My first impression of this book was unfavorable. Emerson said that writing ought to be an effort “to drop every dead word,” and thought surprise the first principle of style. Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David McCullough would perhaps beg to differ; he would seem to think that a writer should never seek for originality where the predictable and conventional, indeed the formulaic, will do. The virtue of McCullough’s writing is its ease and readability; its vice is superficiality. Only once in his new book about the Wright brothers did I come across a penetrating image, a flash of insight, that illuminated the depths of his subject; but as fate would have it, the insight in question was sufficiently arresting to overcome my skepticism and make me think the book after all worthwhile.
What gives The Wright Brothers its interest is the character of its central figure, Wilbur Wright. Four years older than the duller Orville, Wilbur had a good deal in common with such democratic monks and Yankee mystics as John Woolman, Johnny Appleseed, and Henry David Thoreau. Like Thoreau, Wilbur Wright was by nature ascetic, a Spartan in all his habits, and to all appearances celibate; he gave the impression, one of his schoolmates in Dayton, Ohio, said, “of a man who lives largely in a world of his own.” The French aviation journalist François Peyrey, studying Wright as he gazed upon a French sunset, was reminded “of those monks in Asia Minor lost in monasteries perched on inaccessible mountain peaks.”
Like many such austere characters, Wilbur Wright had a passion for beauty, one that early fixed itself on the spectacle of birds in flight. The 19th-century naturalist James Bell Pettigrew said that the motions of a bird on the wing are infinitely more “beautiful than the movements of either the quadruped on land or the fish in the water.” Wilbur Wright, who read and profited from Pettigrew’s work, would have agreed.
Thoreau had gone to Harvard College; the young Wilbur intended to go to Yale, but was prevented from doing so by a hockey injury. A fortunate escape; had he been liberally educated in New Haven, the craftsmanship that was to find expression in the first airplane might have been devoted instead to the production of bad paintings or mediocre verse. Solitude, it has been said, is the school of genius, and in his father’s house in Dayton, Wilbur educated himself, reading voraciously in subjects that appealed to his fancy or, more precisely, to some inner necessity of his nature. Among these subjects was physics, which he studied less as a technical discipline than as the poetics of flight.
The Wright brothers’ first flights near Kitty Hawk on North Carolina’s Outer Banks were conceived as experiments, and although both there and at Huffman Prairie, northeast of Dayton, their flying machines drew spectators, the brothers for some time resisted an authoritative trial. When, at last, they agreed to a demonstration, it took place not in America but in France, where Wilbur had gone to negotiate a sale of his flying machine to the French. (Washington had turned the brothers down.) In Paris, Wright seems for the first time to have encountered forms of beauty that were the work of human hands. He saw at once how superior, in point of civic artistry, Paris was to American cities built up mechanically on the gridiron plan. “There is always an open space as big as a city square in front of each building,” Wright said. “And in addition there is nearly always a broad avenue leading directly to it, giving it a view from a long distance. It is this, as much as the buildings and monuments themselves, that makes Paris such a magnificent city.”
The Louvre was another revelation. If Wright was not transfigured by the museum in the way Henry James was when, in the Galerie d’Apollon, he crossed the “bridge over to Style,” it nevertheless made its mark. “I must confess,” he wrote to his sister, Katharine, “that the pictures by celebrated masters that impressed me most were not the ones that are the best known.” He thought Leonardo’s John the Baptist superior to the Mona Lisa, and he liked “the Rembrandts, Holbeins, and Van Dycks, ‘as a whole,’ better than the Rubenses, Titians, Raphaels, and Murillos.” He was drawn especially to Corot’s skies.
