American Prometheus

Though he died at a relatively young age, J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb,” lived long enough to see a play based on his life, In der Sache J. Robert Oppenheimer (pr. 1964, pb. 1966; In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1967), by the German playwright Heinar Kipphardt. It focused on the investigation of Oppenheimer as a suspected security risk during the Joseph McCarthy era. Though the play mesmerized audiences in the 1960’s, Oppenheimer himself was disgusted with it, saying that it “turned the whole damn farce into a tragedy.”

Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin recount his reaction at the end of American Prometheus, their Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Oppenheimer. That they have subtitled their book The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer leads one to wonder: Was Oppenheimer’s life the stuff of triumph or tragedy? It is the sort of thing that one might expect the authors to discuss in a conclusion, but none appears in this otherwise fine biography. An epilogue briefly recounts what happened to Oppenheimer’s wife and children after his premature death from throat cancer in 1967, but there is no measured evaluation of the meaning of Oppenheimer’s life by the two writers who might be best qualified to supply it.

Perhaps this is because there was so much ambiguity in Oppenheimer’s life. Indeed, it is the lack of ambiguity in the Kipphardt play that the authors say explains Oppenheimer’s disgust with it. Still, they might at least have tried to provide a summing-up, a statement of what Oppenheimer’s life meant in the end, the life of a man who both facilitated the creation of the atomic bomb and warned against its dangers, a man who seemed devoted to physics and yet hardly worked in the field during his last two decades. Oppenheimer at times seemed fearless in defending unorthodox views and at other times gave way to the views of the orthodox or even embraced them. His is a confusing story.

However, the facts are all there in the account presented by Bird and Sherwin. They have mastered a vast array of sources, from Federal Bureau of Investigation files to published books to private letters, and also conducted dozens of interviews with people who knew Oppenheimer. Rather than overwhelming the reader with raw excerpts from this material, they have thoroughly digested it and are able to provide a flowing narrative which has a ring of truth about it.

Perhaps the best part of this book is the first section, with its account of Oppenheimer’s childhood and prolonged adolescence. Bird and Sherwin present a detailed picture of a young boy who was precocious intellectually but slow to develop socially and emotionally. At the age of twelve Oppenheimer was so advanced in his study of rocks and minerals that he was made a member of the New York Mineralogical Club and was invited to give a lecture. The club’s officials, who had been in touch with him only by letter, had no idea he was only twelve, and members were astonished and amused when he showed up to give his talk.

On the other hand, he had few friends, was painfully shy, and was a target for bullies. One time he was locked in an icehouse overnight. He had no romantic life until he was well into his twenties and no serious girlfriend until he reached his thirties.

The problem with his being successful in mainly one area of life, the intellectual, was that when things suddenly went bad in that sphere, Oppenheimer was devastated. He suffered upon arriving at graduate school at Cambridge University in the mid-1920’s. After exploring various fields of study, Oppenheimer had settled on physics as the subject he most enjoyed, and he did well in his undergraduate studies at Harvard University. It was theoretical physics he was best at, but when he went to Cambridge he was expected to perform hands-on experimental work in the laboratory. Faced with his inadequacy in this aspect of physics, he became depressed and even violent at times toward others. There is even a strange story, not entirely confirmed by the biographers, about Oppenhiemer’s attempting to poison his superviser with a doctored apple.

Oppenheimer was sent to several psychiatrists and was visited by his parents, who arrived from the United States with a young woman who they hoped...

(The entire section is 1780 words.)


America 192, no. 20 (June 6, 2005): 27-28.

Booklist 101, no. 13 (March 1, 2005): 1100.

Discover 27, no. 1 (January, 2006): 73-74.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 4 (February 15, 2005): 205.

Library Journal 130, no. 7 (April 15, 2005): 115.

Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2005, p. R3.

The New Republic 233, no. 16 (October 17, 2005): 35-41.

The New York Times 154 (April 21, 2005): E1-E8.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (May 15, 2005): 7-8.

The New Yorker 81, no. 21 (July 25, 2005): 97.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 10 (March 7, 2005): 63-64.

Time 165, no. 19 (May 9, 2005): 58-59.

The Washington Post Book World, April 10, 2005, p. 3.