Review by: KEN KORCZAK
Imagine taking on two of America’s most cherished icons and suggesting that, “Freud would have a field day” with them — that one was a prissy, fastidious “metrosexual” with “small hands” (Yes! How timely!) — and, oh yeah, by the way, their sister was probably a lesbian.
The icons are Orville and Wilbur Wright, hallowed American heroes who cracked the code of manned flight, bringing to fruition a cherished dream the human race had nurtured with deep longing for thousands of years.
The achievement was so monumental — and that fact that two humble bicycle mechanics pulled it off without fancy college degrees, support from powerful people or big money backing — made the Wright brothers the quintasensual American archetypes. Pure, conquering, unstoppable, modest.
But just as we’ve come to a time when we must stop believing that George Washington refused to lie about chopping down a cherry tree — author WILLIAM HAZELGROVE thinks it’s time we put some authentic flesh on the bones of what history has handed down about the Wrights. That being: The brothers as sanitized stick figures who were the personification of the good old American values of hard work, midwestern ingenuity and moral purity.
I have no doubt many conservative types who read this will wail: “Revisionist history! It’s sickening! We’ve had enough revisionist history!”
Some liberal types might moan: “Who really cares if Orville Wright was effeminate and possibly gay, and his sister a lesbian? How is that relevant? Stop making a big deal out of gayness!”
But Hazelgrove has a bigger fish to fry in his latest offering, WRIGHT BROTHERS, WRONG STORY. The 132-pound flounder he spends 334 pages filleting is poor Orville Wright himself. Not-so-subtly suggesting that Orville was a repressed homosexual is the least of the historical makeovers the author has in store for the junior first aviator.
Because Orville outlived Wilbur by 38 years, Hazelgrove argues that it was Orvillle who actually committed the original sin of revisionist history — as in portraying himself as the full equal of his brother in their triumph. Upon Wilbur’s death of typhoid in 1912, Orville was left in sole possession of the grist mill of history. At every turn, in every book article and letter, he made sure that his contribution was presented as equal, if not sometimes superior to that of his brother.
Hazelgrove argues that it was Wilbur who deserves 90% if not 100% of the credit for cracking the code of flight, rendering him as a special kind of genius. Orville, on the other hand, was barely more than a second-rate bicycle mechanic who would have been pleased to live out his life in comfortable obscurity as long as he made a buck in the bike business.
But wasn’t Orville Wright the first man — in all the ages and in the history of mankind and the planet — to actually perform powered flight? That’s true, but Hazelgrove would even strip him of this honor. He writes off Orville’s seminal lift-off as a mere 12-second hop that cleared just 120 feet. Later that day, Wilbur took the Kitty Hawk aloft and flew for 59 second and traveled 852 feet. That, Hazelgrove contends, was the real first flight.
Whatever the case — Hazelgrove has made a decent enough argument here with a lot of facts, research and document-based evidence. He puts it all out there and let’s the reader decide — except perhaps at the end of the book when Hazelgrove goes into full editorial mode. He forcefully states that Orville did a lot of illicit hijacking of the historical record, especially through his Byzantine editorial control over the first major biography of the Wrights by compliant and hungry journalist FRED KELLY.
Does Hazelgrove go too far in smashing Orville down to size while elevating Wilbur to the lofty status of a virtual Icarus? I’ll say, very mildly, that he does go too far. I’m not saying I’m right and that Mr. Hazelgrove is wrong, but I think there are lot of intangibles that need to be considered. I think every Don Quixote needs a Sancho Panza, every Batman needs a Robin, every Frodo needs a Sam Gamgee.
Certainly, Orville repeatedly and willingly risked death in the early test flights. He also suffered the deep privations on the brutal sands of Kitty Hawk as he supported his brother’s “crazy dream.” Orville was there for his big brother! He could have happily been devoting his time to his own successful bicycle business, building wealth and a local reputation for himself. Also, both men battled broiling heat by day and bitter cold by night — and tortuous mosquitoes, hurricane winds, choking, smoke-filled tents, isolation and boredom, scarce food and the wicked, cloying sands of the Carolina beach.
On the other hand, stirring the pot of controversy makes this a more juicy, enjoyable read. Add to that Hazelgrove’s marvelous ability to turn a fine phrase. He makes a work of history read like thrilling fiction. Mr. Hazelgrove cut his chops writing mainstream novels. Now he brings his flare for fiction to factual history that makes it come alive with colorful “characters” who are working through a complex plot among exotic locations — except these plots, places and situations are real.
NOTE: The following links will take you to the other William Hazelgrove books I have reviewed on this site:
AL CAPONE AND THE 1933 WORLD’S FAIR by William Hazelgrove
MADAM PRESIDENT by William Hazelgrove.
ROCKET MAN (Fiction) by William Hazelgrove
THE PITCHER (fiction) by William Hazelgrove
JACK PINE (Fiction) by William Hazelgrove
REAL SANTA (Fiction) by William Hazelgrove
Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS
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