The Spectacle of Flight: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1920-1950

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Yale University Press, 2005 - Transportation - 364 pages
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In the decades following the First World War, when aviation was still a revelation, flight was perceived as a spectacle to delight the eyes and stimulate the imagination. Historian Robert Wohl takes us back to this time, recapturing the achievements of pioneering aviators and exploring flight as a source of cultural inspiration in the United States and Europe.

Wohl begins the story of flight in this era with a fresh account of the impact of Charles Lindbergh’s dramatic New York-Paris flight, then goes on to explain how Mussolini identified his Fascist regime with the modernist cachet of aviation. Wohl shows how the Hollywood film industry—drawing on the talents of such director-flyers as William Wellman and Howard Hawks and the eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes—created the aviation film; how writers such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry helped foster France’s self-image as the “winged nation”; and how the spectacle of flight reached its tragic apotheosis during the bombing campaigns of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Generously illustrated with rare photographs, paintings, and posters and elegantly written, this book offers a gripping account of aviation and its hold on the popular imagination during the years between 1920 and 1950.


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The spectacle of flight: aviation and the Western imagination, 1920-1950

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Wohl (history, UCLA; A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1918 ) offers a generously illustrated thematic study of aviation as cultural inspiration. He begins with Charles ... Read full review

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A Superb Second Contribution to an Important and Growing Field
A review by Daniel L. Berek
With "The Spectacle of Flight," once again, Robert Wohl, offers an insightful and highly detailed
cultural history of flight and aviation. Wohl picks up where he left off with his excellent first volume, "A Passion for Wings." Anyone lucky enough to have read that book will appreciate the immense amount of scholarship Wohl draws upon in his studies, as well as how he interprets original sources that are often inaccessible to the non-scholar and uses in his insightful analyses. Here again, Wohl examines the ways in which the airplane is portrayed in all aspects of culture - literature, poetry, painting, film, architecture, popular culture, and political propaganda. Now it is how aviation is represented and remembered by nations and used by politicians and governments that figure much more prominently.
Chapter 1, "The Ambassador of the Skies," delves into great depths into one of the most famous yet mysterious figures in aviation, Charles Lindbergh. Wohl does discuss Lindbergh's often stormy relation with the press, but goes far deeper in examining his significance as a figure in promoting aviation to both corporate intrests and the public at large.
Chapter 2, "Flying and Facism," takes on a darker tone, how Benito Mussolini used aviation as a cultural propaganda tool and the essential role that Italo Balbo played as commander of the Italian Air Ministry. Gabriele D'Anunzio was Italy's poet during the first decade of aviation; Italo Balbo was the executor of highly disciplined squadrons of the aesthetically beautiful and powerful Savoia-Marchetti S-55 series of flying boats that crossed the North and South Atlantic, presenting an extraordinarily spectacle for all the world to see.
Chapter 3, "A Marriage Made in Heaven," delves into the close relationship of cinema and aviation and how the two worked together to create extraordinary romances, both between dashing stars and the public and airplanes, presenting a whole-new spectacle on the giant silver screen for the public to devour and keep coming back for more.
Chapter 4, "Knights of the Air," takes us to the world of literature, where aviation heroes talk about their exploits in the heavens, once the reserved realm of the gods. Naturally, Antoine de Saint Exupery features prominently here.
Chapter 5, "Bombs Away!" brings forth the reality that aircraft were not only machines of wonder and romance, but also could bring on devastation on an unprecedented scale, especially among civilians. Aircraft were presented to the pubic in such books as Seversky's "Victory Through Air," but they had to compete with the press and especially such paintings as Picasso's famous Guernica. Both during and after the war, the essential question would be: is the airplane a tool for bring people together in harmony, as felt with euphoria over Lindbergh's famous solo flight, or does it signal the end of the world? In the first volume, "A Passion for Wings," we learned about the suicide of Alberto Santos-Dumont when he witnessed airplanes being used to bomb ships. How did heroic novels and films compare with what was being covered in the newspapers? However, this chapter does not cover on the use of atomic bombs on Japan.
Chapter 6, "A New Civilization," shows how aviation was presented to the public, whether through record-breaking long-distance flights or public exhibitions such as the 1939 New York World's Fair, in itself a fascinating piece of propaganda, albeit one very different from what we read about in Mussolini's Italy. We are left with the question, "What will the post-War years bring and how will the truths and fantasies of aviation in the first half of the 20th century come to be?" For that, we hope Robert Wohl will explore in his proposed third volume.



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About the author (2005)

Robert Wohl is Distinguished Professor of History, University of California at Los Angeles.

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