Martin Sherwin (L) Barbara Stoller-Miller (R) Martin Sherwin (L) Barbara Stoller-Miller (R)

Reflections on Oppenheimer: the Biography and Film

Tuesday, 25 July 2023 13:44

by Suzanne Moore, Wilkes County Librarian

Traphill Branch Library (and Wilkes Co. Library) coincidently recognizes two books with a unique connection.  The Reading Trap Book Club’s Literary Birthday celebrations honored July’s birthday author Martin Sherwin (b. 2 July 1937) and during August pays respect to Barbara Stoller-Miller (b. 8 August 1909).

The club was excited to learn that Sherwin’s biography; American Prometheus; the Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer, was made into a major motion picture, and released on July 21.  Reading Sherwin’s book prepares readers well for the film version of this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography.  The Reading Trap met for a very interesting discussion about Sherwin’s book and appropriately enjoyed a taste of the cinnamon hot candy; Atomic Fire Balls . . . candy cigarettes were not available.

In anticipation for the pre-selected August selection, Barbara Stoller-Miller’s translation of Bhagavad Gita, the club learned that Oppenheimer studied this text intensely and was fluent in the Sanskrit language.   In fact, in a 1965 NBC News documentary, Oppenheimer reflects on the decision to drop the A-bomb.  After witnessing the test-bomb from the Trinity Project in Los Alamos he said onscreen,   

“We knew the world would not be the same . . . A few people laughed; a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

Sherwin, a 1959 graduate from Dartmouth University, studied geology, and philosophy.  He also served briefly in the U.S. Navy, following his time at Dartmouth, as a U.S. Intelligence Officer in Hawaii and Japan.   Later he continued his schooling to earn a PhD from University of California. Where he studied about Harry Truman’s atomic strategy.  His doctoral thesis became his first published book, A World Destroyed.   Sherwin worked on the Oppenheimer bio for nearly two-dozen-years before enlisting help from Kai Bird, co-writer, to complete the award-winning book.  

I was constantly amazed while reading the 700-page biography (pictures and footnotes included).  Oppenheimer, affectionately known as Oppie, was a very complex renaissance man.  He loved to study difficult things as noted in his mastery of Sanskrit.  Sherwin refers to Oppie as a ‘polymath.’  This term, new to me, describes someone of great and varied learning.  Oppie used to say, “Ask me a question in Latin and I will answer you in Greek.”   During his college years, Oppie was more interested in books than dating and he had a great love of literature.  He was a poet in his own right and I was captivated by his lyrics.  He loved music and collected pieces of art by Pablo Picasso, Édouard Vuillard, and Vincent VanGogh.  Both Sherwin’s biography and the film highlight relationships in Oppie’s life; family, women, professors, colleagues from school days, the team of scientists he supervised on the A-bomb project and the military establishment.

I went to see the Oppenheimer film this past weekend, and definitely believe that reading the book first enhanced the film.  The film is a masterpiece and it was amazing to see how this explosive invention was developed.  I can only imagine the weight on Oppenheimer as he dealt with the moral consequences of mass genocide.  America’s complete WWII victory was inevitably dependent on the use of this extreme measure.  With no alternative to ending the war, an atomic explosion became the ultimate solution.  He felt like he had ‘blood on his hands,’ although Truman noted that Oppenheimer was only creator of the device.  The president was responsible for making the decision to use the bomb. 

Much of the biography dealt with an investigation around Oppenheimer’s loyalty to America and associations with known Communists.  There was a hysteria during that time over communism and perceived security breaches.   It was unfair that he lost his security clearance and had his personal life exposed to the public eye.  I think that Oppenheimer led a mentally tortured life accelerated by the travesty of McCarthyism.  I was glad to know that he received honors and rewards in the end, although sadly he died soon after from lung cancer, a result of excessive chain-smoking through the years.  One particular fear that seems enduring to me (a very unscientific person) is the possibility of setting off chemical chain reactions that, potentially gaining momentum, are unable to stop. 

As mentioned the next author the library will feature is Barbara Stoller-Miller who translated the classic Hindu text Bhagavad Gita.  Copies of the book are available for borrowing.  The Bhagavad Gita is one of the holy scriptures of Hinduism and dates back to the 1000 – 1 years B.C.  Stoller-Miller’s translation increased the popularity of Indian literature in America. 

Save-the-date and check out the film “Hindu Nectar: Spiritual Wanderings through India” at Two Rivers Cinema at 1:00 p.m. on August 5, 2023 with Keeping it Reel-a FREE library program.

Join the conversation at the Traphill Branch Library at 6:00 p.m. on August 10 with The Reading Trap Book Club.