Read more at Catholic World Report. 

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