Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Air Heart

The American spirit flies, on the move, higher, to where there is beauty over the sky-draped land.

Wikimedia Commons

It was 1998 and I needed an e-mail address. Back then, nobody used their real names for e-mail. E-mailing was like C.B. radio—you used a handle. I remember thinking for a few seconds and then typing “aeelectra” into the little box on the Hotmail screen. Success. I had signed up.

In those stray moments trying to come up with what was essentially a totemic pseudonym, an image arose before my mind, silvered and fine. It was a photograph from National Geographic, the January 1998 issue. The photograph was a bust of Amelia Earhart wearing a Mona Lisa smile. Her pilot’s license photo, a Venus in a fur-lined flying cap (freckled, gap-toothed, and tomboyish in the talking pictures), a high-modern Man Ray-esque tragic paradigm whom death stalked and fame carried.


Tragic Earhart went down with navigator Fred Noonan in Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E Special two days before July 4, 1937, to a grave either watery or archipelagic—it is still unknown which—in the gold-flecked azure of the vast Pacific. They were trying to circle the globe at the equator, something no one had ever done before. Earhart had already tried and failed once. The second time would kill her.

But the ending isn’t how I remember Amelia Earhart. I remember her at the beginning, when the winds that shouldered her plane wings skyward seemed also to move in her photographed young eyes. That image in National Geographic of a fresh-faced Amelia haunted me then and does still. Her plaintive face peered out of the gelatin print, a plain American beauty, asking a question that somehow only the heavens could answer.

Amelia Earhart went up into the sky as her lifework from the time of that early photograph until the very last moment, engines singing. “The love of flying is the love of beauty,” National Geographic quoted Earhart as saying. “It is more beautiful up there than anything I had known.”

This sentiment is, to my mind, the essence of being an American. One is on the move, higher, to where there is beauty over the sky-draped land.

And yet, although it will be familiar to any American, it is nonetheless a very strange sentiment when one thinks about it. Human beings are born on the ground and have always stayed there until only a clock-stroke ago in historical time. By example, Icarus and Phaethon warned us against going up in the air, where we don’t belong. The sky is off-limits. We make our homes as the beavers and woodpeckers do, scrounging and scraping in the humbler elements below.


But for Americans the sky is a drug like no other. Our hearts are of the air, are born moving toward whatever is high and blue. We want to be there, and want to be there more and more and more. We loved, still love, Amelia Earhart inordinately. She was how we see ourselves when we make no poses and come simply to the banquet of existence, just as we are. Air-hearted, impatient of gravity.

There is a commercial for Delta Air Lines. Maybe you’ve seen it. Donald Sutherland narrates what, until coronatide at least, was the most ordinary of procedures. The runway stripes under a jetliner wheel stir and peel backwards. They race and then blur. They melt into one furious line and then that line suddenly jumps backwards and soon disappears as the jet gains speed. It is just a takeoff, something that, again, is happening thousands of times every day. Inside the ascending aircraft, ears are popping and the flight crew is sitting in jump seats, soon to wheel out carts and begin pouring Diet Coke.

But the takeoff is also pure fairytale. It moves our air hearts like nothing else in the world.

Donald Sutherland incants in the commercial’s background in magical syllables: “You are a test pilot, breaking through where others broke.”

We are pioneers, he tells us, with our “wild eyes and big, fevered dreams.”

“There is no stop in us, or you. Only go.”

Yes. He is right. There is no stop in us. Only go. To gain speed is to gain the sky, lofting up, that slipstreamed glory. The heart urges it further, and we somehow become more American the higher we climb. “Go,” our hearts tell us. “Go. Go. Go.”

It is just a commercial, and it is just an airliner. It is a business trip, a cocktail napkin, a crossword puzzle in the promo magazine. But that commercial makes my blood swarm, my heart lean into its oars like in that Tennyson poem.

Come, my friends,
‘tis not too late to seek a newer world. 
Push off, and sitting well in order smite 
the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds 
to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths 
of all the western stars, until I die.

Tennyson’s Ulysses went on the water to the end of the world and beyond. Americans want up, higher and higher forever, like Amelia Earhart, whom the Fates and gravity reclaimed just before our nation’s birthday.

And after her, too, we have thought of little but what is above us. Alan Shepard sat back-down in a Freedom 7 rocket on May 15, 1961—in his own urine if you believe the movie version. Delays, delays, delays. Let’s get going already. And when the time finally came to decide whether to go or abort, Shepard did not hesitate. Freedom is as freedom does. A hundred thousand pounds of explosive chemicals under Shepard and seventy-eight thousand pounds of thrust on the way, and his one wish was to “light this candle.” Twenty-three years and ten-odd months after Amelia went missing, and her spirit was out beyond the air to the vacuum beyond.

Americans fought a war with the Russians in that vacuum. Sputnik was a little metal beach ball beeping down to listening stations, but the Americans looked up, only up, past where Yuri Gagarin went, higher and higher. The Cold War was ostensibly about capitalism and communism, the Kitchen Debate, propping up dominoes in Southeast Asia. Blood ran in rivers on earth, but rockets roared free of all that in the sky above. If the Russians want Eurasia, then let them have it. The stars shall be ours, and the black that gapes between them.

