Balloonomania

On this day in 1783, the first manned flight took place; and on this day in 2006 Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Daywas published. The first flight was an untethered, twenty-five-minute, five-mile ride over the Parisian countryside in a hot-air balloon built by the Montgolfier brothers. The accomplishment fired the imagination of countless writers, triggering poems, plays, fables, and cautionary satires over the ensuing decades and beyond. These include the anonymous poem “The Air Balloon, or Flying Mortal,” quoted by Horace Walpole in a 1784 article on the “balloonomania” that was sweeping Britain:

How few the worldly evils now I dread,
No more confined this narrow earth to tread!
Should fire or water spread destruction drear,
Or earthquake shake this sublunary sphere,
In air-balloon to distant realms I fly,
And leave the creeping world to sink and die.

In her futuristic novel The Last Man (1826), Mary Shelley imagines a twenty-first century in which the hero attempts to flee by balloon from a world ravaged by plague, just as “Flying Mortal” describes. Disaster also looms in Against the Day, as Pynchon’s “Chums of Chance” fly unpredictably forward into WWI. The novel opens with the Chums having just landed their airship, Inconvenience, in a field outside Chicago, in order to convene with like-minded “aeromaniacs” at the 1893 World’s Fair. The Chums are blithely intrepid, and they always enjoy a good sing-along, especially when accompanied by Miles, the airship’s main valvist, on ukulele:    

…For we’re the
Aces of the Altitudes
Vagabonds of the Void….
When some folks shrink with terror, say,
We scarcely get annoyed.
Let the winds blow clear off the Beaufort Scale,
And the nights grow dark as can be,
Let the lightening lash,
And the thunder crash,
Only cheerful young hearts have we!
For…
the Chum of Chance is a pluc-ky soul,
Who shall neither whine nor ejac-u-late,
For his blood’s as red and his mind’s as pure
As the stripes of his bla-a-zer immac-u-late!

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.