On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville Wright conducted the first flight of a heavier-than-air machine with a pilot aboard, changing history forever.
No one much cared, at least not a first. A few press reports mentioned the flight at Kitty Hawk, N. C., which had lasted just a few seconds, but much of the newspaper coverage was wrong. The first accurate account of what Orville and his older brother and collaborator Wilbur had achieved would not be written until 1905 – in an odd little trade journal published by Ohio beekeeper Amos I. Root, “Gleanings in Bee Culture.” Given the news of the Wright brothers’ feat, the United States government initially shrugged. The Wrights, who ran a bicycle shop in Dayton, had to go to France to find substantial support for their invention.
Or so readers learn in The Wright Brothers, David McCullough’s new book about the two most famous names in aviation history. It’s an outgrowth of “The Greater Journey,” McCullough’s 2011 book about the unique role of Paris in shaping the destinies of creative Americans. If “The Greater Journey” proved uncharacteristically diffuse – a sprawling narrative in search of a center – then “The Wright Brothers” finds McCullough in familiar form, his story offering the kind of conversational biography that’s become his trademark.
“The Wright Brothers” hits other signature McCullough notes. As in his earlier books about John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, and Harry Truman, McCullough hones in on his subjects’ boundless capacity to educate themselves. Every previous member of McCullough’s pantheon was an avid reader, and the Wrights prove no exception. The personal library of the Wrights’ cleric father, McCullough writes, included “the works of Dickens, Washington Irving, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, a complete set of the works of Sir Walter Scott, the poems of Virgil, Plutarch’s ‘Lives,’ Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson,’ Gibbons’ ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,’ and Thucydides. There were books on natural history, a six-volume history of France, travel, ‘The Instructive Speller,’ Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species,’ plus two full sets of encyclopedias.”
In the Wrights, McCullough also revisits the theme of plain Midwestern virtue that he sounded in “Truman.” He approvingly quotes Wilbur’s suggestion on how to get ahead: “If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.” Neither of the brothers, says McCullough, “ever chose to be anything other than himself, a quality that rated high in Ohio. Not only did they have no yearning for the limelight, they did their best to avoid it. And with the onset of fame, both remained notably modest.”
Chronicling Wrights’ sister, Katharine, McCullough finds a kindred spirit to Abigail Adams – a woman destined by her times to work behind the scenes, yet who still wielded considerable influence. She emerges in “The Wright Brothers” as a kind of first lady of aviation, lending critical emotional and intellectual support to her siblings’ ambitions.
The best part of “The Wright Brothers” involves Wilbur and Orville’s extended stay at Kitty Hawk, a site they had selected for their flight experiments because it offered ideal weather, seclusion, and soft places to land. The remote setting required them to live in a tent. “Their self-reliance was put to the test,” McCullough writes of the brothers. “They lived mainly on local eggs, tomatoes and hot biscuits, though these had to be made without milk, so ‘pitiable’ were the local cows. The only thing that thrived on the Outer Banks, Orville decided, were bedbugs, mosquitoes, and wood ticks. Wilbur longed especially for butter and coffee, corn bread and bacon.” The Wrights lived like early pioneers in North Carolina, a colorful parallel to their pioneering work in aviation.
It’s a reality not lost on McCullough, who belongs to what might be called the triumphalist school of American history. He tends to see the past as a pageant of heroes, a sensibility aptly expressed in the chapter headings of “The Wright Brothers,” which sound like the soaring titles of theater newsreels: “The Dream Takes Hold,” “Unyielding Resolve,” “Triumph at Le Mans,” “A Time Like No Other,” “Causes for Celebration.”
McCullough’s obvious affection for his subjects, a key part of his charm as an author, makes him less inclined to detail the darker aspects of the Wright family. He lauds the brothers’ tireless ambition, yet doesn’t fully explore what it might have cost them. Neither Wilbur nor Orville ever married, for example; is this because they were married to their work? McCullough mentions Orville’s periodic “peculiar spells” when he became excessively touchy, but offers no theory about whether this was merely a mild eccentricity or a deeper pathology. He writes a great deal about Katharine’s sacrifices for the brothers, but offers only two paragraphs about Orville’s refusal, upon her marriage, to attend her wedding, and his subsequent, years-long estrangement from her.
“The Wright Brothers” quickly loses steam after Wilbur and Orville’s victory at Kitty Hawk. Their remaining years are largely relegated to an epilogue that reduces their later lives to a footnote. Wilbur died in 1912 from complications of typhoid, and Orville survived him by 36 years. If Orville created any further innovations in the field of aeronautics in the decades after Wilbur, they aren’t mentioned here.
“The Wright Brothers” isn’t McCullough’s best book, but it serves as a vivid reminder of the risks the Wrights took in attaining flight. Only in 1910 did Wilbur and Orville decide to take a flight together, now confident that even if they both perished, their legacy would be secure.
They were right to feel good about their place in history. In 1969, when he landed on the moon, astronaut Neil Armstrong carried along a swatch of muslin from the Wrights’ 1903 flyer.
Danny Heitman, a columnist with The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”