STARRED REVIEW
October 2017

Midcentury Renaissance man

By Peter Blauner

Jennet Conant’s latest book, Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist, is a magisterial biography of one of the 20th century’s most influential men: her own grandfather. James B. Conant, a brilliant scientist, had a career that was so varied and vital to our country that this book could easily have been called “Man of Many Hours.”

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Jennet Conant’s latest book, Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist, is a magisterial biography of one of the 20th century’s most influential men: her own grandfather. James B. Conant, a brilliant scientist, had a career that was so varied and vital to our country that this book could easily have been called “Man of Many Hours.”

To say that James realized an impressive array of achievements is to damn him with faint praise. An outstanding research chemist at Harvard, he was crucial to understanding the structure of chlorophyll. In recognition of his vision and talent, he was selected as the president of Harvard soon after turning 40. What would have been the capstone achievement for most people turned out to be a steppingstone for James.

Appointed by Eisenhower as the high commissioner to Germany, he ushered West Germany into NATO. Later, after sputnik, he became a powerful voice for strengthening the public school system. But James is perhaps most famous for his work on the Manhattan Project. It is likely that the Project would have failed without his steady and wise presence, but his most famous achievement haunted him. Postwar, James was horrified by the threat of nuclear proliferation, and he argued strongly against developing the hydrogen bomb. The politics of the time—McCarthyism, Stalin’s aggression, Truman’s inexperience—doomed his ideas, but one wonders what the world would be like now if James had been heeded.

Jennet Conant has written about her grandfather before, in her earlier books 109 East Palace and Tuxedo Park. But while there is genuine pride in her grandfather, she never allows it to cloud her judgment. Jennet can be quite critical of her subject, especially when detailing the devastating impact his prolonged absences had upon his wife and sons. In other words, she brings to her task the same objectivity, thoroughness and interest that her grandfather brought to his. Insightful and rich in detail, this book is a fitting tribute to a remarkable man.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Man of the Hour

Man of the Hour

By Peter Blauner
Time Warner Audiobooks
ISBN 9781570426827

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