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John Hersey, the author of more than a dozen novels as well as many sketches, commentaries, articles, and essays, has a well-earned reputation as one of America’s most important novelists of the post-World War II period, but it is his work as a journalist that is his most significant legacy to American literature of the second half of the twentieth century. In particular, his nonfiction account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, which awakened America to the human consequences of nuclear warfare, is significant both as a literary accomplishment and as a cultural event. Hiroshima, first published in August 1946 and reissued in 1985 with an update on the fates of its characters, is often cited as a seminal example of the nonfiction novel in America.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Missionary Child
Born on June 17, 1914, to Presbyterian missionaries Roscoe and Grace Baird Hersey in Tientsin, China, John Richard Hersey lived there until 1924, when the family returned to the United States. He and his two brothers were educated in public and private schools, and Hersey graduated from Yale with a combined major in history, arts, and letters in 1936. Hersey then studied eighteenth-century literature at Cambridge
University in England until 1937, when he worked for a summer as secretary to author Sinclair Lewis. That same year, Hersey accepted a job at Time. Hersey married Frances Ann Cannon on April 27, 1940; the couple had four children, Martin, John, Ann, and Baird.
Life during Wartime
As a reporter during World War II for Time and Life, Hersey covered events in China, the South Pacific, the Mediterranean Theater, and Moscow. Hersey used his experiences in Italy as the basis for his novel A Bell for Adano (1944), which tells of an American officer who, during the Allied occupation of Italy and subsequent battle against its fascist government, secures a new bell for a small coastal town that had its seven-hundred-year-old bell melted down by fascists to make bullets. The book, published while World War II was still raging, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945.
Hersey first encountered the Warsaw ghetto when he was working in Eastern Europe after the liberation. After Hitler and his Nazi troops had seized control of Warsaw during World War II, they forcibly relocated all the Jews in the city to a small, secure neighborhood called the Ghetto. Many Jews went willingly, believing it would be an inconvenient but ultimately safe haven where they would be kept alive. Once inside, Jews were walled off from the rest of the city and put under armed guard; they were given very little food, resulting in massive starvation. When the Nazis began clearing the Ghetto by transporting Jews to nearby concentration camps—where they faced almost certain death—a group of remaining Ghetto Jews decided to fight back against the Nazi guards. Their armed resistance was defeated within months, and afterward the Nazis destroyed the Ghetto completely.
Hersey visited Warsaw in 1945, where the leveled ghetto received little notice, then continued on to Rodogoszecz (a camp for Aryan Polish prisoners) and Lodz. The enormity of the slaughter became his subject for The Wall (1950): ”I knew that…I would have to try, at least, to pass on to American readers some of the sorts of things my eyes had seen and my ears had heard,” he stated in a 1989 lecture at Baltimore Hebrew University.
Between Hersey’s awakening to the Holocaust in the winter of 1945 and the publication of The Wall, a deepened awareness of being a witness to history altered his consciousness as well as his reputation. On assignment in China and Japan in September 1945, Hersey interviewed people who had been damaged by the bombing of Hiroshima. Using Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) as a model, the reporter reconstructed the stories of six people and allowed their points of view to make a strong statement. First published in The New Yorker on August 31, 1946, Hiroshima has been recognized as a literary breakthrough—a means of recording history while acknowledging the personal nature of testimony and chronicling.
Facts into Fiction
The Black Book of Polish Jewry, edited by Jacob Apenszlak, had been published in New York in 1943, and when he discovered it, Hersey read this source as he began to prepare for writing a novel about what he had learned in Europe in 1945. He cast about for a way to write about Auschwitz, but Warsaw haunted his imagination. He saw there the story he wanted to tell, because he thought the 1944 ghetto uprising there constituted an incredible moment in history.
Early in his work on The Wall, Hersey identified an important cache of documentary materials, all in Polish or Yiddish, archived in New York. A friend helped him locate translators through YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute. As they made recordings of their oral translations, they paused to comment on materials, using various intonations and emphases based on their personal knowledge and emotion. Listening over and over to these transcriptions, Hersey immersed himself in the Warsaw Ghetto.
After a year and a half, Hersey began a draft of a novel that employed a universal, third-person point of view. He interspersed the narrative with comments by one of more than fifty characters he invented, a Judenrat (Jewish Council) official who evolved into the ghetto historian, Noach Levinson. With 1,276 longhand pages written by late 1948, Hersey decided his writing was not worthy of his subject. In order to continue, Hersey had to ”invent a memory.” His entries focus on three families: the Bersons, the Apts, and the Mazurs. This strategy allowed the presentation of religious themes, assimilation issues, and complex family loyalties and betrayals.
Suppressing The Wall
The Wall enabled Americans and Germans to learn about the Warsaw Ghetto and the resistance movement. The novel was not, however, circulated in Poland. Its suppression there is similar to the case of Hiroshima, which was not known in Japan even though it alerted Americans and others to dangers of atomic war. The earliest responses to The Wall situate the work more in the realm of morality than in literary history. The category of Holocaust literature was not yet formulated when Hersey wrote the story. Yet, even as a growing number of critics began describing such artistic work, they tended to be silent about this account of the Warsaw ghetto and the uprising against the Nazis. Another strand of criticism endorses the idea that only survivors could begin to tell the horror, and the preemption of the experience by nonvictims, especially non-Jews, constitutes further persecution. Thus, many books about Holocaust literature pass over Hersey’s name.
