- The Biographies of J. Robert Oppenheimer:Desert Saint or Destroyer of Worlds
In 2005, sixty years after the scientific director of the Manhattan Project looked out over the New Mexico desert and witnessed the result of eighteen months of work on what was then the world's largest and most expensive scientific endeavor, there appeared no fewer than four biographies of J. Robert Oppenheimer. That moment marked, among other things, an important reassessment of the histories, legacies, and meanings of both Oppenheimer himself and the nuclear culture that emerged following that world's first atomic explosion on July 16, 1945. That such a reassessment could manifest itself in a spate of biographies speaks to the importance of the genre for understanding postwar nuclear culture and other changing aspects of American science during that time. This persistent retelling of the life of a scientist also raises a number of questions: How are we to make our way through the different narratives? What do the biographies tell us about the role of Oppenheimer's life story in understanding the atomic age? How do we manage the "irresistibly cultural" (203) similarities Robert M. Young has identified between the literary form of the biography and the scientific content of a scientist's biography? What recurring tropes might shed light on the relationships between the construction of Oppenheimer biographies and the biographers' governing assumptions? This article will address one of those tropes—the desert—in an attempt to answer some of the other questions.
The 2005 proliferation of Oppenheimer biographies really only concentrates an abiding interest in telling and retelling his story. With more than thirty biographical works on Oppenheimer published between 1953 and 2012, he rivals Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton for his attractiveness to biographers.1 Cinematically, there are at least three "biopics" and several documentaries.2 Supplementing these works are broader historical accounts of the Manhattan Project, which often contain lengthy biographical sketches, and personal [End Page 492] retrospectives about Oppenheimer.3 There are also fictional texts and theatrical productions about Oppenheimer.4 While I intend to focus on the biographies published on the sixtieth anniversary of the bomb because they represent a specific moment in which Oppenheimer was especially prominent in the public imagination, those biographies are but a sampling of an extensive cultural array that includes, in addition to the texts mentioned above, a number of both highly specific and more broadly conceived analyses.5 Though all of these texts deal, to varying degrees, with Oppenheimer himself, few treat him critically as a cultural figure, and none to my knowledge engages with the curious "biography industry" surrounding Oppenheimer.6 Enormously popular following World War II, and among the most important scientists of the twentieth century, Oppenheimer redefined theoretical physics in the United States, and through his leadership role in the Manhattan Project, forever altered not only the relationships between science and what President Eisenhower would later call the military-industrial complex, but also the very unfolding of twentieth-and twenty-first-century global history.7 Central to weaponizing atomic science, intensely committed to seeing his "gadget" deployed, and then later a vociferous opponent of nuclear arms proliferation, Oppenheimer plays a conflicted role in Cold War history, in decades of US foreign relations, and in emerging contemporary discourses concerning global terrorism.
Almost all textual, cinematic, and theatrical iterations of Oppenheimer dramatize that early morning hour in 1945 when he watched from a bunker ten miles away as a multicolored ball of fire erupted out of the desert floor, bloomed into the now-familiar mushroom shape, and rose, accompanied by an unearthly roar, seven and a half miles into the air. The trope I wish to focus on here, the landscape in which that moment occurred, serves to illuminate biographical depictions of Oppenheimer. Inspired by "persona criticism," the approach Cheryl Walker takes to studying biography and that she characterizes as "a form of analysis that focuses on patterns of ideation, voice, and sensibility" (109), my examination of this trope reveals how it functions as an index to the ideological, conceptual, and rhetorical understandings of Oppenheimer in three of the four biographies published in 2005.8
For many reasons...