On Amelia Earhart: The Aviatrix as American Dandy

Article excerpt

i. "These pioneers themselves established the aviator's image, partly by their idiosyncratic behavior and partly by their own accounts of it. Since many of their activities were by their nature individual and unwitnessed it was unavoidable that this image, to a very great extent, should be self-created." (David Lance, "Folklore of Aviation," Journal of the Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies 21:1, 1976)

ii. "Lindbergh had the world at his feet, and he blushed like a girl!" (Charles Lindbergh, "WE" [1927], 318)

On June 13, 1927, following his successful transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh returned to New York City, to "the greatest welcome any man in history has ever received in terms of numbers."' An estimated three to four and a half million people lined the streets from the Battery to Central Park. Twenty-five thousand extra tons of newsprint were required to publicize the affair; the same year ten thousand poems were submitted to a national contest in commemoration of the feat: "Never in history did an event so brief provoke so many poems in so short a time."2 Throngs of people came to see the person who had flown alone. The pilot himself had seen almost nothing, flying "blind" over a body of water through fog, sleet, and nocturnal darkness.

When Lindbergh arrived at City Hall, Mayor Walker delivered a speech not about, but addressed to the hero:

Everybody all over the world, in every language, has been telling you and the world about yourself. You have been told time after time where you were born, where you went to school, and that you have done the supernatural thing of an air flight from New York to Paris. I am satisfied that you have been convinced of it by this time.

And it is not my purpose to reiterate any of the wonderful things that have been so beautifully spoken and written about you and your triumphal ride across the ocean. But while it has become almost axiomatic, it sometimes seems prosaic to refer to you as a great diplomat, because after your superhuman adventure, by your modesty, by your grace, by your gentlemanly American conduct, you have left no doubt of that. But the one thing that occurs to me that has been overlooked in all the observations that have been made of you is that you are a great grammarian, and that you have given added significance and a deeper definition to the word "we. "

We have heard, and we are familiar with, the editorial "we," but not until you arrived in Paris did we learn of the aeronautical "we." Now you have given to the world a flying pronoun.3

The "flying pronoun" Lindbergh bestows on the world will serve as the title of a memoir he writes under the auspices of the publisher George Palmer Putnam, who understands that the book must reach its public before the story of the flight fades as frontpage news. Lindbergh agrees to convey his tale to ajournalist who would then retell it in the third person. When the final story is written in the first person under Lindbergh's name, Lindbergh rejects the ghost-written manuscript, but agrees to write another book. "WE", completed within three weeks, sells over half a million copies, breaking another record, that of a first-time author.

Lindbergh is unable to complete the story. While providing a narrative that will become the aviator's standard life history: flying student, barnstormer/wing-walker, flying cadet, air mail pilot, record long-distance flier, etc., he refuses to provide a description of what happened after the flight, claiming a lack of skill as amateur author. (Even though in 1953 he will receive the Pulitzer Prize for his second autobiography, a rewriting of the first, The Spirit of St. Louis.) "I am not an author by profession, and my pen could never express the gratitude which I feel towards the American people," he writes. "The voyage up the Potomac and to the Monument Grounds in Washington; up the Hudson River and along Broadway; over the Mississippi and to St. …