In June 1908 he arrived in Le Mans, and in August, on a nearby racetrack, he conclusively demonstrated to the world the efficacy of his flying machine. McCullough does the moment full justice, even as he shows that the awakening that had begun in Paris continued in Le Mans. Walking about the streets of the old town, studying its art and architecture, Wright sensed an identity between the spiritual yearning latent in his own skyward ascents and that of the civilization that built the town’s cathedral, Saint-Julien. (The saint who is the subject of Flaubert’s “The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller” is often said to have been born in Le Mans.) The oldest parts of the cathedral, McCullough writes, were “in the Romanesque manner, and dated back nearly 900 years, to the eleventh century”; the “larger, more spectacular” Gothic portion of Saint-Julien was the work of the 14th and 15th centuries. It was “this, all so plainly in evidence, that so moved Wilbur.” Nowhere was what McCullough calls the “upward aspiration” of the cathedral more evident than in its soaring choir, which impressed Wright “as one of the finest specimens of architecture” he had ever seen. In the book’s most perceptive passage, McCullough suggests that Wilbur was fully cognizant of the affinity between his own grammar of ascent and that of the medieval burghers of Le Mans.
“The phenomenon which I might call American medievalism is highly interesting,” wrote the German scholar Ernst Robert Curtius. “I believe that it has a deep spiritual meaning.” McCullough’s Wilbur Wright is closer, in spirit, to such American medievalists as Henry Adams and Charles Homer Haskins than he is to such purely practical innovators as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. He experiences in France an enlightenment not unlike what Henry James’s Lambert Strether experiences in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. In describing Strether’s illumination in The Ambassadors, James borrows unashamedly from the medievalists:
The day was so soft that the little party had practically adjourned to the open air, but the open air was in such conditions all a chamber of state. Strether had presently the sense of a great convent, a convent of missions, famous for he scarce knew what, a nursery of young priests, of scattered shade, of straight alleys and chapel-bells, that spread its mass in one quarter; he had the sense of names in the air, of ghosts at the windows, of signs and tokens, a whole range of expression, all about him, too thick for prompt discrimination.
The American who in his pilgrimage to the Old World comes to the realization that there is something missing in his up-to-date American life is, of course, a familiar, even a threadbare figure. He is close to the heart of Adams’s Education and his Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres; he drives a good deal of Hemingway’s fiction, pops up in Santayana, and reaches his apogee in T. S. Eliot, the “latent monk” (as his biographer Lyndall Gordon calls him) who sought sanity in the poetry of Dante and the sacraments of the Church.
Wilbur Wright died in May 1912, at age 45. It is impossible to say where his pilgrimage would have taken him had he lived longer. He might have outgrown his zeal for mechanical innovation; alternatively, his technical aspirations might have coexisted with his newly awakened passion for old Western forms of beauty and order. Such incongruous cohabitations are not uncommon. Jefferson, the child of the modernizing Enlightenment, was deeply attached to the traditions of Greco-Roman art, the by-product of innumerable antique mysticisms; Emerson, the prophet of the “American newness” that has bred so many golden calves, was a disciple of the anti-materialist philosophy of Plato.
The fact that so many of our republic’s sages have been drawn to apparently defunct mysticisms ought to disturb a little our progressive complacencies. But it is not so; most of us are not disconcerted by what these flights into primitivism tell us about ourselves. The truth is that we are, many of us, more at home in Mechanopolis than we care to admit. I used to deplore the weakness of these surrenders, but I have more recently found myself thinking them the fruit of very pardonable realism. Such things as the temple of Nike in Athens and the cathedral of Saint-Julien in Le Mans may well represent a freakish anomaly in our evolution as a species; in our modern exchange of marble for plastic, we may simply have reverted to our habitual simianism, our default factory settings.
But the pilgrimage of Wilbur Wright, as told, not brilliantly, but serviceably, by David McCullough, has somewhat restored my older faith. Here you have one of mankind’s greatest technicians, a master of mechanical innovation, who found his chief inspiration not in the pervasive utilitarianism of his environment but in a desire to experience the beauty and the poetry, what he called the “intoxication,” of flight. Wright’s temperament was essentially that of an artist and a prophet — a recurring type. And so long as the type does recur, we may be justified in thinking that our current crudenesses are what the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga took them to be, the fatigued but temporary “after-play of a civilization in decline” — a winter to be followed by the longed-for spring.
– Mr. Beran is the author of many books, including Murder by Candlelight: The Gruesome Slayings behind Our Romance with the Macabre, which will be published in August.