The Apostrophe Blog
I am cranking my way through this outstanding biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography by Kai Bird and the late Martin J. Sherwin. I have long been fascinated by Oppenheimer perhaps since I saw the footage in which he ominously declared, “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” He spoke for all of us who came of age in the shadow of nuclear weapons and potential nuclear war.
I decided I (finally) wanted to read this book long before we got tickets to the matinee of the Christopher Nolan biopic, “Oppenheimer,” at Cinema 21 for next Sunday afternoon. Which is happening in a few days. So now I am cramming. Not a bad thing, actuallly. As of tonight it is late 1943 and Neils Bohr has just arrived at Los Alamos.
I don’t know when I started being fascinated by the details of voluminous biographies. Maybe it has to do with getting older, having lived a longer arc of life oneself and wanting to suffer through the details of how others have managed to sort things out, make progress, survive, maybe even triumph. Recent biographies I have devoured include David Blight’s magisterial Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom and Ida: A Sword among Lions by Paula J. Giddings. Another Pulitzer winner, W.E.B. Dubois: Biography of a Race 1868-1919, by David Levering Lewis waits in the queue on my bookshelf.
What I already know is that American Prometheus is the story of not only a man—a singular, brilliant, charismatic, and tragically doomed genius of a man—but also the sweep of so much of 20th century political, social, and moral history. This volume contains multitudes. About our technological superiority and magical thinking about exceptionalism. Our arrogance and impudence. Brashness and immaturity. Folly and hubris. Fearmongering and paranoia and oh so very much scapegoating and finger-pointing and blame. Lessons reside for all of us in the tale of this one very much human man’s brush with power, the devil, and mercurial fame. Fallibilities and blind sides abound. Mostly what has struck me so far is how a person often never knows whether he or she will be a siren song or a footnote to history. Read on and further beware.