Saturday, August 10, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 109: Ida M. Tarbell, Flying—A Dream Come True! (#179)

Ida M. Tarbell, "Flying—A Dream Come True!" (1913) from Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight:

When I think of Ida Tarbell, I think of a crusading muckraker and journalist, an anti-monopolist who skewered Standard Oil. I don't think of an aeronautical enthusiast who experienced and wrote about her early flights as a way of popularizing and domesticating this new technology.

But that's the way she comes off here. Unlike the reports of death we get from J. Herman Banning or the reports of uncomfortable commercial air travel we get from Elizabeth Bisgood, the primary note in Tarbell's account is almost ordinariness. While she notes that the "dainty little" plane had "a terrific force in her" (note the feminine in both "dainty" and "her"); and that she felt a sense of exhilaration and "a curious sense of being part of the whole thing [Earth]"; Tarbell ends her account by noting "As a matter of fact, this trip of mine, to those who are familiar with aviation, is the most commonplace kind of thing, not worth a long letter like this."

Which is one of those great sentences that undoes what it says it's doing: my flight isn't worth a long letter--and yet, here's a long letter. There's a curious push and pull to this sort of writing that reminds me of Robert Heinlein's Saturday Morning Post stories: an attempt to write about something that seems both exciting--so that people want to do it--but also safe--so that people aren't afraid to do it. Heinlein wrote about the colonization of the solar system, but it seems to be the same thing that Tarbell is doing here about aviation when she writes both that "that it all was so natural, [...] so easy" and also "so supremely superior to any other motion that I had ever experienced."

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