Cornwell, John 1940-
Cornwell, John 1940-
Born 1940, in England.
Jesus College, Cambridge, Cambridge, England, director of Science and Human Dimension Project; Sunday Times, London, England, journalist and investigative reporter.
Earth to Earth: A True Story of the Lives and Violent Deaths of a Devon Farming Family, Allen Lane (London, England), 1982, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1984.
The Hiding Places of God, Warner Books (New York, NY), 1991.
Powers of Darkness, Powers of Light: Travels in Search of the Miraculous and the Demonic, Viking (London, England), 1991.
(Editor) Nature's Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1995.
The Power to Harm: Mind, Medicine, and Murder on Trial, Viking (New York, NY), 1996.
Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, Viking (New York, NY), 1999.
Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate of Catholicism, Viking, 2001.
Hitler's Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil's Pact, Viking (New York, NY), 2003.
(Editor) Explanations: Styles of Explanation in Science, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2004.
The Pontiff in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II's Papacy, Viking (London, England), 2004, published as The Pontiff in Winter: Triumph and Conflict in the Reign of John Paul II, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2005.
Seminary Boy (memoir), Doubleday (New York, NY), 2006.
John Cornwell is best known for his nonfiction books dealing with the Catholic Church. These include such works as A Thief in the Night: The Death of Pope John Paul I, Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, and The Pontiff in Winter: Triumph and Conflict in the Reign of John Paul II, controversial books that turn a critical eye to the inner workings of Roman Catholicism.
Before publishing these titles, however, Cornwell also wrote and edited numerous other books dealing with the sciences. For example, he served as editor of Nature's Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision, a compilation of scholarly essays that grew out of a 1992 symposium on reductionism in science. Essays here address subjects such as the nature of the universe, the interaction between the mind and body, artificial intelligence, and computer mathematics. "Reductionism," which is vigorously debated in the book, refers to a method of scientific inquiry whereby a whole is studied by examining its parts, as well as the view that "all of nature is the way it is … because of simple universal laws, to which all other scientific laws may in some sense be reduced," explained Steven Weinberg in the New York Review of Books. Contributions by chemist Peter W. Atkins, philosopher Mary Midgley, mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, philosopher and computer scientist Margaret Boden, and science philosopher Freeman Dyson, make the book "a fair collection of the big names in the expanding business of science commentary," according to New Scientist contributor Jon Turney.
Cornwell's interest in the mind-brain debate continued when, as a reporter for the London Sunday Times, he investigated an incident of mass murder in the United States. Cornwell subsequently wrote a book about the case, The Power to Harm: Mind, Medicine, and Murder on Trial. The work explores the life and death of Joseph Wesbecker, a troubled printing plant worker who shot twenty fellow employees, killing eight of them, during a murder-suicide rampage. What interested Cornwell most was a court case brought by the victims' families against the Eli Lilly Company because Wesbecker had begun taking the Eli Lilly drug Prozac before he committed the murders and took his own life. The case raised interesting questions, namely, what role did Prozac play in the incident, and did Lilly know that the drug could cause some people to become violent? In a Commonweal review, Robert Coles observed: "We are brought to the courtroom as witnesses, courtesy of a writer's narrative skill and energy. Cornwell attended the trial daily for many weeks, and [the] longest part of the book becomes, finally, a moral fable—scenes pile upon one another, interviews fill in intervals of delay, adjournment. Eventually we reach a climax, or really, anticlimax: the hugely rich Eli Lilly Company, afraid that it might lose not only a trial but tons of money (the reputation of its popular Prozac tarnished, and consequently, a plunge in its sales), fights not only in open court with high-priced, fancy lawyers, but behind the scenes."
Reviewers praised The Power to Harm for its discussion of human nature and the role of drugs in altering behavior and intent. Coles called Cornwell a "talented, ethically introspective observer and writer, who has tried hard and most successfully to make the rest of us think about why people do harm." In the Lancet, K.D. Hopkins commended Cornwell for being "the impartial observer and gatherer of information with excellent background of the key events and people involved in the tragedy." Hopkins concluded: "This book provides a lot of interesting areas for further discussion of Prozac-related issues." Likewise, a Publishers Weekly correspondent stated that "Cornwell presents a profound analysis of the fundamental question of human identity and of epistemological matters sure to be ongoing concerns as pharmacology becomes even more prevalent in treating the emotionally unstable."
