The Modesty of American Genius
David McCullough brings the Wright Brothers’ story to life for our time.
The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., 430)
The October 10, 1908 edition of the Washington Post featured a dispatch from Le Mans detailing France’s fascination with a certain American. “By his strong individuality he is looked on as the personification of the Plymouth Rock spirit,” the paper’s correspondent reported—the same spirit that Frenchmen such as de Tocqueville and Jules Huret had associated with “the grit and indomitable perseverance that characterize American efforts in every department of activity.” The subject of this French enchantment, Wilbur Wright, is also the co-subject of the latest installment in David McCullough’s string of wildly popular, beautifully crafted, and reliably uplifting books. But The Wright Brothers, a relatively brief study of the eponymous Buckeyes, is not just a biography of the duo who conquered the wind, but a chronicle of American ingenuity and intellect.
Statesmen and politicians make only passing appearances in this book, as events largely transpire away from the centers of power. The history here is the type ordinary Americans have made for two centuries in their basements, backyards, garages—or, as in the Wrights’ case, their bicycle shops. These geniuses, as McCullough writes, held no college degrees and had only partial high school educations. Their world-changing work was not supported by any government or wealthy benefactor. And they accepted the potentially deadly risks associated with realizing their dream.
Years after first taking wing, Orville Wright offered a simple formula for any young man seeking success in life: “I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.” That recipe certainly worked for Orville and Wilbur, his elder brother. The Wright family home at 7 Hawthorne Street in Dayton was an incubator of ambition. Though mother Susan died before the brothers won fame, and father Milton, a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, was often absent travelling, the family remained remarkably supportive—especially sister Katherine, who would be a constant partner in their endeavors. Theirs was a household that prized curiosity over formal learning: the Wrights’ front parlor was home to a library that included Irving, Virgil, Milton, Boswell, Darwin, and Twain, among others. McCullough documents how the children were given the intellectual and moral ammunition to pursue their dreams. Wilbur and Orville did just that from a young age. They founded a local newspaper that went through a series of iterations before they moved on to bicycle repair, opening their own shop in 1892 and then producing their own bikes four years later.
During this period, Orville was stricken with Typhoid fever. As he lay in bed recuperating, Wilbur read aloud to him of the exploits of Otto Lilienthal, a German flyer who had recently died in an accident. Lilienthal’s story kindled an intense interest in the brothers. Wilbur quickly read all he could on previous attempts at aviation, and, with help from the Smithsonian, he studied the flight mechanics of birds. The brothers built models and gliders on the dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, eventually getting them into the air.
This is the history most know, but McCullough takes the narrative far beyond Kitty Hawk. Though the Wrights made the first powered airplane flight in December 1903, many doubted that the feat had really taken place; others questioned whether the brothers had created the technology. To convince the skeptics, both in America and abroad, Wilbur and Orville split up to conduct a series of demonstrations—Wilbur in France, Orville in Washington, D.C.
McCullough’s portrait of Wilbur comes into focus during the chapters chronicling this period of separation. It’s familiar territory for McCullough, whose previous book, The Greater Journey, chronicled the comings and goings of nineteenth-century Americans in Paris. To the French, the elder Wright, effortlessly pirouetting his plane around the Hunaudières racetrack, near Le Mans, was a celebrity. “Not since Benjamin Franklin had any American been so overwhelmingly popular in France,” McCullough writes. Clad in a tailored suit or a leather motorcycle jacket, hunkered down in a hangar working on his plane, or contemplating the Battle of Jemappes, Wilbur emerges as the Renaissance man of the duo. Orville, whose portrait is less defined, did his part to convince Americans of the viability of the brothers’ creation, but not before narrowly escaping death during a crash at Fort Myer, Virginia, in the summer of 1908—though his injuries didn’t stop him from taking wing again soon afterward.
When the brothers, their demonstrations complete, returned stateside in 1909, they were feted at the White House, lionized in the press, and treated to a parade the likes of which Dayton has never seen since. Wilbur died in 1912 at 45, while Orville lived long enough to see Charles Lindbergh cross the Atlantic and the aerial devastation wrought by World War II.
Other interesting characters wander in and out of these pages, many of them fellow inventors and innovators, such as Samuel Pierpont Langley, who tried to beat the brothers to the punch in realizing the possibility of mechanical flight; the French aviator Octave Chanute, who served as a mentor; Charlie Taylor, the irascible mechanic who built and customized the engines that propelled the Wrights’ airplanes and was something of a savant in his own right; and Glenn Curtis, the daredevil who moved from motorcycles to flight and airplane production in the wake of the Wrights’ triumphs, and who eventually waged a lengthy patent war against the brothers.
With his usual grace, McCullough captures the characters, ingenuity, drive, and sense of possibility that defined the period from the outset of the twentieth century to the Great War—what popular historian Walter Lord, a literary forbear of McCullough’s, called “the good years.” The result is a portrait of American modesty and genius that will rouse readers living in a time when both seem to be in short supply.
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