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 The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War

 by Samuel Hynes; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, N.Y., 2014, $26

 From the literary provenance of the title alone, you know this will be a different kind of book about American airmen in World War I. The title chosen by Samuel Hynes, a literature professor emeritus at Princeton who served as a Marine aviator in World War II, is drawn from Shakespeare’s King Lear, and portends a magisterial treatment of the daring young men who soared in hostile skies far from home a century ago.

The earliest U.S. volunteers in the French air service, or Aéronautique Militaire, came disproportionately from the Ivy League. Of the first seven, who formed the nucleus of the legendary Lafayette Escadrille, three were from Harvard and one from Yale. When America officially entered the war, participation by Ivy Leaguers mushroomed, involving such notables as Kenneth MacLeish, brother of future Pulitzer Prize– winning poet Archibald, and Quentin Roosevelt, son of the former president. To be sure, the expanding cadre of American combat pilots included its share of distinctly non-blueblood grade-school drop outs like ace-to-be Eddie Rickenbacker. But it is mostly the letters and diaries of the fliers from America’s elite universities that Hynes relies upon to explain the air war’s adventures and ordeals. His deft weaving of these cultivated first-person accounts throughout the narrative paints an insightful and poignant portrait.

Regardless of pedigree, Hynes celebrates them all as knights of the air who managed to balance the inevitable fatalism resulting from the horrors of war with a sense of romance about the milieu of wartime flying. The Unsubstantial Air masterfully illuminates the first major air war and the American pilots who helped to win it.


Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.