Cornwell examines a different sort of death in his A Thief in the Night. Here he investigates allegations that Pope John Paul I, who died in 1974 just a month after being elected pope, was actually the victim of a Vatican-planned murder. Rumors abounded after the pope's death that powerful interests in the Vatican wanted John Paul out of the way to cover up financial misdeeds, but Cornwell concluded that the pope's death was due to a pulmonary embolism, a matter of neglect on the part of his aides rather than calculated murder. "The book paints a vivid and utterly convincing picture of intrigue, rivalry, disorganisation, incompetence and hypocrisy," according to a reviewer for the Economist.
With The Hiding Places of God, Cornwell, once a seminarian and lapsed Catholic, sought out religious mystery spots around the world. In so doing he had a personal epiphany that brought him back to his original Catholic faith. A contributor for the Economist noted that Cornwell "failed to witness anything miraculous himself." The same reviewer went on to comment: "But on several occasions he felt an overwhelming sense of immanence at sites and in people allegedly endowed with supernatural potency." A Publishers Weekly critic called the work "a well-balanced chronicle of a spiritual odyssey, readable and appealing." However, Cornwell was criticized by members of the Church for his scrutiny of such holy places; it was not the last time he would hear of such complaints.
Controversy attended the publication of Cornwell's Hitler's Pope. Cornwell declared that he set out to write a vindication of Pope Pius XII, who served as pontiff during the years of World War II and who has sometimes been castigated for his inability to curb Hitler's barbarism, particularly with regard to the Holocaust. Instead of defending Pius XII, Cornwell ultimately wrote a scathing criticism of the pope and his inaction in the face of the Jewish extermination. In the Atlantic Monthly, James Carroll wrote that Hitler's Pope "is a devastating refutation of the claim that this pope's diplomacy can in any way be characterized as wisdom. Instead of a portrait of a man worthy of sainthood, Cornwell lays out the story of a narcissistic, power-hungry manipulator who was prepared to lie, to appease, and to collaborate in order to accomplish his ecclesiastical purpose—which was not to save lives or even to protect the Catholic Church but, more narrowly, to protect and advance the power of the papacy."
Many reviewers took exception to Hitler's Pope, beginning with the title and extending to the author's research methods and conclusions. In Newsweek International, for instance, Kenneth L. Woodward wrote: "Cornwell's assertion that he began his book as a defense of Pius XII is difficult to accept. Most of his sources are secondary and written by [the Pope's] harshest critics. Errors of fact and ignorance of context appear on almost every page…. This is bogus scholarship, filled with nonexistent secrets, aimed to shock." According to Jose M. Sanchez in America, the book is "replete with in- nuendo, guilt by the most tenuous association, cleverly phrased non sequiturs and blatant use of any work critical of Pius." In the National Catholic Reporter, Arthur Jones deemed the work "compelling, convincing and cruel. It's great journalism, debatable history…. This reads like a vendetta…. Cornwell's findings are not necessarily incorrect; it's that his tone banishes any pretext of impartiality." Jones nevertheless concluded: "Despite its condemnatory tone, Cornwell's book is an honest challenge to the church, to history and Christians…. Hitler's Pope is developing a life of its own (deservedly so)." Carroll likewise concluded that Hitler's Pope "makes it clear that if Pacelli [Pope Pius XII's surname of birth] himself is to be canonized now, the Church will have sealed its second millennium with a lie, and readied its third for new disasters."
Cornwell continues his dissection of Catholicism with Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate of Catholicism. Part autobiographical reminiscence about Cornwell's own loss of and subsequent regaining of faith, as well as an examination of modern Catholicism, the book tackles subjects from the state of the priesthood to the role of women in the church and the crushing of dissent by the Vatican. For Booklist contributor Ray Olson, this is, "especially for non-Catholics, an excellent book on the church today." While commenting that the book would not earn Cornwell fans at the Vatican, a Publishers Weekly reviewer reflected that "fellow liberal Catholics will find much here with which to commiserate, and those seeking a provocative viewpoint will not be disappointed." Higher praise came from Spectator critic Alexander Waugh, who felt Breaking Faith is "an eloquent, poetic, often painfully frank, sometimes funny book about [Cornwell], a book that peers into the intelligent English Catholic mind as it has never been peered into before, revealing along the way some very alarming things."