Earthbound Americans look up, too, other candles in other romantic sky-visions. The greatest American novel ever written, On the Road, yearns not really for road but for Heaven. It is about what Jack Kerouac cannot reach, and not about the stretches of highway that take him close but never all the way there. This stretching-out is what Kerouac sang of when he wrote mystically of “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’.”

Kerouac, sad Catholic, wanted God and merely bided his time with drink and girls. There are Heavens above, and even French-Americans cannot wait to be in them. In the air, there are roman candles popping—that is where he, we, want to be. Americans want skyward, however we can get there.

Prosaic billionaires have air hearts, too. Elon Musk, adoptive American, speaks of going to Mars to colonize it. Mars will be a living Hell, a cryogenically cold carbon dioxide choke-world where tornadic dust storms abrade the paint off of shelters and transplanted humans huddle in horrifying realization that there is no way to get back home. Maybe Musk doesn’t really want Mars, but an excuse to go flying.

Why stick around on the fourth planet when there are billions of light years beyond it? Americans want space, not planets: more and more sky, with the solar system a hop-scotch board for getting there. Launched forty years after Earhart vanished, Voyager I and II are now a combined quarter of a trillion miles away. And going. They seed the vacuum with the contrail of our American heroine. Go. Go. Go. Go. Go.

What is it about Americans that pushes us up off our lawns and prairies and sends us hurtling into skies above? Why can we not just be still? In a 2019 PBS documentary about Amelia, Gore Vidal says that she and another aviator with whom Americans are fascinated, Charles Lindbergh, went “beyond stardom.” They were “on a strange continuum,” Vidal added. “Like gods from outer space.” Yes, but why? Why should we be so quickened by the flying of planes? The French loved aviation, too, beginning with hot-air balloons and continuing through the halcyon days of aviation firsts during the interwar. But Americans take the obsession to hearts nakeder and much more in need of the feeling that going gives.

Maybe it’s the distance that draws us. In the National Geographic quote above, Earhart remarked about beauty. There is more to that quote than meets the eye. In a splendid little biography of Earhart by Candace Fleming, Amelia Lost, we learn that Earhart’s childhood was marred by a drunk father and the usual family sorrows that follow. Flying must have been an escape to Amelia. Her early flying teacher, the technicolor American character Neta Snook, upbraided Amelia for “daydreaming” during her lessons. This is significant, I think. It was not the flying so much as the soaring that Amelia appeared to crave. “All I wished to do in the world,” Fleming quotes Earhart as saying, “was to be a vagabond—in the air.”

Wasn’t that what America was and is? Haven’t we always been putting distance between ourselves and our memories, ourselves and our ruined utopias? Wasn’t our native film industry born of this escape, with publicity and hype born alongside it?

It was out of the weightless stuff of Amelia’s atmospheric vagabondage, after all, that advertisers and other all-American hustlers built a brand. Earhart was iconic because she was played up that way, American style. Earhart played along, to great profit, as cigarette companies and clothing companies, magazine publishers and lecture-tour organizers cashed in on the image that they, and she, carefully cultivated. From the anonymity of distance-drunk America grew the quasi-intimate unfamiliarity of the movie star, the press darling, the magazine cover girl.

In Amelia’s case, she was pitched as a role model for young women, who leaned in to hang on Earhart’s every word during her cross-country speaking gigs. Here is more distance in the making. Fleming, the Earhart biographer, noted that during Amelia’s childhood it had been a big deal, something of a local scandal, when she and her sister were outfitted in bloomers instead of the standard nineteenth-century dresses. Women in Earhart’s day were straited into old-line bourgeoisie sensibilities, and the rebel girls in airplanes were pure catnip for hothouse flowers such as these. If you were a secretary in a small town with dreams bigger than a Thornton Wilder play, then when Amelia Earhart barnstormed in you would be there, rapt, already flying away in the skies of your imagination.

But there is more to Earhart’s aviatrix branding than just these American unwindings of Victorian social mores. There is something much more deeply American to her yearning to be in the sky, untethered to the ground. Women quite literally looked up to Amelia as she swooped through the air, but Americans in general, not just laced and bodiced debutantes, had a hankering for something grander than what the terrestrial could offer.

It translated into our political character as well.

In his 2010 book Dupes, historian Paul Kengor notes that Amelia Earhart, along with Jane Addams and other high-profile American women, signed on to a 1933 effort by social activist Margaret Lamont, working of course in tandem with her socialist husband Corliss (remember that Earhart was paired with publisher (and born publicist) George Putnam as a feminine companion to his masculine anchor), to support leftist philosopher John Dewey’s drive to get the USA to recognize the Soviet Union. Kengor avows that those who signed such petitions were “doing Stalin’s legwork,” which is true. Americans were starstruck by the communists and socialists of the day, people who, in retrospect, were doing everything they could to bring the good old United States of America to her knees.

