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Atlantic Fever: Lindbergh, His Competitors, and the Race to Cross the Atlantic

"A penetrating evaluation of Lindbergh's triumph set against the backdrop of the hero-worshipping Twenties. Painstakingly researched, Jackson's work is a singular contribution to the history of flight in general and to Lindbergh historiography in particular. Highly recommended." -- Library Journal (starred review)

"By retelling the story of Charles Lindbergh's great 'first' alongside the nice and not-so-nice guys who finished last -- from Admiral Byrd to Wrong Way Corrigan -- Joe Jackson gives us a book that is as suspenseful as it is thoughful. Atlantic Fever is full of wonder at what it really means for human beings to fly, an achievement in which failure is not merely possible but even probable. Plainspoken and fast paced, exhilirating and hilarious, Jackson reminds us why we are drawn to look skyward and why it is just as important to look out below."
-- Scott A. Sandage, author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America

For five weeks -- from April 14 to May 21, 1927 -- the world held its breath while fourteen aviators took to the air to capture the $25,000 prize that Raymond Orteig offered to the first man to cross the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris without stopping.

Atlantic Fever is about this race, a milestone in American history whose story has never been fully told. Delving into the lives of the big-name competitors -- the polar explorer Richard Byrd, the French war hero Rene Fonck, the millionaire Charles Levine, and the eventual winner, the enigmatic Charles Lindbergh -- as well as those whose names have been forgotten by history (such as Bernt Balchen, Stanton Wooster, and Clarence Chamberlin), Jackson brings a completely fresh and original perspective to the race to conquer the Atlantic.

Atlantic Fever opens for us one of those magical windows onto a moment when the nexus of technology, innovation, character, and spirit led so many contenders from different parts of the world to be on the cusp of the exact same achievement at the exact same time.

A Few Thoughts by the Author
In the Spring of 1927, a young man already dubbed a hero awaited a turn in the weather. He hoped to be the first to fly across the Atlantic to Paris and thus make world history. Though he had his rivals, The New York Times had already declared him the presumptive winner of what it christened “the most spectacular race ever held.” His publisher, George Palmer Putnam, called him a model of all-American manhood, “and an extraordinarily modest one, with a rare ability to keep his head on his shoulders and his feet on the ground.”

The young man’s name was Richard Byrd, famous for his now-disputed claim to be first to fly over the North Pole, America’s poster child for what he called “this hero business.” Now there was a new race, and from September 1926 to May 1927, ten Americans, four French, one Norwegian and one Russian competed for the $25,000 Orteig Prize. Though neither the first air race in history nor the one with the biggest purse, it had captured the public’s attention in ways not previously seen. Since Byrd had won once, and so famously, the sporting crowd assumed he would do so again.

On May 21, he disappointed them, beaten to the finish line by Charles Augustus Lindbergh, an “unvarnished Midwesterner” who’d flown the mail. In the hero myth that instantly flourished around “Lindy,” his success – and moral superiority – was ordained.

In the study of human affairs from the Renaissance to the present, one theme refuses to fade. A man’s path in life is determined by his personal qualities. The winner proves the point: she triumphs, not because of luck, but due to her innate superiority. Americans love their winners, and by 1927 had turned the pursuit of success into the nation’s secular religion. Now, at long last, the religion had found its god.

In losing the Orteig Prize to Lindbergh, Byrd experienced something unprecedented – more so, in fact, than the other rivals. The man once deemed the ultimate winner was now demonized for losing – not by the press, but by his fans. The old laurels no longer mattered; he plummeted in public esteem as excoriating telegrams and letters flowed into his Long Island hangar. “I just want you to know . . . that you are the world’s prize boob,” wired a North Carolinian. “You coward,” fumed another.

A particularly virulent correspondent called him “a disgrace to America.”

Since the 85th anniversary of Lindbergh’s transatlantic triumph just passed, on May 20-21, 2012, perhaps it is time again to consider America’s obsession with winners and losers. When I first considered tackling what newspapers then called “Atlantic Fever,” it was 2008, the year of the Beijing Summer Olympics and the U.S. Presidential elections. Now the latter is on us again. If there seems a difference in those four short years, it is the quickness – and harshness – with which the other side is demonized, even in the semi-finals.

