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Understanding the Air Age: Extracting a Culture of Aviation (June 2013): What Place for Heroes?

By Guillaume de Syon

What Place for Heroes?

Around 2003, the official centennial of powered, piloted flight by the Wright brothers, publishers went into overdrive and inundated the market with volumes about the event as well as more general accounts of aviation.  Though many of these books added value to the field of knowledge, few offered anything new about the Wrights, leaving Tom Crouch’s biography, The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright, unequalled, and not challenging more specialized volumes such as Peter Jakab’s Visions of a Flying Machine: The Wright Brothers and the Process of Invention.  Still, other angles are worth noting.  Thomas Parramore’s discussion of the Wright brothers in North Carolina, Triumph at Kitty Hawk: The Wright Brothers and Powered Flight, emphasizes regionalism to a fault, and risks falling into determinism by claiming North Carolina was key to the invention of the airplane.  However, his presentation of the region during the time of the Wrights and their flight tests offers a valuable frame to understand their local circumstances.  Several accounts of the Wrights also sought to address their social impact.  In a recent work, Conquering the Sky: The Secret Flights of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, Larry E. Tise discusses the Wrights’ 1908 flights and how they were reported in the press, shedding much light on the confused world of aeronautics at the time.  This suggests that there is more to write about episodic events surrounding the biographies of great fliers.

In a similar vein, Thomas Kessner discusses Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in The Flight of the Century: Charles Lindbergh and the Rise of American Aviation.  He takes a well-known event but casts it into a turning point in American history by reexamining the context and impact of the successful flight.  Years ago, Isabel Leighton’s edited work The Aspirin Age: 1919-1941 (by Samuel Hopkins et al.) examined Lindbergh’s flight but only as part of eventful interwar years.  Kessner’s book, on the other hand, places Lindbergh front and center.  There is little new in Kessner’s narrative, but the reinterpretation of the event’s importance makes for a good read by both scholars and the general public.

The risk remains, however, that when handling biography, one forgets the wider social aspects of the subject’s life and turns back to the determinist path.  Perhaps that is why, aside from Crouch’s work on the Wrights and A. Scott Berg’s biography Lindbergh, little of note has appeared.