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Writing Essays

A  Short Guide for Using




Assignment: Write an essay on Robert Oppenheimer as an American Prometheus.

(Max.= 2500 words)


The idea is to write down something very fast about one particular thing that struck you in your reading about Oppenheimer.  Try to avoid generalities and narrow your focus to that particular. Don’t worry about its ‘relevance’. The important thing is that it aroused your interest or curiosity and it is trying to tell you something. Get it down:

There was one person on the committee of enquiry who had immense power behind the scenes and who had the ear of the President too. His name was Strauss and Oppenheimer paid him little attention. He thought that, scientifically, Schwarz was ignorant. Schwarz was convinced that Oppenheimer was a committed Communist that he was very dangerous for the nation and should be relieved of his position as soon as possible. Strauss was also convinced that if a cargo of iron isotopes were shipped abroad, as was being proposed in some quarters, they could be used for military purposes and put America in great danger. They were, therefore, of critical national interest for Strauss. At one point in a congressional hearing of 1949 (check exact date) Strauss asked Oppenheimer if isotopes could be used in the manufacture of atomic weapons.

Oppenheimer replied that he wouldn’t swear that isotopes couldn’t be used in the production of atomic energy. He went on to add that you can, and do use shovels for atomic energy — and beer. To clinch the matter he said that isotopes were far less important than electronic devices for such purposes but much more important than vitamins, say somewhere in between.

Those paying close attention, according to Priscilla McMillan and Kai Bird’s accounts saw the chairman (Strauss) flinch, and his eyes narrow (get pages). If there was one remark in the long career of Oppenheimer that both summed up his character and also shaped his fate, it was that one.  Strauss never forgot it, nor did he ever forgive him.      

This opening stratagem has one purpose: to get the essay launched. As it comes directly out of the writer’s own experience it should almost write itself.  It is very important to note, however, that this opening is not cast in stone. As with everything else in this first draft, it can be radically re-written later, or even scrapped in favor of an opening which appears more suitable. There’s nothing sacrosanct about it.


The important thing now is to keep writing, showing how that specific thing is relevant to the topic of the essay as a whole. Most students will experience a Pavlovian reflex here and want to set down their thesis. They need to be encouraged to ignore those promptings and focus on how this opening bears on the essay as a whole. In this case the writer might come continue like this:

A number of things can be noted even from a small incident such as this.  Oppenheimer could be arrogant and dismissive, especially when he thought he was dealing with an ignorant and pretentious bureaucrat. He carried with him a certain east coast snobbishness, a disdain for things and people he considered unworthy of his considerable intellect. Yet his friends didn’t find him arrogant. They found him warm, considerate and funny — a great party-giver and a man who gave very close personal attention to the well being and even the domestic trivia of his los Alamos team. What emerges from this incident and from all the studies I have read to this point is a very complex and many sided-man and scientist whose very complexities, interesting as they might be to his friends and his ‘team’, were what became a problem for him, and the problem became very serious as the arc of Oppenheimer’s career curved toward its end.

This, again, is not perfect but the important thing is that it is genuine writing. The writer is involved and is thinking of the essay as a ‘narrative of ideas’.


Having so far neglected to set down a thesis, there will be an almost overwhelming impulse to do that now. Again, it’s necessary to hold back and to keep thinking in a narrative mode. What’s needed here is a passage that gives the reader a very clear sense of the direction which the author tends to take but stops short of giving the full conclusion/thesis. That’s being kept for its right place — at the end.  So our fictional author might continue now with something like this:

Oppenheimer was such a central figure in America in his era and, as I have indicated, a man of such complexity that in order to determine whether he can be called an American Prometheus one has to narrow the focus.   My purpose is to study in detail some of the central characteristics of Oppenheimer as a scientist and intellectual leader who was politically involved in some of the most troubling questions of his time. I will do that by concentrating on four aspects of his life, particularly during the period on the los Alamos project: his somewhat baffling and enduring association with the Communist Party, his abilities as a physicist and as a manager of physicists, his quarrel with and ultimate betrayal by Edward Teller and, last, his battle with Strauss. I’ll examine these in order.