Cornwell further examines the career of Pope John Paul II in The Pontiff in Winter. The book focuses on the final years of the pontiff during the opening of the twenty-first century. As the subtitle implies, Cornwell examines what he sees as both the positive and negative aspects of John Paul's papacy. On the plus side, Cornwell notes John Paul's attempts at unifying the church and to reach out to Eastern Orthodoxy. Cornwell lists John Paul's attempt to draw all power to Rome and undermine any decision making on the local level, however, as a negative aspect of his papacy. For Cornwell, the pope left the Church in a weakened position. Cornwell's book drew both praise and condemnation.
Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, Chester Gillis stated: "Even those who are bitterly disappointed in the papacy of John Paul II, as author John Cornwell clearly is, should offer a more balanced assessment of his reign." Gillis concluded: "The major flaw in this book is that it portrays a complex man as simple." For Christopher Caldwell, writing in the New York Times Book Review, "the great achievement of The Pontiff in Winter is to engage John Paul II's artistic and intellectual achievement in a knowledgeable and neutral way." Similarly, Luke Timothy Johnson concluded in Commonweal: "Even those who may find Cornwell's treatment of the ailing pope too harsh can usefully ponder his conclusions concerning the present state and perilous future of the church."
Cornwell turns memoirist for his 2006 title, Seminary Boy. Here he describes his years at Cotton College, a seminary in England's West Midlands. Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, Christopher Merrill reported that Cornwell describes "in graceful, vivid prose, the textures of a lost world." He went to the seminary at age thirteen and thereafter set out on, as Margaret Flanagan related in Booklist, "an emotional, spiritual, and physical odyssey that encompassed both the best and the worst" things about the Church. At the seminary both Cornwell's intellectual curiosity, as well as his sexual feelings, were awakened, and upon graduation he ultimately left the idea of the priesthood behind for Oxford and Cambridge. Writing in the New Statesman, Karen Armstrong—herself a veteran of a convent school—felt that Cornwell "skilfully captures the strange, paranoid world of English Catholicism in the 1950s" in his memoirs. For a Publishers Weekly reviewer, Seminary Boy is a "psychologically astute and often touching coming-of-age story," as well as a "fine read."
With Hitler's Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil's Pact Cornwell turned away from Catholicism as a subject to examine how Adolf Hitler was able to put science and scientists to work for the despotic Third Reich. These included notable chemists and physicists who worked toward finding the ultimate weapon, as well as doctors who carried out research on concentration camp inmates. For Booklist contributor Brendan Driscoll, Hitler's Scientists "raises questions about the relationship between scientific progress and warfare that suggest uncomfortable parallels between past and present" in the post 9/11 world. Similarly, Tara Pepper observed in Newsweek International that Cornwell's book "raises big questions about the responsibility to act ethically, and Cornwell's eye for character brings the dark world of Nazi science alive."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Cornwell, John, Seminary Boy, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2006.
America, November 4, 1989, review of A Thief in the Night: The Death of Pope John Paul I, p. 1; September 25, 1999, Jose M. Sanchez, "Book Describes Pope Pius XII as Anti-Semite," p. 4; October 23, 1999, "Pius XII and the Jews," p. 3, "Pacelli's Legacy," p. 25; November 12, 2001, Marie Anne Mayeski, review of Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate of Catholicism, p. 34; March 28, 2005, Vincent T. O'Keefe, review of The Pontiff in Winter: Triumph and Conflict in the Reign of John Paul II, p. 18.
Atlantic Monthly, October, 1999, James Carroll, "The Holocaust and the Catholic Church," p. 107.
Booklist, April 15, 1995, Brenda Grazis, review of Nature's Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision, p. 1461; September 15, 1996, Brian McCombie, review of The Power to Harm: Mind, Medicine, and Murder on Trial, p. 186; August, 2001, Ray Olson, review of Breaking Faith, p. 2043; August, 2003, Brendan Driscoll, review of Hitler's Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil's Pact, p. 1922; June 1, 2006, Margaret Flanagan, review of Seminary Boy, p. 26.
Catholic New Times, February 13, 2005, Ron Trojcak, review of The Pontiff in Winter, p. 17; May 22, 2005, Phil Kelly, review of The Pontiff in Winter, p. 14.
