An Open Mind: Robert J. Oppenheimer’s Collection of Books at the Princeton University Library

An Open Mind: Robert J. Oppenheimer’s Collection of Books at the Princeton University Library

Figure 1 (top): Robert Oppenheimer’s signature in his copy of James Joyce, Exiles (Norwalk, CT: New Directions, 1945)
Figure 2 (bottom, left): ‘this play incubated at the Institute’ – Inscription on front free endpaper of T.S. Eliot, The Cocktale Party: A Comedy (London: Faber and Faber, 1950)
Figure 3 (bottom, right): A selection of Robert Oppenheimer’s books held by the Princeton University Library

by Stephen Ferguson and Emma Sarconi

After Robert Oppenheimer–a theoretical physicist most well known as the director of Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II and the “father of the atomic bomb”–died in 1967, his books moved from the director’s house at the Institute for Advanced Study, 97 Olden Lane, to 63 Maxwell Lane, the new home for his wife and daughter, also on the Institute grounds.

In October 1972, his wife, Katherine (known to friends and family as “Kitty”), died in the Panama Canal Zone during a yacht cruise in the Caribbean. When Katherine’s house was being cleared out, the books in the house were donated to the Bryn Mawr Book Sale, an annual scholarship-fundraising event held each spring in Princeton since 1932. Presumably, their daughter “Toni” made the donation.

Robert Fraser, Curator of Rare Books at Princeton University Library (PUL), who had provided expertise to the sale in the past, was instrumental in the gathering of Oppenheimer association copies which were then purchased by the Princeton University Library from the Bryn Mawr Booksale. He realized the permanent importance of both the books annotated by Robert Oppenheimer as well as the association value of many others.

Alexander Wainwright, assistant university librarian for acquisitions, effected the purchase of these selections, amounting to a total of 186 volumes, using monies from the Charles F. Wells Library Fund during the academic year 1973-74.  The acquisition was announced in the Princeton University Library Chronicle.

Oppenheimer, J. Robert. One hundred eighty-six association volumes from the late scientist’s library, including: a presentation copy of Report on the Atom, by Gordon Dean, 2d ed. (New York, 1957); District of Columbia, by John Dos Passos (Boston, 1952) inscribed “…Don’t feel you have to read it. Maybe this mastiff will end it.”; Oppenheimer’s heavily annotated copy of The Meaning of Relativity: Four Lectures Delivered at Princeton University, May 1921, by Albert Einstein (Princeton, 1923); The Cocktail Party, A Comedy, by T.S. Eliot (London, [1950)] inscribed “to J. Robert Oppenheimer from the author: the play incubated at the Institute. T.S. Eliot, 6.iii.50.”; and Senator Joe McCarthy [by] Richard H. Rovere (New York, 1959) initialed RO” on the recto of the front free endpaper. Charles F. Wells Library Fund.

Princeton University Library Chronicle (Autumn 1974)

Handwritten annotations on a page

Annotation on page 61 of Robert Oppenheimer’s copy of A. Einstein, The Meaning of Relativity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1923)

Open book showing images of architectural model of a housing development

Marcel Breuer’s model for ‘Member’s Housing, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J. 1954’ in Robert Oppenheimer’s copy of Marcel Breuer: Sun and Shadow (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1955) inscribed ‘To the Oppenheimer’s with all good wishes! Marcel Breuer December 1955.’

Handwritten note: "For a brave wife. This stag is a brave president. R. O. Christmas, 1955"

Robert Oppenheimer’s gift to his wife inscribed in Memoirs by Harry S. Truman, Volume One, Year of Decisions (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1955)

The majority of the books in the collection are gifts–inscribed from authors and academics to Oppenheimer (or as Christopher Fry writes, “Oppy”) and Kitty. Some, however, are clearly the Oppenheimer’s personal copies. Henry James’ The Ambassadors, James Joyce and Francis Ferguson’s New Directions, and Abraham Lincoln’s Collected Works all offer a peek into an open and vast mind.

One of the most eye-popping inclusions is Robert Oppenheimer’s personal copy of the 700-line Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita (Oppenheimer 7, Box 1). Although not a Hindu in faith, Oppenheimer famously relied on the Bhagavad Gita to help him process his role in the building of the atomic bomb (see Wired‘s in-depth exploration for more on this). Reportedly, upon watching the first test of the bomb in the deserts of New Mexico, a line from the Gita (verse 11, line 32) flashed across Oppenheimer’s mind: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Pink book

His personal copy is well used — falling apart at the binding, the hot pink (Barbie pink, some might say) cloth cover is pulling away from the front and back boards. Dried tape in a set of three on the front and back indicate that someone once tried to hold the whole thing together that way, attempting to extend the life of the book.

Inside, in light pencil, Oppenheimer sporadically translated the text from the original Sanskrit (though sadly, the famous “destroyer of worlds” passage is not among those).

For a counterweight to Oppenheimer’s brilliant mind and collection of books, it’s important to note that Mudd Library holds a collection of seven “Atomic-bombed Roof Tiles from Hiroshima University” donated by the Association of Hiroshima University for Sending Atomic-bombed Roof Tiles. They are a sobering reminder of what a brilliant mind can do to this world–given Oppenheimer’s reaction to his own creation, it’s imaginable that it’s one that even he would approve of.

Today, the collection is available in the reading room under the title “Books formerly owned by J. Robert Oppenheimer” (call number “Oppenheimer”). Clicking the links under the heading “Available Online” will open a guide to the collection including a description of each book and a note that includes an item number (such as “Oppenheimer 33”). To request a particular book to the reading room to view, click on the blue “request to reading room” button and select the box that includes the range that the desired book falls within (“Oppenheimer 33” is in “Box 5: 33-39”). For questions or clarifications, please contact library staff using the Ask Us! Form on the Special Collections website. For more information on visiting, please see our Reading Room Guidelines.