How America Learned to Fly: A Documentary History of Aviation
The Library of America’s new anthology—Into the Blue: American Writing on Aviation and Spaceflight—flies low to the ground in telling a story that covers much territory. It’s nothing less than the history of American aviation itself, told informally and first-hand, in documents produced by direct observers and participants. Some of the documents are reportage, others are autobiography. Some of the authors are famous, others are obscure. The book moves from manned balloons to manned space-capsules. That’s a lot of history, and a lot of literature. It’s a nearly 700-page flight, during which there’s much you take for granted, and much that can catch you in a moment of wonder. It’s a lot like flying itself in that way. I recently asked some questions of Joseph Corn, professor emeritus at Stanford, who edited the collection.
Can you tell us about the origin of your interest in aviation, and how you came to edit this collection?
Like many of my generation–I am 73–I grew up during and right after the Second World War and so aviation was in my face, so to speak. At six or seven I had aircraft identification cards that allowed me to identify virtually anything in the sky, and a few years later I was building model planes. When at age ten I got my first flight, in a friend’s father’s Stinson four-place plane, I knew that I wanted to have a plane and fly when I grew up.
Things didn’t work out that way, but my interest in flight continued, becoming the subject of my UC Berkeley doctoral dissertation in history which became my first book, The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, 1900-1950 (1983, 2002). One of the Library of America’s advisory board had read this book and suggested to the publisher that I be asked to edit an anthology on flight, which I did.
Even in a book of this size, there are going to be some painful exclusions, by necessity–especially when the collection seeks to span a field so broad. What’s an example of something you regrettably had to exclude?
I really have no regrets, although you’re right, many strands and stories had to be excluded. I’d initially imagined that the volume would contain excerpts about all kinds of flying, but nothing about dirigibles or airships survived (we found nothing truly memorable). There is less on relatively recent commercial air travel than I originally wanted, but as most adults have lived this history, the omission isn’t a problem. Personally, given the themes of The Winged Gospel, I had wanted to have some selections that spoke to the messianic and utopian expectations many had about aviation, such as the belief that tomorrow we all would own private planes (or helicopters) and use them as we do automobiles, or that flight would bring about the equality of men and women. The published writings on such points, however, while essential to me the historian, seemed insufficiently literary or memorable to LofA veterans, so they fell to the cutting room floor, so to speak.
Banal as this superlative will sound, I can honestly tell you, without hyperbole, that this collection contains what has long been maybe my favorite paragraph of writing–certainly one of my favorite three (the opening paragraph to the excerpt from Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977)). Do you, too, have an unequivocal favorite among the pieces gathered here?
No, I don’t have an unequivocal favorite or even a single favorite; yours is an interesting choice, however. Among my favorites is the entire Elizabeth Bisgood piece which captures something new but now gone, the communal sense early passenger flight engendered; the William F. Buckley piece, which so deftly describes the foolishness of youth whether at the controls of a plane (see also Hynes from Flights of Passage); and the excerpt from Michael Collins’s great book, Carrying the Fire, especially his casual description of the extra nuts and bolts floating free in the weightless atmosphere of his Gemini capsule, signs of careless assembly that might cause a normal person to freak out but which just amuse the astronaut with the “right stuff.”
Although a lot of pieces in here were written by professional writers, a lot of them were not, even at the ghost level. Although I’ve developed my own theory on why aviator-adventurer types are such good writers, I’d be very interested to hear if you have a theory of your own.
No, I don’t have such a theory; indeed, I think aviator/astronauts are likely to be poor writers, given how their lives have often privileged techy subjects rather than poetic or humanistic. That so many great flying writers emerged from WWII is, I believe, simply the result of the size of the sample, and the fact that many did their flying while young and then later developed a literary bent. That there are two WWII ex-flyers who became professors of English at Princeton in the anthology is a coincidence only possible with WWII (Hynes and Kernan).
As impossible as a lot of the aviation feats have seemed, as improbable as they’ve certainly been, there are none that have violated the basic laws of physics. In order to advance any further in flight, it looks like violating physics is pretty much what would have to occur. If someone puts together a book similar to this in later years—say, a quarter-century from now—what kind of things do you think we’ll be reading about in the final chapters?
Having published three books about how people in the past imagined or forecast the future–often incorrectly and absurdly–I have learned never to offer prophecies myself. So on this question, I have no idea. I’d note in conclusion, however, that recent history, say the last thirty or forty years, have included little of the sort of enthusiastic futurist thinking so characteristic of earlier decades.
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