Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1087
In Memory Yet Green is an important work for several reasons. Perhaps most important is Asimov’s self-portrait. He is a complex man, driven by dreams of success and fulfilling the American dream in his own way. Fiercely proud of his intelligence and his ability as a writer, he appears at times egotistic, but most readers will recognize the justice of his opinion of himself. He is an intelligent man, perhaps even a genius. Several anecdotes illustrate his conversational wit. Sometimes, he admits, he later regretted his repartee. For example, when a woman at the navy yard asked him if he were trying to grow a mustache, he replied, “Why not, you’ve managed.” Although deploring his response, he admits, “it’s just that when the opponent’s thrust comes, the parry and riposte come automatically.”
Asimov’s desire for success is well documented throughout the book. Because medicine was considered a prestigious occupation among the Jews of Brooklyn, Asimov’s parents wanted him to become a doctor, and his high school and college were selected with regard to whether they were prestigious enough to help him get into medical school. Asimov attended Boys High School of Brooklyn because its graduates were often accepted at Columbia College. He then applied to Columbia College because its graduates were often accepted into medical schools. Unfortunately, Columbia College did not accept him but suggested he attend Seth Low Junior College, another branch of Columbia University, one that accepted more Jews than Columbia College did. When Asimov was not accepted into a medical school, he was happy but knew that we would have to find another route to success.
Asimov’s concern led him to balance his accounts every year on his birthday, January 2. For each year Asimov recorded the number of stories that he had written, the number that were accepted, how much his writing had earned, and how much he had earned from his other endeavors. Since the route to medicine was closed, Asimov became a chemist and taught biochemistry as a member of the faculty at Boston University.
In Memory Yet Green is also important for its portrait of the world of science fiction during and after the golden age. Asimov shows that writers, editors, and agents constituted a small, closely knit, and mutually supportive community. Although John Campbell deserves much of the credit for the establishment of the genre’s golden age, the book also reveals that the writers and fans of science fiction were all excited about this relatively new genre; Asimov, for example, seems to have been determined to succeed as a science-fiction writer, and probably would have done so with or without Campbell’s advice. Certainly, for Asimov his persistence and willingness to learn were as important as Campbell’s willingness to teach.
Asimov portrays other science-fiction writers and their enthusiasm just as vividly. Chapter 19, “The Futurians,” deals with a science-fiction fan club. Among its members were Pohl, Kornbluth, Robert A.W. Lowndes, Damon Knight, and others who later became writers. The times were right for the development of science fiction, and Asimov succeeds in conveying the sense of excitement that filled many of the writers and fans of the golden age. The Futurians, for example, often argued with other clubs over how socially conscious science fiction ought to be. They believed, before and during World War II that science fiction should work against the rise of Fascism. Other groups considered that science fiction should be concerned only with its art.
In addition to its fascinating vistas of the world of science fiction, In Memory Yet Green provides the reader with several more illuminating views. First, it shows the problems and successes of a typical prodigy. Asimov’s talents both rewarded and scarred his adult self. To many readers, he seems overly concerned with his own intelligence and unwilling to admit that someone else could be his equal. Others will recognize this concern as one of the penalties the prodigy pays throughout his life. Asimov describes the surprise and disappointment he felt when he entered high school and discovered that he was no longer the smartest boy in his class. He describes a similar sense of loss while he was attending Columbia University and another when he found that people who were younger than he were beginning to compete with him (as a prodigy, he had always been the youngest in his class).
In Memory Yet Green also portrays the cohesiveness of the Jewish community in Brooklyn; while there was certainly a prejudice that always had to be overcome, there was also a sense of being part of an identifiable culture. Although the Asimov family were nonobservant Jews, they shared in that sense of community. When the family felt lonely, they could go to the synagogue and be welcomed. When Asimov entered the army and felt displaced, he attended religious services and felt a sense of belonging.
In Memory Yet Green also demonstrates the way in which the scientific mind operates. Asimov’s insistence that it is as good to find nothing, if nothing is to be found, as it is to find something is seldom accepted by the nonscientists mentioned in the book, yet it is an important tenet of scientific reality. During World War II, Asimov worked as a chemist. One of his projects was to test a set of specifications for dye markers which had to be clearly visible from the air. After he suggested that each marker should be tested by observers in airplanes, he was told that that would be too expensive unless he could guarantee success. When he replied that he could guarantee only the success of finding out whether the specifications were valid, he was denied the airplane.
Finally, the book shows something of what life was like in Russia for the Jewish community both before and after the Revolution. Life may have been better for the Jews after the Revolution, but Asimov makes it clear that those who left Russia were the fortunate ones. While Asimov himself was not old enough to remember much of his life in Russia, he records family memories that give some feeling of it. For example, the Asimovs lived in a Jewish community inside Greater Russia, where Jews were not legally permitted, and Asimov explains the peculiar circumstances that allowed this particular community to remain. After the Revolution, a childhood friend of Asimov’s father, a Gentile, became influential and helped the family to survive and later to leave the country.
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