While I’ve skimmed through Charles Lindbergh’s most famous memoir, I’m actually intimidated to read The Spirit of St. Louis. A popular and critical hit, SoSL won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for its inventive, gripping narrative. Any would-be biographer needs to live up to the high standard set by Lindbergh himself (with considerable editing assistance from his wife, Anne).
“The book’s drama, unity, and sheer mastery of narrative form absolutely stunned,” wrote Brian Horrigan of the Minnesota Historical Society. “Here was the ‘Lindbergh Story,’ well known to anyone over a certain age, but now rendered with a vivacity and piercing kind of truth that was completely fresh.” Most famously, Lindbergh interspersed the story of his 1927 flight with flashbacks, “rendered as thoughts and memories drifting through the pilot’s sleepy consciousness…. Mimicking the processes of memory itself, Lindbergh places these passages out of sequence, in bits and snatches, as images that suddenly emerge and quickly fade.” Just dipping into SoSL has me wondering whether my “spiritual but not religious” biography of its author can take a less linear form…
But such choices are still years in the distance. My most immediate interest is in the book’s occasional mentions of spirituality and religion. For example, one flashback finds Lindbergh giving a flying lesson to a Catholic priest he had befriended in St. Louis, Father Hussman. “His handling of the controls was just as bad as I’d expected,” begins Lindbergh with typical candor. “But how he loved to fly!… And he wasn’t a fair-weather flyer. If it was windy or raining, he’d still go up with you if you’d take him, as though he wished to know God’s earth and air in all their phases.” At one point, they even dive down to wave hello from two hundred feet to a Catholic school.
In his little-loved 1957 adaptation of The Spirit of St. Louis, the great filmmaker Billy Wilder reimagines a longer conversation between Lindbergh and Father Hussman. “I guess I’m getting the hang of it,” says the priest after a rough landing. “No, Father, you’re not,” says his exasperated instructor. “And you never will.”
“Would you like to hear [my prayer] for landings?” asks Hussman. “It’s out of the Psalms.”
“No thanks, Father,” mutters Lindbergh.
“Slim, don’t you ever pray?”
“Well, I don’t have to. I know how to land.”
“Let me ask you something,” Hussman presses on. “How come I never see you around the church? You don’t believe, hmm?”
“Yes, I believe,” replies Lindbergh. “I believe in an instrument panel, a pressure gauge, a compass, things I can see and touch. I can’t touch God.”
“You’re not supposed to,” answers priest. “He touches you.”
Lindbergh furrows his brow: “Well now, tell me, Father: suppose you were up in this airplane all alone, and you stalled it. And you fell into a spin; you were dropping like a rock. You believe He would help me out of it?”
“I can’t say yes or no,” chuckles Father Hussman. “But He’d know I was falling.”
Or consider an earlier scene… Lindbergh is in San Diego designing the plane that gives the book and movie their title. Worried about carrying too much weight, Lindbergh decides not even to take a sextant. “How are you going to navigate”, asks Ryan Airlines president Frank Mahoney.
“Dead reckoning,” answers Lindbergh — played by a too-old Jimmy Stewart.
“What happens over the water?”
“Over the water, I keep watching the waves, see which direction the wind is blowing, allow for the drift…”
“…and hope the Lord will do the rest,” finishes Mahoney.
“No,” Lindbergh tells him. “I never bother the Lord. I’ll do the rest.”
Mahoney is astonished: “Might need a little help up there, don’t you think?”
“No, [he’d] only get in the way.”
Again, I think these are Wilder’s additions. But they do seem true to what Lindbergh says about his younger self. “It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God,” he remembers thinking as a child listening in on dinner table conversations about science. “Your experiment works, or it doesn’t…. Science is a key to all mystery. With this key, man can become like a god himself. Science is truth; science is knowledge; science is power.”
However, Lindbergh’s memoir (written in fragments starting in the late 1930s) emerged from a season in his life when he had begun to doubt that earlier faith. Musings about mortality and eternity pop up here and there in Lindbergh’s account of his flight:
It’s hard to be an agnostic up here in the Spirit of St. Louis, aware of the frailty of man’s devices, a part of the universe between its earth and stars. If one dies, all this goes on existing in a plan so perfectly balanced, so wonderfully simple, so incredibly complex that it’s far beyond our comprehension — worlds and moons revolving; planets orbiting on suns; suns flung with apparent recklessness through space. There’s the infinite magnitude of the universe; there’s the infinite detail of its matter — the outer star, the inner atom. And man conscious of it all — a worldly audience to what if not God? (pp. 321-22)
“What waits after life,” he wonders earlier, as he contemplates falling asleep at the controls and crashing into the icy waters of the North Atlantic, “as life waits at the end of a dream? Do you really meet your God, or does blank nothingness replace your being?”
None of that shows up in Wilder’s movie. But as it ends, with an exhausted, disoriented Lindbergh approaching Le Bourget airfield in Paris, the pilot tries to remember Father Hussman’s landing prayer. “Oh God,” he finally cries out, “help me.”