Commonweal, January 12, 1990, review of A Thief in the Night, p. 20; March 28, 1997, Robert Coles, review of The Power to Harm, p. 20; November 9, 2001, Terrence W. Tilley, review of Breaking Faith, p. 18; March 25, 2005, Luke Timothy Johnson, review of The Pontiff in Winter, p. 23.
Contemporary Review, April, 2004, review of Hitler's Scientists, p. 253.
Economist, July 15, 1989, review of A Thief in the Night, p. 85; December 21, 1991, review of The Hiding Places of God, p. 120; October 9, 1999, "Fallible Man," p. 105; October 11, 2003, review of Hitler's Scientists, p. 84; December 11, 2004, review of The Pontiff in Winter, p. 83.
First Things, November, 2001, review of Breaking Faith, p. 64.
Historian, summer, 2005, Jeffrey Lewis, review of Hitler's Scientists, p. 347.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1995, review of Nature's Imagination, pp. 191-192; August 15, 2001, review of Breaking the Faith, p. 1184; August 1, 2003, review of Hitler's Scientists, p. 1000; May 1, 2006, review of Seminary Boy, p. 446.
Lancet, March 22, 1997, K.D. Hopkins, review of The Power to Harm, p. 888.
Library Journal, October 1, 2001, John Leonard Berg, review of Breaking Faith, p. 105; October 1, 2003, Gregg Sapp, review of Hitler's Scientists, p. 111; May 15, 2006, C. Robert Nixon, review of Seminary Boy, p. 105.
Nation, January 6, 1997, Carl T. Bogus, review of The Power to Harm, p. 27; December 22, 2003, Omer Bartov, review of Hitler's Scientists, p. 48.
National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 1999, Arthur Jones, review of Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, p. 13; February 4, 2005, Chester Gillis, review of The Pontiff in Winter, p. 18; October 6, 2006, Christopher Merrill, review of Seminary Boy, p. 10a.
National Review, March 5, 1990, Brad Miner, review of A Thief in the Night, p. 46; November 22, 1999, John Lukacs, "In Defense of Pius," p. 59.
New Scientist, June 24, 1995, Jon Turney, review of Nature's Imagination, p. 47.
New Statesman, December 13, 1996, Julie Wheelwright, review of The Power to Harm, p. 47; September 18, 2006, Karen Armstrong, review of Seminary Boy, p. 60.
Newsweek International, September 27, 1999, Kenneth L. Woodward, "The Case against Pius XII: A New Biography Is Scalding and Deeply Flawed," p. 66; December 1, 2003, Tara Pepper, review of Hitler's Scientists, p. 52.
New York Review of Books, October 5, 1995, Steven Weinberg, review of Nature's Imagination, pp. 39-42.
New York Times Book Review, May 15, 2005, Christopher Caldwell, review of The Pontiff in Winter, p. 30; July 2, 2006, Norah Vincent, review of Seminary Boy, p. 22.
Observer (London, England), October 1, 2006, Rupert Shortt, review of Seminary Boy.
Publishers Weekly, August 9, 1991, review of The Hiding Places of God, p. 52; August 5, 1996, review of The Power to Harm, p. 423; September 10, 2001, review of Breaking the Faith, p. 89; August 25, 2003, review of Hitler's Scientists, p. 47; April 10, 2006, review of Seminary Boy, p. 66.
Quarterly Review of Biology, March, 2006, Michael Bradie, review of Explanations: Styles of Explanation in Science, p. 52.
Spectator, December 15, 2001, Alexander Waugh, review of Breaking Faith, p. 65; October 18, 2003, Ray Monk, review of Hitler's Scientists, p. 62; November 27, 2004, William Oddie, review of The Pontiff in Winter, p. 46; September 2, 2006, Andro Linklater, review of Seminary Boy.
Sunday Times (London, England), November 14, 2004, Kate Saunders, review of The Pope in Winter.
Telegraph (London, England), November 14, 2004, Damian Thompson, review of The Pope in Winter.
Time, June 19, 1989, review of A Thief in the Night, p. 53.
Times Literary Supplement, October 29, 1999, Denis Mack Smith, "Not a Word of Public Protest," p. 27.
Italian-Mysteries.com,http://www.italian-mysteries.com/ (March 19, 2007), review of A Thief in the Night.
New York State Writers Institute,http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/ (March 19, 2007), brief biography of John Cornwell.