by James Gleick
Pantheon, 272 pp., $22.95
It was a strange juxtaposition. A big metal box filled with the manuscripts of Isaac Newton, hidden by Newton during his lifetime and unread for two hundred years afterward, and a fat young man with red hair and khaki shorts, strutting on the stage at meetings of the British Union of Fascists. The big metal box was packed up by Newton in 1696, when he left Cambridge and moved to London. He was leaving forever the life of intense and solitary study that he had pursued in Cambridge for thirty-five years, and entering the role of public figure and patron saint of the Age of Enlightenment that he pursued in London for thirty years more. The fat young man was Lord Lymington, Earl of Portsmouth. He was a direct descendant of Catherine Barton, the niece of Newton’s who kept house for him in London and inherited his papers when he died. Catherine Barton’s daughter Kitty married an Earl of Portsmouth and became an ancestor of the fat young man. And so the fat young man came into possession of the big metal box. When he came into possession of the box, the papers inside were still intact.
When I was a boy in high school during World War II, I met the fat young man and disliked him intensely. I was helping England to survive by bringing in the harvest, at a time when the grown-ups who normally worked on the farms had been called up to serve in the army. The high school kids worked hard in the fields and enjoyed taking a holiday from Latin and mathematics. But the fat young man owned the land where we were working, and he came and lectured us about blood and soil and the mystical virtues of the open-air life. He had visited Germany, where his friend Adolf Hitler had organized the schoolkids to work on the land in a movement that he called Kraft durch Freude, in English “Strength through Joy.” In Germany the kids had an accordionneuse, a woman with an accordion who played music to them all day long and kept them working in the right rhythm. The fat young man said he would find an accordionneuse for us too. Then we would have strength through joy and we would be able to work much better. Fortunately the accordionneuse never showed up, and we continued to work in our own rhythm. We knew that the fat young man was second in command to Sir Oswald Moseley in the British Union of Fascists, and if his friend Adolf had successfully invaded England he would probably have been our Gauleiter. Being well-brought-up English children, we listened to the fat young man politely and never showed him our contempt.
When I was bringing in the harvest and listening to the fat young man, I did not know that he had been the owner of the Newton papers. I learned this two years later from the economist John Maynard Keynes …