ROBERT OPPENHEIMER: Letters and Recollections by Alice Kimball & Charles Weiner--Eds. Smith
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ROBERT OPPENHEIMER: Letters and Recollections

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With all that has been written about J. Robert Oppenheimer, it is with considerable excitement that one turns at last to the master's voice himself. Will there be revelations? Explanations of the enigmatic personality, the flawed-but-adored image? Yes and no. Editors Smith and Weiner have collected over a hundred letters extending from Oppenheimer's freshman year at Harvard through 1945. They have kept interpretation to a minimum, but have provided excerpts of a long interview with Thomas Kuhn in which Oppenheimer discusses his scientific career. So what is here is very much for the reader to ponder, and it is fascinating. The first letters, many to Oppenheimer's high school English teacher, are almost a pastiche of the precious polymath, the young man dabbling in fiction and poetry, studying Chinese, and taking courses in philosophy, math, and physics. The prose is arch-baroque, usually beginning with a fulsome apology. The Harvard and later graduate years at Cambridge and GÖttingen see Oppenheimer in full Dostoevskian fervor, at times talking all night with literary friends like Paul Horgan, at times depressed and isolated. There is a bout of suspected TB, an unsuccessful psychoanalysis, the almost strangling of a friend, and a strange repugnance for music (later reversed). And withal, as a rich man's son, there are vacations in France or Italy, sails at Bay Shore, and the discovery of his beloved New Mexico haunts. As Oppenheimer grows professionally, we have a wonderful series of letters to younger brother and future physicist Frank, first full of avuncular advice, later revealing a rare intimacy. Then, as his career flowers, the letters lose all their sophomoric pretensions and become charming epistles, combining thoughtfulness with scientific communication. Nevertheless, there is a feeling of remoteness, of someone whose elegant expressions of care belie an emotional distance. Marriage and two children come late in this period, and nothing here casts light on this side of Oppenheimer's life. With the advent of Los Alamos, the letters become increasingly businesslike in tone. As for the turbulent aftermath, the editors include Oppenheimer's speech to Los Alamos scientists expressing his fears for the future; his testimony at the security hearings; and a summary of the final chapter of his life. It is all absorbing reading--more clues, yes, but the mystery remains.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1980
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press