Nash’s parents marry in Bluefield, West Virginia, in September 1925. Nash’s father is a Texas native who had a troubled childhood: his father was “strange,” “unstable,” and a “philanderer,” and after his father left, John Nash Sr., who became an electrical engineer, was raised by his mother. Virginia Martin Nash, Nash’s mother, a teacher, is a “freer, less rigid spirit” than her husband. Bluefield, where they decide to settle, is a working-class town that became white-collar in the 1920s, with a sizeable population of working men with scientific interests and engineering skills.
Throughout the biography, Nasar attempts to provide explanations for Nash’s brilliance as a scholar, exploring his family background and childhood with depth and detail. Growing up in Bluefield with an engineer for a father, Nash was surrounded by science. Yet there are also fault lines in this picture of Nash’s childhood that foreshadow the difficulties Nash’s family will face after the onset of his illness: Nash Sr., like Nash Jr., was troubled and “unstable.”
Nash is born four years after his parents’ marriage, in “comfortable circumstances”: the Nashes were fairly well-off. As a child, he is “solitary and introverted,” labeled an underachiever in school, but he has a loving family, who encourage his curiosity and interest in reading. Eventually, though his parents begin to “push” him “socially,” entreating him to go to church, Boy Scout camp, school dances, and other activities. Nash’s early interest in math comes from a book called Men of Mathematics, by E. T. Bell, an experience he alludes to the autobiographical essay he writes after winning the Nobel Prize.
From an early age, Nash struggled socially, despite his parents’ best efforts. By focusing on these early details of Nash’s life, Nasar begins to flesh out an image of Nash’s complicated personality.
The beginning of World War II shakes Bluefield, but Nash, unlike other young men, is not eager to “hurry and grow up lest the war be over” before he can join the military. His brainy reputation makes him somewhat of a loner, but he also has an aggressive side; he is known to play nasty pranks, including building homemade pipe bombs. Eventually, another boy—with whom Nash had often built explosives—dies in an accident while building one of these bombs. Nash grows up without many friends, though he performs well academically, eventually winning a prestigious Westinghouse scholarship and going on to attend the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (now Carnegie Mellon University), in 1945.
For all of his intelligence and academic success, Nash has a cruel and sometimes violent streak, even as a child: this is a quality that will later distinguish him as a difficult, impersonable individual, causing rifts between him and others.