right stuff

Today the phrase the right stuff is inextricably linked to test pilots and astronauts, thanks to Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff and the 1983 Hollywood movie made from it about the early years of the U. S. space program. The right stuff is that ineffable quality that makes one right for a particular job, a combination of skill, determination, audacity, and intelligence, along with properly tempered ambition. But Wolfe was not the first to use the phrase in this sense; far from it.

The phrase can be found as far back as 1748 in the sense of an alcoholic drink, but the application to human qualities is first found in Samuel Foote’s 1775 play A Trip to Calais, where the right stuff is used to refer to the qualities that make a young man a hard-partying man-about-town, and given the earlier sense, implies that the men may not be drunk enough:

Yes, yes, they look of that cut; not of the right stuff, as the French say, to make bucks desprits on.

But it is James Fenimore Cooper’s “Sketches of Naval Men: Edward Preble,” which appeared in Graham’s American Monthly Magazine in May 1845 that first uses the term in the sense familiar to us today. Preble was the naval officer who commanded the blockade of and assault on Tripoli during the First Barbary War, an operation perhaps best known from the reference to the “shores of Tripoli” in the Marines’ Hymn. Cooper writes of a boyhood incident where during a boating party Preble threw stones at a boat containing his father, General Jedediah Preble, who had threatened to board his son’s boat:

It seems the old general decided that the boy had the “right stuff” in him, and overlooked the gross impropriety of the assault, on account of its justice and spirit.

While the anecdote is too perfect to be true, a hagiographic illustration of the boyhood of a future naval hero, Cooper is using the phrase in exactly sense that Wolfe would over a century later.

Other writers have used the phrase over the years, most notably Virginia Woolf, who wrote in The Voyage Out in 1915:

It doesn’t matter how you’re born if you’ve got the right stuff in you.


Sources:

Dickson, Paul, A Dictionary of the Space Age, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009, 167–68.

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, June 2010, s. v. right, adj. and int.

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