The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War (Paperback)

The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War By Samuel Hynes Cover Image

The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War (Paperback)


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The vivid story of the young Americans who fought and died in the aerial battles of World War I.

Samuel Hynes's The Unsubstantial Air is a chronicle of war that is more than a military history; it traces the lives and deaths of the young Americans who fought in the skies over Europe in World War I. Using letters, journals, and memoirs, it speaks in their voices and answers primal questions: What was it like to be there? What was it like to fly those planes, to fight, to kill? The volunteer fliers were often privileged young men—the sort of college athletes and Ivy League students who might appear in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and sometimes did. For them, a war in the air would be like a college reunion. Others were roughnecks from farms and ranches, for whom it would all be strange. Together they would make one Air Service and fight one bitter, costly war.

A wartime pilot himself, the memoirist and critic Samuel Hynes tells these young men's saga as the story of a generation. He shows how they dreamed of adventure and glory, and how they learned the realities of a pilot's life, the hardships and the danger, and how they came to know both the beauty of flight and the constant presence of death. They gasp in wonder at the world seen from a plane, struggle to keep their hands from freezing in open-air cockpits, party with actresses and aristocrats, and search for their friends' bodies on the battlefield. Their romantic war becomes more than that—it becomes a harsh but often thrilling new reality.

Samuel Hynes is the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature Emeritus at Princeton University and the author of a celebrated memoir of serving as a marine pilot in World War II, Flights of Passage. His book on soldiers’ accounts of twentieth-century wars, The Soldiers' Tale, won a Robert F. Kennedy Award. He was a featured commentator on Ken Burns’s documentary The War. He is also the author of several works of literary criticism, including The Auden Generation and The Edwardian Turn of Mind, and a memoir, The Growing Seasons. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Product Details ISBN: 9780374535582
ISBN-10: 0374535582
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: October 13th, 2015
Pages: 336
Language: English

The Unsubstantial Air is written with personal knowledge of what it is to be young and learning to fly, and of the gains and losses that combat flying brings to those who engage in it . . . those young men rose to the challenge, and Hynes has paid them handsome tribute. A terrific book.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“This history of American airmen in the First World War conveys the fervor with which young men rushed to take part in a new form of combat. Many of them were acquainted thanks to boarding schools or the Ivy League, and illusions of glory lingered among the corps, even as pilots crashed carrying out ill-defined missions in untested machines and without parachutes. Hynes relies on contemporary letters and diaries . . . [and] captures the flyers' perspective and the rackety, exhilarating experience of flight.” —New Yorker

“[The Unsubstantial Air], both thrilling and poignant, often employs a graceful present tense, and incorporates numerous first-person accounts, many of them newly discovered by Mr. Hynes's assistant on the project, Suzanne McNatt (a retired Princeton librarian to whom the book is dedicated). And from its pilot's-eye view it presents a somewhat different World War I from the muddy, poison-gassed charnel house described in so many of the books published to commemorate the war's 100th anniversary.” —Charles McGrath, The New York Times

“This year we saw a lot of books about World War I, and Samuel Hynes' The Unsubstantial Air is one of the best . . . [Hynes] writes in such a beautiful way, so the experiences of these men are so moving, and they were so brave . . . He does a wonderful job honoring them.” —Nancy Pearl, NPR's "Morning Edition"

“A beautifully written evocation of the Ivy Leaguers, farm boys and wild men who flew avions de chasse from (mainly) French airfields, based on their letters, flight diaries and memories.” —Roy Foster, Times Literary Supplement

“A beautifully written evocation of the Ivy Leaguers, farm boys and wild men who flew avions de chasse from (mainly) French airfields, based on their letters, flight diaries and memories.” —Roy Foster, Times Literary Supplement

“Samuel Hynes is simultaneously a great gift to his complicated country and to our English language. He vividly brings to life our earliest air warriors and does so with a seemingly effortless but exhilarating prose that soars in much the same way his aviators do. Masterful.” —Ken Burns

“A must-read for anyone interested in military history, The Unsubstantial Air is also Hynes' illuminating, heartfelt tribute to his pilot comrades of another conflict.” —Chris Patsilelis, Tampa Bay Times

“A deeply empathetic account of the first gentlemen pilots feeling their ways in uncharted territory . . . Intimate and memorable portraits of these idealistic, daredevil young men are contained in a marvelously fluid narrative.” —Kirkus (starred review)

“[Hynes] vividly recreates the experience of flying in WWI . . . A must read for anyone interested in aviation history, military history, and the American experience in the Great War.” —Publishers Weekly

“This is a magical book. With the deft wizardry we've come to expect from him, Samuel Hynes manages to take us simultaneously up into the air and back in time. No one who encounters his knowing but empathetic portraits of America's first wartime flyers will ever forget them.” —Geoffrey C . Ward , author of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

“A remarkable achievement. Drawing on his own experience as a marine combat pilot in World War II and a treasure trove of little known letters and journals, Samuel Hynes tells the story of American pilots during the Great War. He shows who these men were, what drew them to aviation, and how and when they learned to fly and fight in the air--what one of them called 'this killing business'-- and does it in understated yet moving prose that reads like an extended elegy for a bygone and unrecoverable time. The result is mesmerizing from its lighthearted beginning to its often deadly end.” —Robert Wohl, author of The Spectacle of Flight: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1920–1950

“Drawing on meticulous research as well as the author's own experience as a combat aviator in World War II, The Unsubstantial Air is Samuel Hynes's intimate human history of the dawn of American aerial warfare during the Great War. Following the young pilots, many well-born gentlemen and many others not, Hynes paints a fascinating group portrait of American aviators as they are initiated into the deadly new game of aerial combat. No one I know of writes about flying, and fighting in the air, as gracefully as Hynes.” —Roger J. Spiller, author of An Instinct for War: Scenes from the Battlefields of History

“Samuel Hynes, who gave us the finest memoir of aerial combat in World War II, has journeyed back to the earlier global conflict and returned with the finest history of the first air war. He retrieves that long ago struggle from the quaint half-remembered movies of faintly comical looking planes made of cloth and wood, to put us among a generation of young Americans being fiercely tested as they learn to wage war with the most modern machines in the world. At once rich and restrained, sparkling with calm humor, full of weather and peril and wisdom and rue, and wholly engrossing from the very first page, The Unsubstantial Air is a monument worthy of the fliers it brings to intimate life. It is also a narrative that could only have been written by one who, under very different yet also very similar circumstances, has been there himself.” —Richard Snow , former editor in chief of American Heritage

“A marvelous book, which nobody but Samuel Hynes could have written. Of course he gives us the battles, the development of tactics and technique, the expansion of operations as the war goes on. But the heart of this book lies in his brilliant recovery of ‘the pilot's world,' with its sense of romance and wildness, its mixture of valor and fatalism, its reticence and pride.” —Patrick Wright, author of Tank: The Progress of a Monstrous War Machine