John Dos Passos on the Wright brothers

John Dos Passos was more concerned with history than other ``lost generation'' writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. In ``USA,'' a trilogy about America from 1898 to 1929, he combined ``newsreels'' with stream-of-consciousness style. In this excerpt from ``The Big Money'' (1936), he looks at the Wright brothers. They were home for Christmas in Dayton, Ohio, where they'd been born in the seventies of a family who had been settled west of the Alleghenies since eighteen-fourteen; in Dayton, Ohio, where they'd been to grammarschool and highschool and joined their father's church and played baseball and hockey and worked out on the parallel bars and the flying swing and sold newspapers and built themselves a printingpress out of odds and ends from the junkheap and flown kites and tinkered with mechanical contraptions and gone around town as boys doing odd jobs to turn an honest penny.

The folks claimed it was the Bishop's bringing home a helicopter, a fiftycent mechanical toy made of two fans worked by elastic bands that was supposed to hover in the air, that had got his two youngest boys hipped on the subject of flight.

so that they stayed home instead of marrying the way the other boys did, and puttered all day about the house picking up a living with jobprinting.

bicyclerepair work,

sitting up late nights reading books on aerodynamics.

Still they were sincere churchmembers, their bicycle business was prosperous, a man could rely on their word. They were popular in Dayton.

In those days flyingmachines were the big laugh of all the crackerbarrel philosophers. Langley's and Chanute's unsuccessful experiments had been jeered down with an I-told-you-so that rang from coast to coast. The Wrights' big problem was to find a place secluded enough to carry on their experiments without being the horselaugh of the countryside. Then they had no money to spend;

they were practical mechanics; when they needed anything they built it themselves.

They hit on Kitty Hawk,

on the great dunes and sandy banks that stretch south toward Hatteras seaward of Albemarle Sound,

a vast stretch of seabeach,

empty except for a coastguard station, a few fishermen's shacks, and the swarms of mosquitoes and the ticks and chiggers in the crabgrass behind the dunes,

and overhead the gulls and swooping terns, in the evening fishhawks and cranes flapping across the saltmarshes, occasionally eagles

that the Wright brothers followed soaring with their eyes

as Leonardo watched them centuries before,

straining his sharp eyes to apprehend

the laws of flight. Excerpted from the literary works of John Dos Passos

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