JOHN GLENN: A MEMOIR
by John Glenn
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
An autobiography should reveal something about the person who writes it. By this measure, while interesting, John Glenn's autobiography fails. There appears to be little in John Glenn: A Memoir which is not already available in the public record. Part of this may be due to the fact that John Glenn has lived a very public life since the 1950s. However, if Glenn is to be believed, there is no private man behind the public man.
Two of the key figures from Glenn's early life are his father, John Herschel Glenn, and his civics teacher, Harford Steele. These men instilled a sense of duty-to-country in Glenn which would guide him throughout his entire life, first when he dropped out of college to enlist for World War II and later as he remained in the military, journeyed into space, and entered the Senate. In his portrayal of himself, this sense of duty is all pervasive, although the reader does get the feeling that in many cases Glenn's sense of duty happened to fall in line with his own wishes.
A striking feature of Glenn's story is the lack of a sense of adversity which appears in the book. Although Glenn lived through the Depression (and his parents almost lost their house), never finished college because of World War II and spent literally years away from his wife, he never bemoans the low points in his life. In fact, his childhood seems like it comes from a Norman Rockwell painting and the reader keeps expecting to see Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn wander through New Concord, Ohio to play at Rangers with John Glenn. Unfortunately, while this demonstrates a character which does not dwell on the negatives, it also puts a strange distance between the John Glenn who is describing his life and the John Glenn who is living the life, as if he is afraid of revealing too much about himself.
Glenn chronicles many relationships ranging from his father to his wife and children to his fellow astronauts (both 1960s and 1990s vintages). With the exception of Annie, there doesn't seem to be much meat to these relationships, and even when talking to Annie, while his affection for her is clear, the amount of time they seem to spend together seems minimal. Glenn spent many of his children's formative years involved in the military and the astronaut corps, and his lack of discussion about them, while possibly to spare them further scrutiny, but it comes across as an absentee father who has put his duty to his country ahead of his family. Judging from Glenn's words, the only time he consulted with his family members and did not follow the consensus was in 1998, when he made his second flight. While his family understood his desire, his wife and two children did not want him to make the voyage on the shuttle.
In public life, Glenn performed his duty for an amazing amount of time, giving up the majority of his adult life to serve the United States in one capacity or another. Perhaps the most poignant part of the autobiography is the section dealing with his public service after leaving NASA. In an age when many do not trust politicians, Glenn takes care to explain why he felt the need to go into politics, what he believed in, and how he conducted himself. The worst time of his life, he says, was when he was implicated in the Lincoln Savings and Loan scandal. Unfortunately, while Glenn and fellow Senator John McCain were innocent, party politics meant that neither could escape completely unscathed.
Reading John Glenn: A Memoir gives a new respect for John Glenn the public servant even as it raises questions about John Glenn the private individual. In all fairness to Glenn, he has given so much of himself to the United States, it hardly seems fair to ask for any more. However, by writing his memoirs, he is further inviting the public into his life and should be willing to provide some sort of insight which can not already be fathomed by looking at the forty-plus years of public record concerning him.
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