Each year sees its fresh race, its new and momentous contest in which, if one believes the rhetoric, the winner will lead us to heaven while the losers drag us to hell. Even during the Orteig race, the aviators claimed ad infinitum that long distance flight would link the nations in a new era of peace, a scientific utopia where an advanced breed of “Alti-Men” would one day live in the clouds. Yet little more than a decade later, the most obvious and dramatic result of advances in flight would be the bombings of Warsaw, London, Pearl Harbor, Hamburg, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.

We seem unique, and willfully blind, in our worship of victors. Of all Western cultures, America especially embraces the rightness of competition. According to the World Values Survey, a continuing study of the cultural, moral, political, and religious values of more than 90 countries, our approval of competition is unmatched by any other major industrialized nation. In this indicator, we are, indeed, Number One. Meanwhile, a 2002 comparative study of 42 nations strongly suggests that as the level of competition increases in any given society, happiness slides downhill.

One continuing result of our obsession is how we deem the winner right in all things. Lindbergh could do no wrong -- until he accepted a medal from Hitler. A better example is Henry Ford. Because of his success with the Model T and the assembly line, Ford was seen as a homespun savior who had “invented the modern age.” Before Lindbergh’s appearance, the 1920s press devoted more ink and film stock to Ford than any other American. He pontificated on everything from war, women’s rights, and the death penalty to yogurt, FDR, global Judaism, and the “making of men.” Ford preferred soymilk to the traditional version, and famously told the world, “The cow must go.”

The flip side of such veneration is the way we view the loser. Arthur Miller said it best when discussing Willy Loman, his archetypal loser in Death of a Salesman. “People who succeed are loved because they exude some magical formula for fending off . . . death,” he said. “It’s the most brutal way of looking at life that one can imagine, because it discards anyone who does not measure up.” Americans ignore the defeated, he said, because by losing they are “beyond the blessing of God.”

Because Lindbergh won, the story of the race has usually been framed as his. The losers’ accomplishments have been largely forgotten by history. This very fact is what makes the race such a fascinating metaphor for the American Dream, for Lindbergh’s success depended absolutely upon the failure of his rivals – the deaths, mishaps, and injuries of René Fonck, Charles Nungesser, Clarence Chamberlin and Noel Davis, among others. “Slim” won because they miscalculated, and he had the good sense to pay attention. He was no smarter, better organized, more determined, or a better flier than any of his competitors. His “superiority” boiled down to one hard fact: he endured.

More telling is the progression to which the winner rarely admits – that victory depends upon the accomplishments and failures of those who have gone before. In the American myth of success, the winner rises from obscurity and prevails. In reality, he climbs over the bodies of those who preceded him. If he doesn’t pay heed to their lessons, the next guy will climb over him.

This was certainly the case with Lindbergh. He owed his victory and his life to his rivals – and no one more than Richard Byrd. If Byrd had not succumbed to boyish enthusiasm and overloaded his plane with fellow crewmembers during a crucial test, he would easily have been first off the field to Paris. If Byrd had not leased Roosevelt Field and flattened the bumps, dips and trails that destroyed Fonck, the first rival to make the attempt, the Spirit of St. Louis’ famous “kangaroo hops” at take off could have ended disastrously. Lindbergh could never afford such improvements, only Byrd. Most importantly, if Lindbergh had not taken advantage of a weather reporting system that Byrd established and passed on to every flier, he could have taken off without knowledge of what lay ahead of him – and flown straight into a Spirit-swallowing storm.

In one fascinating way, Lindbergh’s success and fame seem to bolster the worldview of many economists: that randomness prevails. No matter how many times an individual stumbles, there is a good chance of success if he hangs on. Physicists phrase it more elegantly, abstract poets that they are. As molecules fly through space, they collide with others, a chaos of Brownian motion that erases all sense of a straight line. An atom’s progress resembles a “drunkard’s walk,” an apt metaphor for winning a mate, making it through the workday, and certainly the history of the Orteig Prize.

We like to think that the winners shape history, and ever since Plutarch we’ve held up their stories as a mirror to “adjust and adorn” our own lives. The truth may be more humane for the many, and humbling for the few. History remembers the winner, but it is the “loser” who shapes the field.