During World War II, with apocalypse imminent, a group of well-known Jewish artists and scientists sidestepped despair by challenging themselves to solve some of the most difficult questions posed by our age. Many of these people had just fled Europe. Others were born in the United States to immigrants who had escaped Russia's pogroms. Alternately celebrated as mavericks and dismissed as eccentrics, they trespassed the boundaries of their own disciplines as the entrance to nations slammed shut behind them.
In Stargazing in the Atomic Age (University of Georgia Press, 2020), Anne Goldman deftly interweaves personal and intellectual history in lucent essays that throw new light on these figures and their virtuosic thinking. In sentences that mingle learning with self-revelation, juxtaposition becomes an instrument for making the familiar strange, leading us to question our assumptions about who these iconic characters were and where their contributions can lead us. In these pages, Albert Einstein plays Mozart to align mathematical principles with the music of the spheres. Here, too, Grace Paley and Saul Bellow contemplate the dirt and dazzle of the New York and Chicago streets from their walk-ups while dreaming up characters whose bravura equals the panache and twang of vernacular speech. Nearby, Marc Chagall eludes the worst of World War II by painting buoyant scenes on the ceiling of the Paris Opera in brilliant stained glass no less exuberant than the effervescent jazz of George Gershwin's own Rhapsody in Blue. In these essays, Goldman reminds readers that Jewish history offers as many illustrations of achievement as of affliction. At the same time, she gestures toward the ways in which invention and art that defy partisanship might offer us an example as we enter a newly divisive era.
R. Grant Kleiser is a Ph.D. candidate in the Columbia University History Department. His dissertation researches the development of the free-port system in the eighteenth-century Caribbean, investigating the rationale for such moves towards “free trade” and the impact these policies had on subsequent philosophers, policy-makers, and revolutionaries in the Atlantic world.