The reader now has a map, which adequately answers the question: Where is this writer going?  He can read on with a sense of confidence and curiosity.


The procedure now is relatively simple. The four sub-topics mentioned above can be seen as ‘chapters’ in a developing ‘story’ and the stages can be signaled, if the writer wishes, with appropriate headings.  Obviously, the ‘argument’ will be cumulative so it’s best to move from the simplest to the more complex ‘chapters’ — a rule-of-thumb that will apply to many essays which use this model.

In this case the number of major points is four. In any give essay there may be five, or seven, or seventeen — or only one. There is no reason to regard the number three, or any other number, as sacred.


This can be the most problematical of the five stages but it needn’t be. If we see the ending as something that grows out of the substance of the essay as a whole it will tend to shape itself quite naturally. For some essays the conclusion will be a statement in the form of an earned thesis. If, as often happens with rich topics, it’s not possible to come to a definite thesis/conclusion the author has to find an ending which is appropriate. It’s pointless, as well as dishonest, to force a thesis on a topic where it isn’t warranted. If the whole study has left the author with a further question, or questions, it’s necessary to state that clearly. In the case of this study of Oppenheimer let’s imagine that the writer wants to conclude by modifying the implied thesis in the topic: Oppenheimer as an American Prometheus.  He might decide to do it this way:

Taken as a whole, Oppenheimer’s career, particularly during the Los Alamos period, had something about it that was larger than life.  He was a lightning-rod for some of the most troubling scientific and political questions of his time. The problems he raised still trouble us. However I am not convinced that the title ‘An American Prometheus’, which is often applied to him and which I also the subtitle of the most thorough biography about him, is accurate. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and his motives were obscure. Oppenheimer did not steal anything.  As I have shown, his knowledge as a scientist and his loyalty to his country in a time of acute danger coalesced to force him into a position which, in some ways, ran against the dictates of his conscience: he had to find a decisive weapon or, as he believed, see his country destroyed by one. It was a choice that terrified him, and he couldn’t escape it. In this way his fate was more like that of a Greek tragic hero than Prometheus, with one important difference. The Greek heroes could not escape their fate because it was pre-destined by the gods.  Oppenheimer’s fate occurred in a world of technology and scientists and politician and war; it was conditioned by the historical forces which gathered and tightened around him. They were the new god and they were — along with the very powerful figures of Edward Teller and Strauss — what brought him down. But what makes Oppenheimer stand out was that, like the Greek heroes, he was acutely aware of his total situation.  He knew, all along what he had to fight, and he knew fairly early on that he would probably fail. It is this awareness that makes him a person for whom we feel both pity and terror. His sheer wakeful intelligence in a world that was half-asleep, gained him whatever victory we can claim for him. But in the end, his triumph was pyrrhic.

Like everything else in this first draft, the ending will have to be re-written. The important thing is that our student has a solid draft to work with and most of the work will now consist of fine-tuning. In the ‘final’ version it may be somewhat too long and one of the four main points may have to be cut. Or one of the four may be replaced by something more relevant that occurred during the writing and cried out to be included.


Two quick points by way of conclusion:

This model can be modified in all kind of ways. It is a strategy rather than a fixed pattern, and each of the five stages is very pliable. The model is aimed at weaning the students away from a formula and encouraging them to write in their own voice, using a way of telling which is straightforward and natural.

Many students will, understandably, resist this way of writing, even if they want to try something new. Habits are powerful. It’s only when this approach makes intellectual sense to them as an alternative that they will gain the confidence to try it. That’s why the preliminary exercises on free-writing are so necessary and why the relation between free-writing and the Introduction has to be made clear. When they ‘get’ and see their essay as a continually unfolding narration they will experience a sense of liberation in their writing which, with luck, will never leave them.

Keith Harrison, Minneapolis, 2010