But I think that, in the case of many such “dupes,” politics explains only part of what was going on.

To put a fine point on it, why did so many Americans support the Communist Party? I am often asked this by colleagues in Japan. I had no idea how to answer this question until I began thinking about the problem in the context of Amelia Earhart. Here is the thing.

Americans are purehearted vision-seekers. Your Elizabeth Bentleys and Whittaker Chamberses, for all their faults, got their start in the spy business out of what appears to have been a sincere regard for their fellowmen. As naïve as that makes them, so be it. Foreigners probably have an image of us Americans as Stallones or Eastwoods, grimacing theatrically in a shooting gallery as bullets scream. But we are rather innocent, even giddy and childlike, are we not? Not so much Josie Wales as Little Orphan Annie: More Huck Finn than the man who corrupted Hadleyburg.

Speaking of Huck, that little raft going down the Mississippi, that’s a utopia, is it not? In that most American of settings, we see Amelia Earhart in prologue. Mark Twain saw that the USA had a whole mess of troubles from which human effort probably would not suffice to get extricated. (Huck Finn’s father was a nasty drunk, too, a trait Huck shared with Amelia.) What one wanted was to start again, in a new place, away from the sins of the past. One wanted distance. Before there were the Wright Brothers, there was the Mighty Mississippi. So, Twain built his new Eden on a few tree trunks lashed together, floating down the muddy carotid artery of a land that urges upward, ever upward, to a place where no mud attaches. In slavery and hate, Twain found humanity, but the only way he could keep that humanity was by setting his characters adrift: to a land, not quite promised, but at least not compromised by the earthly shadows that cling to us.

And so it is with our country, always and henceforth. Elegiac feelings America, because the Coney Island of the mind lasts but an hour and is gone. We strain for the good and hit mostly its opposite, but then repeat the process on forever. Nothing gold can stay. But because it cannot, let us go, and go, and go higher.

There is a boulevard down there of broken dreams, in that America of streets and neighbors, but where we slip the surly bonds of Earth we touch the Face of God. The answer to a failing education system? Teachers in space, of course. This is a most American solution to a pedestrian problem. That teacher never reached space, but instead went to glorious martyrdom in a fiery hailstorm high above. She too slipped the surly bonds. This is all the more reason to reach higher for the heavens the next time. Whether that teacher touched God’s Face, God alone knows. But we believe that she did. Christa, her name was. The American religion of longing.

That is us, afterburners on, full throttle, going. Glamorous Glennis, a new Apollo, a new Saturn, a new Artemis. We go higher as the land below us grows fouler, and so the higher still we must go. We were the shining city upon a hill while the Indians died in their thousands, their tens of thousands, and the Africans hoed rough ground. We died to make men holy as He died to make men free. We burned streaks into the high blue-black exosphere as the Africans marched in Selma and Birmingham and the Indians still ghosted the desert and the plains.

We are going back to the Moon now, I hear. There is no reason, so do not ask why. Not even because it is there. Simply because it lets us go farther away elsewhere. And we will paint Old Glory on our rocket ships, because the flag is simply the stand-in for the sky over the horizon that we cannot yet discern. But will soon, God willing.

And yet, life is not all sky. We do not live in Heaven for the moment. We need some place to rest a while. Amelia Earhart, at the controls of her Electra, fights panic as she and Noonan search for tiny Howland Island. She “whistles into mike,” she radios, hoping that the crew of the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, waiting for her, will hear and respond. Amelia is a flyer, but all she wants now is to find land. She has lost Howland, there is nothing but sloshing sea below.

Americans go up, but do not very well come down.

The last person to hear Earhart’s voice, Fleming writes, may have been a young lady in Florida, Betty Klenck. The Klencks had rigged a special antenna and were, it seems, picking up signals from Earhart’s radio. Betty Klenck wrote down what she heard, the snatches of conversation. It sounds as though Earhart and Noonan had crashed somewhere on land—perhaps it was Gardner Island (in present-day Kiribati), perhaps it was Carondelet Reef.

Earhart in jungle, Earhart in sand, Earhart slipping under the waves her Electra had defied for so many outings. Americans are people, too. Icarus and Phaethon, and Prometheus bound.

Later, there were rumors—fake news—that Earhart and Noonan had been captured by the Japanese and executed in Saipan. More terrestrial unpleasantness.: foreshadowings of worse to come. The world will have us, even if we will not have it. And we will confess, in our secretest hearts, that we want the sky, but cannot hold it, and that in its stead we will take hearth and home, and a wife by our side.

George Putnam, Fleming notes, recalled Amelia’s words to him before she and Noonan set off on the round-the-world flight that would claim her. “When I go,” Amelia had told her husband, “I’d like best to go in my plane. Quickly.”

One month later, from an airport in Lae in Guinea, Earhart throttled the Electra up and she lifted, engines making that most beautiful of American sounds. A “full-throated smooth song,” Earhart called it, the sound that bought her the heavens for the moment at least.