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Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip across America with Einstein's Brain

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Albert Einstein's brain floats in a Tupperware bowl in a gray duffel bag in the trunk of a Buick Skylark barreling across America. Driving the car is journalist Michael Paterniti. Sitting next to him is an eighty-four-year-old pathologist named Thomas Harvey, who performed the autopsy on Einstein in 1955 — then simply removed the brain and took it home. And kept it for over forty years.

On a cold February day, the two men and the brain leave ...
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Overview

Albert Einstein's brain floats in a Tupperware bowl in a gray duffel bag in the trunk of a Buick Skylark barreling across America. Driving the car is journalist Michael Paterniti. Sitting next to him is an eighty-four-year-old pathologist named Thomas Harvey, who performed the autopsy on Einstein in 1955 — then simply removed the brain and took it home. And kept it for over forty years.

On a cold February day, the two men and the brain leave New Jersey and light out on I-70 for sunny California, where Einstein's perplexed granddaughter, Evelyn, awaits. And riding along as the imaginary fourth passenger is Einstein himself, an id-driven genius, the original galactic slacker with his head in the stars. Part travelogue, part memoir, part history, part biography, and part meditation, Driving Mr. Albert is one of the most unique road trips in modern literature.

On a cold February day, the two men and the brain leave New Jersey and light out on I-70 for sunny California, where Einstein's perplexed granddaughter, Evelyn, awaits. And riding along as the imaginary fourth passenger is Einstein himself, an id-driven genius, the original galactic slacker with his head in the stars.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
What happens when a curious young journalist teams up with the pathologist who dissected Einstein's brain? If a drive cross-country in a Buick Skylark isn't the first thing to come to mind, it's just the first of many humorous surprises in Michael Paterniti's winning account of the transporting of this celebrated cerebellum.

Encased protectively in a Tupperware container, Einstein's brain is in the possession of Dr. Thomas Harvey. The now 86-year-old former pathologist, who performed the autopsy on Einstein after his death in 1955, raised the story of the missing organ to near mythic proportions when he secretly removed it for his own scientific study.

Enthralled with the bizarre story of the notorious gray matter, Paterniti sleuths out the location of the elusive pathologist, determined to find out if he is indeed "a grave-robbing thief or a renegade? A sham artist or a shaman?" The friendly but enigmatic Harvey agrees to Paterniti's scheme to chauffeur him from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, to Berkeley, California, where he plans to deliver the brain to Evelyn Einstein, Albert's granddaughter.

Skillfully weaving facts about Einstein with the quirky narrative of this offbeat road trip, Paterniti's own personal journey rises to the surface as he muses over the course of his own life, including a stalled relationship with a girlfriend in Maine. From cheap motels and diners to kitschy museums and roadside attractions, Michael and his reluctant hero, Dr. Harvey, take readers on an entertaining and touching oddball pilgrimage. Driving Mr. Albert is one trip readers won't soon forget.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Driving a Buick Skylark across the country with an addled octogenarian and an organ may not seem like the ripest material for a story, even if the organ is Albert Einstein's brain. In the hands of a stylish writer like Paterniti, however, the journey becomes a transcendent and hilarious exploration of heady themes like obsession, love and science. In 1955, the octogenarian, a pathologist named Thomas Harvey, removed Einstein's brain during an autopsy and, claiming he wished to study it further, took it home. In the years that followed, he sliced and shipped the brain around the world, but never relinquished most of the organ. Nor, to the criticism of colleagues, did he release his long-promised study. Forty-two years later, Harvey was finally ready to return the brain to Evelyn Einstein, Albert's granddaughter. He enlisted Paterniti, a freelance writer living in Maine, for the task. What ensues is a rare road story that gives equal weight to journey and destination. An expansion of an article published in Harper's magazine, this road-tale bears the classic elements of a spiritual quest--the brain a classic example of a character stand-in. But Paterniti so seamlessly weaves his stream-of-consciousness musings about everything from the theory of relativity to his own sputtering relationship with Harvey that the book becomes much more. Readers will hear echoes from American cultural history--the wanderlust of the Beats, the literary texture of Hemingway and the pastel-tinted surrealism of the Simpsons. It's impossible to put this book down. Paterniti has written a work at once entertaining, psychologically rich and emotionally sophisticated--a feat as rare as, well, Einstein himself. Agent, Sloan Harris. (July) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Claudia Kalb
A splendid peek into the weird side of American life where, often as not, things simply do not add up, Driving Mr. Albert is a work of—OK, maybe not genius, but certainly uncommon intelligence.
Newsweek
Adam Goodheart
Such a trip might sound at first like an amusing stunt . . . but not exactly promising material for an entire book. . . . Somehow, though, [Paterniti] spun his tale out into a narrative that, perhaps like the wild-haired physicist himself, is simultaneously dead serious and inescapably funny.
The New York Times Book Review
Talk Magazine
Part memoir, part travelogue, and part meditation, Paterniti's tale is, as he puts it, stranger than "the devil crapping on a big pile."
Marlene Adelstein
Paterniti's lovely prose and sense of humor make it well worth the trip.
Time Out New York
Vanessa V. Friedman
Whether brains or scraps of a rock star's clothing, Paterniti illuminates them, with exceptional skill, as the magical repositories of our dreams and yearnings.
Entertainment Weekly
From the Publisher
"Eccentric, implausible, hilarious, infuriating, and ultimately mesmerizing."
The Washington Post Book World

