The Making of the Atomic Bomb

by Richard Rhodes

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Critical Overview

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Upon publication, The Making of the Atomic Bomb enjoyed both critical acclaim and popular success. Rhodes was rewarded for his years of meticulous research when he won the 1987 National Book Award, the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, and the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction.

Critics praise Rhodes for his exhaustive research, comprehensive scope, even-handed reportage, and narrative skills in rendering a nearly overwhelming array of historical information into a dramatic story, successfully integrating clear explanation of complex scientific concepts with a humanizing account of the scientists, military officials, and political figures involved in the Manhattan Project.

Solly Zuckerman, in a 1988 review in the New Republic, calls it ‘‘a monumental study,’’ and, echoing the widespread praise Rhodes received, asserts:

Rhodes’ book richly deserves the acclaim that it has already been accorded. He has taken infinite trouble to understand and to outline in simple language the principles of nuclear physics that are the foundation on which the story of the bomb rests. The personalities who move through his book come to life in a way that they are unlikely to have done had they been depicted by a scientist’s pen.

Zuckerman further observes, ‘‘I have no doubt that his book will stand for years to come as an authoritative account of the way our nuclear age started,’’ adding, ‘‘Above all, lengthy as it is, it will be enjoyed as a magnificent read.’’

In addition to his narrative skills, Rhodes is praised for his balanced treatment of controversial subject matter. David Bennett, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, notes that The Making of the Atomic Bomb ‘‘draws much of its strength and vigor from Rhodes’ reporting prowess.’’ He observes, ‘‘Despite his own feelings about the subject, Rhodes largely remains a dispassionate narrator, an objective historian, never taking sides on the nuclear debate, giving equal space to myriad points of view.’’

Rhodes’ sequel to The Making of the Atomic Bomb, entitled Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (1995), was named one of the best books of 1995 by Publishers Weekly. Critical response to Dark Sun expresses praise for Rhodes on similar grounds to that of the earlier book. Richard Stengel, in a review in Time magazine, calls it ‘‘epic and fascinating.’’ A review in The Economist states, ‘‘Readers of Mr. Rhodes’s magnificent The Making of the Atomic Bomb . . . could not wish for a better chronicler for the subsequent installment. The insight, learning and narrative skill displayed in that first volume are gathered here again.’’ A reviewer in Publishers Weekly expresses the response of many critics to both books by stating, ‘‘Rhodes makes history work as drama.’’

In addition to The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun, Rhodes has written a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction books that demonstrate the broad scope of his research and writing abilities. In 1973, he published The Ungodly, a well-researched fictionalized narrative of the Donner Party, a group of Pioneers who, stranded in the mountains by a snowstorm, resorted to cannibalism to survive. Farm: A Year in the Life of an American Farmer (1989), was the culmination of a year spent researching the daily activities and financial struggles of a family of farmers. A Hole in the World: An American Boyhood (1990) is Rhodes’ autobiographical account of the abuse he and his brother experienced as boys. Nuclear Renewal (1993) argues for the expanded use of nuclear power plants, which has come to be largely discounted as an unviable energy source. In How to Write: Advice and Reflections (1995), Rhodes offers advice to aspiring writers, based on his own experience. Trying to Get Some Dignity: Stories of Childhood Abuse (1996), written with third wife Ginger Rhodes, is based on interview material with survivors of childhood abuse.

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