As a journalist and novelist, Hersey created a role as a political writer and witness to contemporary events. Beginning in 1948, Hersey held memberships in the Authors’ League of America, PEN, and other writers’ organizations, where he often took leadership positions that articulated the public responsibility of writers and the harmful effects of censorship. He worked in the presidential campaign of Adlai Stevenson, helping to shape the candidate’s 1956 speech that advocated a nuclear test ban. He read from his nonfiction narrative Hiroshima at the White House Arts Festival on June 2, 1965, published an account of war protests at Yale in the spring of 1970, and took public advocacy positions about racism, education, and foreign policy. From 1965 until his retirement in 1984, he taught writing at Yale. In all, he produced fourteen novels, many short stories, and journalism that included commentary on the Detroit race riots, radical student movements, and public education. He continued other writing projects in retirement until his death from cancer on March 24, 1993.
Works in Literary Context
Relying mainly on the fictional historian Levinson and other narrative voices, the novel The Wall uses techniques of literary and documentary realism to engage the reader. When writing Hiroshima, in addition to locating figures who adequately symbolized the reality of the atomic bomb blast, Hersey was faced with the task of translating Japanese culture into a vocabulary familiar to Western sensibilities. He does this by choosing as settings for the book institutions common to both Japanese and American cultures: churches, banks, a police station, a lower-middle-class home, hospitals, and doctors’ offices. Whenever possible, Hersey describes Japanese life by using terms familiar to Americans: Hiroshima’s outlying residential districts, for example, are referred to as ”suburbs.” The city of Hiroshima thereby assumes a quality of everyday life that American readers may associate with their own lives.
In many of his books, Hersey records events chronologically. In The President (1975), he provides actual clock times to mark the occurrence of incidents, both large and small, meetings with visiting heads of state, a reception for the Cotton Queen, the entrance of staff members into the Oval Office, departures for luncheons and official events, even early morning exercise routines and dental appointments. As in all of his literary journalism, Hersey’s concern is with the immediacy of human experience. Thus, readers learn not only when the president eats lunch each day but also what he has: a scoop of cottage cheese topped with A-1 Steak Sauce, followed by a small dish of butter pecan ice cream. While such details help to humanize the president, Hersey also reports on more significant events, including high-level discussions involving the military situation in Cambodia, agricultural price supports, and civil rights legislation. Discussions with presidential advisers, including Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, and Brent Scowcroft, are transcribed, largely without comment or interpretation.
Works in Critical Context
”Hersey is an impressive figure in contemporary American letters,” writes Nancy L. Huse in her study The Survival Tales of John Hersey. Huse finds in Hersey’s work ”a mind rebelling at the age’s acceptance of nuclear weapons, the Holocaust, racism, and the annihilation of the individual in a technological society.” This attitude ”places Hersey as an intellectual contemporary of Bellow, Wright, Mailer and Agee,” Huse argues. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post Book World finds that ”Hersey’s decency is both transparent and transcendent. He cares about matters that deserve to be cared about, and he writes about them with palpable passion.”
Hersey’s novel The Wall still stands as one of the few books that has been able to relate in human terms the destruction of European Jews by the Nazis. However, he has been ignored by most literary scholars while others such as Leslie Fiedler have accused him of naively believing that problems such as racism have simple solutions. Hersey himself suggested a reason for his lack of critical attention: ”Leaving the issue of quality, or lack of it, aside for the moment, one fundamental reason, I would guess, is that I have always written against the grain, both of literary fashion and of establishment values.” In contrast to more avant-garde writers, Hersey dedicated himself to the goal of chronicling the events and issues of his time ranging from World War II itself, the atomic bomb, and the Holocaust to the dominant social issues of the postwar decades such as racism, overpopulation, education, the generation gap, the attack on democratic institutions, and, more generally, the malaise of modern life.
Hersey’s Hiroshima is a modern classic partly because it incorporates so well the techniques and style of the novel within a work of journalism. Thus, in this book Hersey anticipates what later critics and writers celebrated as the new mode of the nonfiction novel, a term Hersey himself disdains. When the work first appeared as the entire August 31, 1946, issue of the New Yorker magazine, its impact was instantaneous and unprecedented. Charles Poore of the New York Times noted that ”Talking to people in that week, listening to the commentators on the air, reading the editorials and the columnists, you soon realized what a profound impression the story had already made.” When Hiroshima appeared in book form, Albert Einstein ordered one thousand copies of it, and Bernard Baruch ordered five hundred. Free copies were distributed by the Book-of-the-Month Club on the grounds that nothing else in print ”could be of more importance at this moment to the human race.”
- Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980,pp. 33-36.
- Huse, Nancy Lyman. John Hersey and James Agee: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.
- –. The Survival Tales of John Hersey. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1983.
- Kazin, Alfred. Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.
- Sanders, David. John Hersey Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
- Daiches, David. ”Record and Testament.” Commentary 9 (April 1950): 385-388.
- Foley, Barbara. ”Fact, Fiction, Fascism: Testimony and Mimesis in Holocaust Narratives.” Comparative Literature 34 (1982): 330-360.
- Sollers, Werner. ”Holocaust and Hiroshima: American Ethnic Prose Writers Face the Extreme.” PMLA 118, no. 1 (2003): 56-61.
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