Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347

The critical reception of The Double Helix is as much a part of the book’s reputation as the content itself. One cannot read it without assuming the impact it must have had on the people whose names appear on its pages in an unfavorable light. The most telling response on how the book was received came from the two men with whom Watson shared the Nobel Prize and whom he considered friends: Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. When Crick and Wilkins read the publication galleys of the book, both were outraged at Watson’s portrayal of them and their colleagues. Crick threatened to bring suit against Watson, and Harvard University Press decided that was enough controversy to make it bow out of the agreement to publish The Double Helix. After some slight watering-down and the addition of an epilogue, the book was finally sent to press by Atheneum.

After publication, the criticism was just as scornful. In an article published in Science and Engineering in 1968, biologist Robert L. Sinsheimer calls the account ‘‘unbelievably mean in spirit, filled with the distorted and cruel perceptions of childish insecurity. . . . This book is filled with character assassination, collective and individual, direct and indirect.’’ There were those, however, who took an opposite viewpoint. Writing for the New York Review of Books, critic P. B. Medawar predicts that it ‘‘will be an enormous success, and deserves to be so—a classic in the sense that it will go on being read.’’ Perhaps the best objective suggestion came from fellow scientist Gunther S. Stent, who convinced Watson in 1980 to allow a critical edition of the book to be brought out. Stent edited this edition, which contains the entire original text, plus overviews of the historical and scientific setting of the account, as well as a selection of reviews. In Stent’s words:

Although nothing could resemble less a treatise on the philosophy or sociology of science than Watson’s autobiographical memoir, it nevertheless brought home, in a painless and enjoyable literary style, important insights into how the process of scientific discovery actually works.

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Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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