"A splendid peek into the weird side of American life. Driving Mr. Albert is a work of ... uncommon intelligence."
Newsweek

"One of the most fascinating and memorable road trips since Kerouac's On the Road."
The Denver Post

"Driving Mr. Albert is entertaining, absurd, real, deep and informative ... in a world in which it seems that all the good ideas have been taken, it is singular."
The Boston Globe

"Paterniti seems to have been favored by that happy little god of travel writers who sits on one shoulder and whispers ... the perfect anecdotes, the perfect set pieces at the perfect moments. ... It's a brain, in fact, that I'd be happy to travel with again."
The New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780783892986
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 12/28/2000
  • Series: Core Series
  • Pages: 307
  • Product dimensions: 6.66 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Paterniti won the 1998 National Magazine Award for his article "Driving Mr. Albert," which was first published in Harper's Magazine. A former executive editor of Outside, his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Details, and Esquire, where he is writer-at-large. He lives in Portland, Maine, with his wife and son.
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Read an Excerpt

On a cold winter day, during one of my early visits to Dr. Harvey, we drove around Princeton, making the obligatory pilgrimage to 112 Mercer Street, the house where Einstein spent the last twenty years of his life. We sat for awhile with the car running, warm air pouring from the heater, gazing at a modest wood-frame colonial with black shutters on a pleasant block of like houses.

More than anything, Einstein said he loved the old place for the light that filled the upstairs rooms and for the gardens out back. He kept pictures of Michaelangelo and Schopenhauer hanging in his study, because, as he said, both men had escaped an everyday life of raw monotony and taken "refuge in a world crowded with images of our own creation."

Sitting in the car, Thomas Harvey recalled hoew the Einstein family gathered here after the scientist's death, how his son, Hans Albert, and Einstein's longtime assistant, Helen Dukas, and Einstein's executor, Otto Nathan, as well as a small group of intimates, drove to a secret spot along the Delaware and scattered the ashes that remained of Albert Einstein's body, And that was it.

Not surprsingly, however, controversy immediately enshrouded the removal of Einstein's brain. Word was leaked by Harvey's former teacher Dr. Zimmerman that Harvey had Einstein's brain, and that he, Zimmerman, was expecting to receive it from his student. When this was reported in The New York Times a day after Einstein's death, Hans Albert, who knew nothing of his father's brain having been removed, was flabbergasted. Otto Nathan expressed regret and shock, and later implied that Harvey was a bald-faced thief. But, according to Harvey, Nathan, who died in 1984, stood by the door of the morgue, watching the entire autopsy. (Nathan would later claim he didn't know what Harvey was up to.)

Meanwhile, Harvey announced in a press conference that he was planning to conduct medical research on the brain. He says he spoke to Hans Albert over the phone, assuring him the brain would be studied for its scientific value, which would then be reported in a medical journal, thus allaying one of the deepest fears of the Einstein family: that the brain would becom a pop-cultural gewgaw. "My one regret is that I didn't come to Mercer Street and talk to Hans Albert in person," Harvey told me that day. "You know, clear things up before it got out of hand."

But things were already out of hand. Zimmerman, then on staff at New York's Montefiore Medical Center, prepared for the delivery of Einstein's brain, but it never arrived. Increasingly flummoxed, then angry and embarrassed, Zimmerman found out that Princeton Hospital, under the direction of a man named John Kauffman, had decided not to relinquish it. "Hospitals Tiff over Brain of Einstein," read one 1955 headline, and went on to describe how the brain remained at "the center of a jurisdictional dispute," with Princeton Hospital standing its ground, like an old-time gunfighter, claiming "the brain wouldn't be taken out of town."

But then, a few years after the autopsy, Harvey was fired from his job for allegedly refusing to give up Einstein's brain to Kauffman. In fact, Harvey had kept the brain himself, not at the hospital, but at home, and when he left Princeton he simply took it with him. Years passed. There were no studies or findings. And, in turn, no legal action was brought against Harvey, as there was no precedence in the courts for the recovery of a brain under such circumstances. And then Harvey fell off the radar screen. When he gave an occasional interview--in local newspaper articles from 1956 and 1979 and 1988--he always repeated that he was about "a year from finishing study on the specimen."

