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A Conversation with Author Richard Rhodes

A Conversation with Author Richard Rhodes


Richard Rhodes won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for his book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. He is the author or editor of twenty-four books and he has received fellowships and grants from the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He has been a visiting scholar at Harvard and MIT and has appeared on public television's Frontline and American Experience. His most recent book, HELL AND GOOD COMPANY, was published in early 2015 and Stay Thirsty Magazine was fortunate to catch up with him at his home in northern California for this in-depth conversation about his most recent book, his life as a writer, his reflections on America and on mankind's current state of affairs.


Richard Rhodes
(credit: Nancy Warner)

STAY THIRSTY: What drew you to write about the Spanish Civil War that raged almost eighty years ago and was quickly eclipsed in history by World War II?

RICHARD RHODES: Having written about the atomic bombings at the end of World War II, I was curious about the development of area bombing—carpet bombing, it was called, or more bluntly terror bombing—between the two world wars. The bombing of the small Basque town of Gernika (as the Basques spell it) in northern Spain in April 1937 marked the beginning of the deliberate destruction of cities from the air. As I explored that history, I was struck by how much of the story of the Spanish Civil War had been left out of the literally hundreds of histories of that war. That was history worth recovering.


STAY THIRSTY: Great artists and writers of the period, including Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, George Orwell and John Dos Passos, became deeply involved in this war and created works of literature and art that survive and are lauded to this day. What made this war so magnetic to these extraordinary artists?

RICHARD RHODES: The 1930s was a time of great despair, in the democracies in particular. With the rise of fascist dictatorships in Germany and Italy, while the democracies struggled with the Great Depression (25 percent of American men out of work, for example), there was a growing concern that dictatorship might be somehow a more effective form of government, especially economically. The winds of war were picking up. Good people in Europe, England and the United States began to hope that it might be possible to stop the advance of fascism—even to forestall a second world war—by defeating the fascists in Spain. So they volunteered to help the struggling Spanish Republic by fighting, reporting, painting, raising money for planes, ambulances and hospital supplies—whatever their gifts enabled them to do.


STAY THIRSTY: One of your themes in HELL AND GOOD COMPANY is the development of both destructive and constructive technologies during the pendency of this war and their impacts on World War II and today. Did you expect to find the richness of invention during what some call "the little world war?"

RICHARD RHODES: I knew about the most obvious inventions of the war, the technologies of man-made death in the form of bombing in particular. For Hitler and Mussolini, one value of supporting Franco in the war was the opportunity to try out their new weapons, from artillery to light bombers to the magnesium incendiaries that had been devised just at the end of World War I and had gone untested. But I wasn't aware of the more promising developments, which have largely escaped academic historians focused on battles and politics: stored blood delivered refrigerated to the front lines to save the lives of the wounded men who had previously sometimes bled out on the long trip back to rear-area hospitals; triage, the method of sorting the wounded when medical services are overwhelmed to save the lightly wounded first and return them to battle, delay treatment of those who could wait after immediate first aid and give only palliative care to the mortally wounded who clearly couldn't be saved. All these innovations and more fed directly into saving thousands more lives during World War II as the medical teams who survived the war carried their knowledge to Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States.


STAY THIRSTY: Of all the stories you tell in HELL AND GOOD COMPANY which ones affected you the most?

RICHARD RHODES: Two, I think, for very different reasons. First, Picasso painting Guernica after the German Condor Legion's firebombing of that small Basque town, the capital of their ancient republic. Picasso had been looking for a subject for months, painting still lifes and portraits of one or both of his mistresses, unsure how to fulfill his commitment to the Spanish Republic to paint a mural for the Spanish Pavilion in the 1937 Paris International Exposition. The Guernica bombing focused him, and in the course of several intense months he conceived and completed the huge Guernica canvas, 25 feet long and 12 feet high. I happen to own a set of facsimiles of his Guernica sketches and working drawings, so I was able to reconstruct his creative process in detail. In the book, my discussion of Picasso and his painting fills an entire chapter.

Second, the English nurse Patience Darton, who volunteered to work with the international volunteers who fought with the men and women of the Spanish Republic. Darton—highly skilled, young, beautiful, headstrong, fell in love with one of the volunteers, an anti-Nazi German Jew from Palestine, and talked about their brief time together to her biographer long after the war. She could have been a Hemingway character, and even had dinner with Hemingway and the English poet Stephen Spender early on her first tour of duty. I fell a little in love with Patience Darton. Readers will too.


STAY THIRSTY: You have written on many subjects ranging from your boyhood in A Hole in the World to your odyssey Looking for America to your prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb to a biography of John James Audubon, to the inventiveness of movie star Hedy Lamarr in Hedy's Folly and now the Spanish Civil War. Is there an underlying theme or motivation that is common to all of your writings? If your body of work had to be characterized in one sentence, what would it be?

RICHARD RHODES: Most of my books, directly or indirectly, are about human violence—what causes it, how it's used, how to prevent it, how to interrupt it, how to survive it.


