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, 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 principle 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 example as we enter a newly divisive era.
ANNE GOLDMAN is a professor of English at Sonoma State University and author of Take My Word: Autobiographical Innovations of Ethnic American Working Women, Continental Divides: Revisioning American Literature, and María Amparo Ruiz de Burton: Critical and Pedagogical Perspectives. Her essays and fiction have appeared in Tin House, the Guardian, the Georgia Review, the Gettsyburg Review, and the Southwest Review. She has been nominated for a National Magazine Award and recognized with a National Endowment for the Humanities award and an Ahmanson/Getty Fellowship.
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