Four decades later, there's still no study. And because somewhere in his watery blue eyes, his genial stumble-footing, and that ineffable cloak of hunched integrity that falls over the old, I find myself feeling for him and can't bring myself to ask the essential questions: Is he a grave-robbing thief or a renegade? A sham or a shaman?

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Reading Group Guide

1. In the book's epigraph, what traits does Virginia Woolf include for her portrait of a "splendid mind?"

2. What parallels did you detect between Einstein's life and Harvey's?

3. Driving Mr. Albert unfolds in some ways like a detective story. What mysteries emerged throughout the book? Were all of them solved?

4. Do you think Thomas Harvey's true motivation in taking this trip was to deliver the brain to Evelyn? Did he and Michael Paterniti share any unspoken personal goals at this point in their lives? What conflicts was Paterniti able to resolve through this trip?

5. What did Part One tell you about the author's upbringing? Did his roots prepare him well for this episode in his life? Did his roots in fact lead him to this episode?

6. How would you characterize Harvey's take on history, as revealed at stops such as the Harry S Truman Presidential Library?

7. Does Harvey seem like a likely character for William S. Burroughs's circle? What portraits of a mind are delivered in chapter 10, "Dr. Senegal, I Presume?"

8. What does the Garden of Eden tour indicate about human perceptions of death and the spectrum of mortuary practices undertaken in America? How did the museum's mission differ from Harvey's?

9. In Chapter 14, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Meat," Paterniti theorizes that Kenji Sugimoto is really Harvey's alter ego. Do you agree?

10. When Harvey lectures before a rowdy audience in San Jose, the experience captures many contemporary issues, including the challenge of engaging students in science. What does Harvey's presentation teach us about reaching a new generation of potential Einsteins?

11. How did you react to Roger Richman and the concept of Einstein's image now being represented by a celebrity-licensing agent?

12. What images of love and relationships are presented in Driving Mr. Albert? How is Paterniti affected by watching the reunion with Raye? What observations does he offer about Einstein's capacity for love?

13. Despite his occasional fears that someone may try to steal the brain, Paterniti often told strangers about his cargo. What are his expectations in making these revelations? How might you have reacted if you had been one of the bystanders he told?

14. How does Evelyn's perspective on the brain differ from the others encountered in the book? How significant is the question of whether she is indeed Einstein's genetic descendant?

15. Discuss the science of Einstein in relation to the book. What metaphors can you find for his notion that all energy has mass? How is the theory of relativity reflected in the way time unfolds for Einstein's brain over its decades-long journey? If his famous equation e=mc2 were applied to the events of your life, how would you define the constant?

16. Reading the book as biography, what new facts did you discover about Einstein's life? How did this depiction of him differ from the one perpetuated by pop culture?

17. What is it about the American road trip that made for such a good medium in exploring Einstein and the story of his brain? Why are so many memorable narratives set against the backdrop of the open road with its chain motels and speed traps?

18. What does Einstein's decision against surgery indicate about his mind-set regarding medicine and mortality at that point in his life? Do you think Einstein would have approved of Harvey as the guardian of his brain?

19. Can a holy grail for intelligence (or any other similar trait) be contained in a specimen such as Einstein's brain? What might a new generation of neuroscientists and pathologists (such as Elliot Krauss, Harvey's final beneficiary) be able to accomplish with Einstein's brain? What twenty-first-century pressures will they face?

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2004

    So Einstein really was out of his head, eh?

    Marvelous and macabre. Of course, it couldn't happen now, at least it wouldn't be a situation that was simply allowed to let slide into quiet obscurity: the brain of a famous genius taken home from the autopsy as a souvenir. Of course, the journey of the brain home in a tupperware container is in equal part a freak show, a pilgrimage of redemption, and an existentential meditation. Bookwise, it's a bit of a Frankenstein's monster more than an Einstein ephiphany -- and that's what makes it such an enjoyable read. It has the same lateral dexterity of another book I read recently, the beautiful IN THE GHOST COUNTRY which is about a famous man walking to the bottom of the world with the ghost of his mother.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2004

    Road Trip Well Worth Taking

    Writing about oneself is a slippery slope - the key to good writing about the self is the ability to move from the self to the universal, to make one's own story the story of all. In this wonderful, odd, engrossing book, Paterniti skates close to forgetting that lesson but then zips right back, weaving few tales but musing quite appropriately and literately on the meanings of life. Einstein's brain is the comedian's prop - Groucho's cigar or Henny Youngman's violin - that has vastly more 'meaning' than its gelatinous state in a Tupperware jar would suggest.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2004

    Nothing happened

    Nothing happened, and when it did the author didn't discuss it. I kept hoping there would be an interesting point in this book, but there was none. When something mildly interesting happened, the author glossed-over it. This book just plain sucks. Don't waste your time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 25, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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