STAY THIRSTY: How did spending most of your adolescent years at the Andrew Drumm Institute, "…dedicated to the maintenance, care, education and protection of orphaned and indigent boys…", influence the direction you have taken in your life?

RICHARD RHODES: To paraphrase Herman Melville, Drumm—a working farm, where we grew and processed all our food—was my Harvard and my Yale. I mean it not only saved me from starvation and mental illness at the hands of a stepmother right out of Grimm's Fairy Tales. It also, in its daily opportunities to learn how the world works literally from the ground up, released me from the learned helplessness that often follows from abuse, without diverting me to violence. From a frightened 12-year-old who had lived in the Kansas City streets, scavenging half-eaten hamburgers from drive-in dumpsters, Drumm prepared me to function and to create. In my senior year in high school I had the good luck and community support to win a four-year, all-expenses-paid scholarship to Yale. I tell you, when I arrived in New Haven from having been an urban and rural Huckleberry Finn, I thought I'd landed on Mars. Fortunately the natives were friendly.


STAY THIRSTY: How has America changed since 1979 when you published Looking for America?

RICHARD RHODES: There are a million answers to that question. Let me mention just a few.

  1. Much more sophisticated, at least superficially, which is perhaps an artifact of our increasing average level of education. My father left school after the third grade. I have a B. A. My wife and my daughter are Ph.D.'s, my son an architect.

  2. Swearing is back—it cycles across generations—even on primetime TV. Who ever imagined that the word "fart" would appear in The New York Times (other than in the Swedish edition)? I saw it there just the other day.

  3. More middle class, which I notice because the middle class has different personal and social concerns from those of the working class. I kidded my daughter, who's a molecular biologist in the biotech industry, that a complaint of hers was a first-world problem. Speaking for her husband and daughter as well as herself, she countered, "Dad, all our problems are first-world problems."

  4. No one drinks hard liquor any more. My wife, Ginger, and I stocked a cabinet of good booze when we first moved to California, in 2000, but no one has ever asked for it, only for wine or beer, if that. What would Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway say?

  5. Historical research is a lot easier than it used to be, maybe too much so. I used to have to travel to Presidential libraries and similar locations to find the documents I needed to reconstruct historical lives and events. Today most such primary materials are scanned and available online and I can explore history from my office. That's dangerous, of course. As with pornography, digital copies miss the smells. It's one thing to read President Eisenhower's memos on my computer screen, quite another to travel to Abilene, Kansas, where Ike was born and grew up, and smell the fresh cowshit in the halls of the town's only motel, dropped from the boots of feed salesmen and livestock commission men. Or sit in a library in Dahlem, a suburb of Berlin, and open a folder containing the actual letter Lisa Meitner wrote Otto Hahn in late December 1938 discussing Hahn's discovery, a few days before Christmas, of what had not yet been named nuclear fission. My eyes filled with tears—I was moved by the tangible object with its great freight of history. There's a reason why the Declaration of Independence is on display in Washington, in a special bombproof case filled with nitrogen. Physical artifacts carry levels of meaning you can't get from digital scans.

  6. Given the competition for people's time, the decline in book sales and the correspondingly lower book advances lately, I sometimes think I'm in the buggy-whip business. I'm 77, so fortunately or not, I won't be around to see the farther outcome. I understand that computers can now write sports stories. I'm less convinced that they can write history, much less fiction. Poetry, yes, of a kind; they've been doing that for years.


STAY THIRSTY: After writing about so many diverse subjects and chronicling the human condition in so many disparate circumstances for more than forty-five years, how do you feel about mankind and its current state of affairs?

RICHARD RHODES: Optimistic, which is my characterological penchant anyway. Science continues to occupy, investigate and transform ever-larger spaces of the human world, with no end in sight. (Who imagined that benevolent angels would descend on us in white lab coats, sans halo?) Violence continues to decline, as it has in the West at least across the last 700 years, and exposing it with body cameras, iPhones and CNN can only accelerate the process. Young people, by and large, seem to me much more clear-eyed, imaginative and outspoken than their predecessors. The United States may be in danger of becoming the Rust Belt of the middle latitudes, given the Republican Party's program of starving the beast of government, but fortunately what Lyndon Johnson once called "the little wooden soldiers of the status quo" have a corrective habit of eating their young, so maybe the country will survive. Our physical plant is crumbling; the American Society of Civil Engineers, in its 2013 quadrennial Report Card for America's Infrastructure, gave us only a D+, up from a D in 2009. The SCE estimates that upgrading it all by 2020 would cost about 3.6 trillion dollars. Curiously enough, that's about what George W. Bush spent invading Afghanistan and Iraq. [Ed.: $3.7 trillion. Source: Reuters]


STAY THIRSTY: Of all of the people you have written about, which ones stand out in your mind? Are you particularly swayed by the judgment of history when making your choices?


  • Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant American theoretical physicist who directed the design and construction of the first atomic bombs and then tried to articulate how their introduction into the world might bridle the belligerence of the nation-state. Which has indeed happened: we've had no world-scale wars since 1945 (but at the price of a perpetual threat of the destruction of the human world, though evidently that's what it took).

