- A Passion For Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908–1918
Day-by-day in 1895 a bearded top-hatted Dubliner, erect in a harness amid batlike wings, could be discerned back of Trinity College, endeavoring to fly. One day or another, surely, a face at the railing of College Park will have been that of thirteen-year-old James Joyce. George Francis Fitzgerald did not become part of the history of flight, his maximum altitude having been some six inches. But the very next year, in Latin class, young Joyce, today beyond question part of the history of literature, would be reading in Ovid the story of Daedalus. When the Wrights took wing at Kitty Hawk, 17 December, 1903, Joyce was rounding out his twenty-first year. Word got around; and exactly three weeks later—7 January 1904—we find Joyce affixing to a manifesto called “A Portrait of the Artist” the signature “Stephen Daedalus.”
Such is one dramatic way to enforce the premise of Robert Wohl’s splendid book: that whereas other famous achievements of a century ago—telephone, electric light, cinema, phonograph—proved handy, yes, but had turned up as surprises, flight was the fulfillment of a millennial dream. So, toward the end of the century, numerous enthusiasts like Professor Fitzgerald were bent on achieving what they knew was at last within reach. On an evening I remember vividly, Buckminster Fuller (born 1895) was recalling kids entranced as the model planes they’d tossed from attic windows circled groundward. Surely some revelation was at hand?
Early in the book, Wohl ponders French observers in 1908 investing Wilbur Wright (“intensely practical and down-to-earth”) “with an air of mystery, poetic sensibility, and heroism” (29). It seems, he concludes, that
elements of the figure of the aviator had already been forged when [Wright] arrived in France. They were waiting impatiently for the first person capable of bringing them to life through the achievement of controlled flight. The twentieth century was born yearning for a new type of hero: someone able to master the cold, inhuman machines that the nineteenth century had bequeathed and at the same time capable of transforming them into resplendent art and myth. Unknown to themselves, the Western peoples secretly desired an epic poetry of technological deeds.
That’s why, as Wohl notes, the themes of the Air Age came together so quickly. (Having planned a book that would cover a century, he found he could pick up all his themes by spanning a decade.) In 1908 Orville and Wilbur were in France on a mundane mission—wooing buyers for rights—and taciturn Wilbur got esteemed as a Poet. And 1918 saw the end of a war that developed the cult of the Ace, a tech equivalent of the Knight-errant. So in just ten years we find the main themes defined.
A Passion for Wings offers a lot of visual material, maybe half of it in color. You’ll be astonished by the flimsiness of a 1911 Blériot (148, fig. 177). Though its Russian owner, posed in front of it, holds his arms akimbo as though in defiance of some Darth Vader, his machine seems sheer Tinkertoy such as a frisky German Shepherd could demolish. (The airplanes we passengers know, those La Guardia workhorses? Ah, they were a much later emergence, after the romance had long been in place.)
Marinetti’s “Futurism” is one thing attention to flight helps us understand. The first Futurist manifesto appeared in February 1909; six weeks previously, Wilbur Wright had concluded a “triumphant season of flights at Le Mans.” (138) Its concluding symbol of modernity was “the gliding flight of airplanes, whose propellors whirl through the air like flags and attract the applause of enthusiastic crowds.” (139) By September 1910 Marinetti himself had flown, with a skilled pilot, at sunset. “Increasing weightlessness,” he recalled; “An infinite sense of voluptuousness. You descend from the machine with a light and elastic jump. You have removed a weight from your back. You...