[Crossposted from New Books in History] Try to imagine having never seen an airplane. It’s hard. Aircraft are an ordinary part of our daily experience. Just look up and you’ll probably see one, or at least its vapor trails. Go to your local airport and you can fly in one pretty inexpensively. Heck, if you like, you can learn to pilot one yourself at any one of hundreds of flying schools. There is just nothing unusual or even very exciting about airships.
It wasn’t always so. In the first quarter of the 20th century, airplanes were new. People had long dreamed of flight (see “Icarus and Daedalus”) and by the 19th century they’d done a little of it in balloons. But most folks could hardly conceive of a man (or woman) taking to the air like a bird. But men (and soon women) did just that. To many contemporary observers, flying in winged airships was nothing short of a miracle. Surely, pundits claimed, conquest of the air would usher in a new modern age.
It did, but not in all the ways expected. As Thomas Kessner shows in his wonderfully told The Flight of the Century: Charles Lindbergh & the Rise of American Aviation (Oxford University Press, 2010), the experience of Charles Lindbergh is a case in point. To be sure, Lindbergh was an extraordinary pilot—skilled, meticulous, and remarkably brave. That, however, did not set him apart from the hundreds of other fly boys of the age. What did set him apart was: 1) luck (many of his contemporaries died in crashes, and he nearly did on many occasions); 2) a single insight, doggedly pursued (that a plane with one engine, one pilot, and an 2,385 pounds of fuel could make it from New York to Paris); and 3) the fact that after Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic he became the most famous person in the world. Tom pays due attention to all three of these characteristics, but I found the last of them—Lindbergh’s incredible celebrity and its impact on him and the world—the most interesting. It’s arguable that Lindbergh was the first “superstar.” Though he had indeed done something extraordinary, he was the creation of a finely tuned, corporate-backed publicity campaign and a frenzied, tireless, and completely meritorious press corps. The people around Lindbergh understood that if they handled his “image” correctly they all could make a fortune. And so they took this gangly, taciturn, strangely aloof son of the prairie and made him the symbol of all that was good (and marketable) in the newly christened air age.
The problem was that, eventually, Lindbergh refused to play along. He was who he was, and who he was was a loner. Celebrity wore on him. Now when most people get tired of attention, they go home. But after the Paris flight Lindbergh had no home. His entire life was public. So he did what so many frustrated celebrities with considerable resources (think Howard Hughes, Marlon Brando, J. D. Salinger) after him have done: he became a crank. He tried to find a way to live for ever, dabbled in ‘scientific racism,’ and eventually got mixed up with the Nazis. Lindbergh, the arch-individualist, got tired of having people tell him who he was; he wanted to be his own man. And, in the end, he was, for good and ill.
The lesson? If you are in the business of making and selling role models, it’s probably not a good idea to pick a 27-year old who has focused his life on some narrow pursuit to the exclusion of all others, even if he’s really good at it. You just don’t know what they’re going to “be” when they grow up. (For more, see “Michael Jackson,” “Lindsey Lohan,” “LeBron James,” etc., etc.)
Please become a fan of “New Books in Biography” on Facebook if you haven’t already.