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Understanding the Air Age: Extracting a Culture of Aviation (June 2013): The National Turn

By Guillaume de Syon

The National Turn

A logical starting point both for practical and cultural reasons focuses on studies of aviation culture within countries.  These have, in fact, provided the necessary foundations for branching out into other directions.  Pioneering the field, and unequalled to date as a single monograph, Joseph Corn’s The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation is most often identified as the starting point for English-language scholarship on aviation and culture.  Corn identifies the premise that Americans experienced early aeronautics as a kind of religious experience filled with hope for peace but also democracy and equality (everyone would own a plane).  Charting what he calls a “zany” aviation theater, Corn swiftly moves through its various expressions, from air shows to youth projects and gender relations, to show how such popular movements were key to America’s adoption of an air age that is part of its modern identity.

Others have since followed in Corn’s footsteps with monographs on national flight experiences.  In the case of the United States, only Roger Bilstein’s survey of aviation history, Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts, incorporates more broadly some of the themes Corn handles, but does so as an introductory work.  More recently, in Sky as Frontier: Adventure, Aviation, and Empire, David T. Courtwright discusses the notion of “frontier” applied to American aviation, without fully defining where the frontier ends and the notion of “empire” begins.  The malleability of the concepts as related to airspace makes the study intriguing but also frustrating: while the concepts are eminently convincing in the commercial side of aviation, there is a lack of cohesion in the discussion of the military realm.

Janet R. Daly Bednarek and Michael H. Bednarek, on the other hand, focus on a smaller though no less rich a topic in Dreams of Flight: General Aviation in the United States.  By documenting the widespread use of the airplane, they also clarify this important facet of American air-mindedness in a fashion that had been subsumed to date, yet ignored in scholarly literature.

Though the military dimension of American aviation is logically the most studied, very little has in fact appeared on its social and cultural aspects.  Two books focusing on this aspect are Robert Jakeman’s The Divided Skies: Establishing Segregated Flight Training at Tuskegee, Alabama, 1934-1942, which looks at early African American flying, and Alan Gropman’s The Air Force Integrates: 1945-1964, which examines post-World War II desegregation of this branch of the military.  Both works offer good insights into military sociology and planning and how these affect human interaction, but there is no equivalent scholarly work on gender, for example.  On the other hand, the notion of absolute weaponry as exemplified in nuclear bombers is discussed in H. Bruce Franklin’s War Stars: The Superweapon in the American Imagination.  Franklin suggests in particular that one should trace American fascination with superior weaponry back to nineteenth-century anxieties.

Other facets of American aeronautical culture exist, but appear in other categories, notably those of popular culture and gender studies.  Perhaps it is the very breadth and depth of the American experience with flight that precludes an all-encompassing cultural history of flight, but the works that have appeared to date on specific aspects of that experience make up for this nicely.

Outside of the American experience, the most covered nation is England, a country whose modern identity relies in part on its World War II experience.  David Edgerton’s small study, England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation, exposes this peculiarity by emphasizing that such claims of aviation and nationalism reached the point of orthodoxy in the United Kingdom, erasing some facts and creating new myths.  This remarkably convincing piece does overlook the notion that such orthodoxy existed elsewhere, but it offers valuable help in identifying the markers of such ideology.  In that line, though emphasizing masculinity and gender relations, Martin Francis’s The Flyer: British Culture and the Royal Air Force, 1939-1945 offers great insights into the construction of the pilot image in World War II and the way the boundaries between civilian and military worlds were merged under war conditions.

Other studies, while less reliant on the ideological turn, nonetheless help identify the aviation obsession.  Thus, Alfred Gollin, through two volumes, No Longer an Island: Britain and the Wright Brothers, 1902-1909 and The Impact of Air Power on the British People and Their Government, 1909-1914 seeks to expose how British air-mindedness got its start and contrasts the public fascination with early flight with the conservative outlook of the military toward aviation.  A more recent study, Michael Paris’s Winged Warfare: The Literature and Theory of Aerial Warfare in Britain, 1859-1917, delves far more deeply into documenting the notion of air-mindedness through popular literature and the way it may have influenced early-twentieth-century military thinkers.

More recently, geographer Gordon Pirie made an insightful study of the interwar years, Air Empire: British Imperial Civil Aviation, 1919-39.  Pirie clarifies the value of airlines as a tool that helped Great Britain maintain control over its overseas territories.

Studying flight within national boundaries has also happened in the case of Germany.  In A Nation of Flyers: German Aviation in the Popular Imagination, Peter Fritzsche offers a wide canvas that emphasizes the evolution of German air-mindedness from 1908 until the Nazi era.  Jonathan F. Vance does the same, only with regard to Canada, in High Flight: Aviation and the Canadian Imagination where he paints an interesting portrait of Canadian society’s adoption of the airplane both as symbol and as a tool to chart and communicate with the northern territories.

Also focused on a defined cultural realm—that of Russia—is Dictatorship of the Air: Aviation Culture and the Fate of Modern Russia by Scott W. Palmer.  The author shows well the intricacies of the nationalist experience as it evolves into new regimes and under shifting ideologies.  In so doing, he emulates the work of Peter Fritzsche, but extends the scope very helpfully to include the impact of ideology on slowing down aviation efforts.

Works Cited