  • James Clyman, a semi-literate mountain man who nevertheless speculated in his journals about the scale of the universe (whether finite or infinite) and wrote poems celebrating the decencies of home and hearth. He discovered the South Pass through the Rockies that made possible the settlement of the West by wagon train. In 1846 he warned the leaders of the Donner Party not to take a shortcut across the Great Salt Lake touted by Lansford Hastings, a trail guide who would have made a great used-car salesman. The Donner Party leaders didn't listen: Clyman had ridden into camp in greasy buckskins, while Hastings had published a book and wore a good suit.

  • Lonnie Athens, the American professor of criminology who first worked out how exactly people become violent: not because they were born that way or succumbed to mental illness but through a process of violent socialization, usually in childhood, at home, but sometimes in the streets or the barracks. I wrote two books about Lonnie's brave, pioneering work, Why The Kill and, to test his model of violence development in another time and place, Masters of Death. The latter concerns the SS Einsatzgruppen, the police and military "special forces" who followed the German army into the Soviet Union when Hitler invaded it in June 1941 and who shot to death in trenches and ravines up and down eastern Europe some 1.5 million Jews, before the invention of the death camps and the gas chambers. Lonnie's model of violentization, as he calls it, fits the socialization histories of both American violent felons and Nazi SS. Which is evidence, as I suspect, that it's a universal process. Lonnie has had to fight with his colleagues to make room for his model, which is causal and as solid, in my judgment, as the explanation of the cause of malaria. Many criminologists reject it; it seems too simple to them and it assigns a large portion of the responsibility for criminal behavior to the criminal. That's easy enough to accept when we're talking about the Einsatzgruppen shooting mothers holding babies, but evidently not so easy when the violent criminal is a white high-school student or, say, Mike Tyson biting off a chunk of Evander Holyfield's ear.

  • Gil Elliot, a Scottish writer not nearly well-enough known, whose remarkable book Twentieth Century Book of the Dead I turned up in the library one day when I was researching my The Making of the Atomic Bomb. I was so impressed that I looked Gil up in London the next time I went there and we became good friends. Gil was simply trying to number all the dead from what he called man-made death in the 20th century—he put the number, up to 1970 (his book was published in 1971), at about 120 million, and illustrated the kinds of people caught up in the 20th-century maelstrom with concise, powerful fictional portraits. Even more profoundly, he identified a system paralleling the public health system which would bring reason and science to reducing man-made death just as public health brought reason and science to reducing biologic death, thus saving some 140 million lives in the United States alone in the course of the century—20 million more than all those lost worldwide in the twentieth century to war and war's attendant privation. Gil's work, like Lonnie's, hasn't yet gained much traction, probably because Gil is an independent scholar who works outside the professions—sociology or political science—that traditionally think about human violence. Fortunately, Gil has recently published Book of the Dead as a digital book, which means it's now available on Amazon at low cost to anyone who wants to read it.

  • There are others, the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr most of all, but that's a good start. As for the "judgment of history," I'm a historian, so as far as I'm concerned my judgment in historical matters is as good as the research I present to support it.


STAY THIRSTY: What can we expect next from you?

RICHARD RHODES: I've just begun research on a book about the history of energy transitions, tentatively titled The Light of New Fires, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York (Sloan, bless them, also supported The Making of the Atomic Bomb and many of the other books I've written since then about science and technology.) Energy transitions may sound like a dry subject, and certainly it can be if it focuses primarily on the energetics and economics of the field. I'm more interested in the rich human stories behind the technologies I'll be writing about, from the 16th-century Elizabethan transition from wood to coal, through the little-known but tremendous transition in mid-19th century America from lighting by whale oil to lighting by kerosene, the beginning of the petroleum era, well before the automobile arrived. (Refineries used to dump gasoline as a waste product into the nearest rivers; it was too volatile to use in lamps, and the only other use they'd found for it was cleaning greasy machinery.) I'll look as well at the arrival of natural gas—the most recent comprehensive history of that subject was published all the way back in 1938—the development of nuclear power and then today's effort to reduce greenhouse gases with alternative energy. All these eras come with brilliant innovators, societal resistance, and transitions much more difficult and slower than most people imagine, a problem we'll increasingly face with renewables as they begin to come on line.

Coal was the nuclear power of its day, widely reviled for its undesirable side-effects at a time when most houses didn't have chimneys but simply let woodsmoke drift through the house and out the windows. Elizabethan preachers ranted that coal was, literally, the Devil's excrement, because it was found underground, black and dirty, and it smelled of sulfur when it burned. But by the middle of the 16th century the English had cut down most of the firewood trees within an affordable range of London and hardly had a better option. The poor turned to coal first, out of necessity, while the rich disdained it. Then Elizabeth died (in 1603), James VI of Scotland moved to London and took the throne. The Scots had been burning their better-quality coal for a hundred years, and when the king began using the new fuel in his properly-chimneyed English castles he made it fashionable. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would have said. The entire subject of energy transitions, vital though it is, hasn't had a good airing since the 19th century. That's my good luck—and hopefully, if I do my job right, the reader's as well.



Richard Rhodes

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