The Man behind Hiroshima

Author Jeremy Treglown (Portrait courtesy University of Warwick)
A new book illuminates the writings of John Hersey.

One of the 20th century’s most acclaimed writers, John Hersey (1914–1993) started writing for publication a few years after he graduated from Yale in 1936 and continued until his late seventies, just a few months before he died from cancer. Persistently writing, researching, and revising, he no sooner finished one project when something in it seemed to lead him to the next.

Over the course of 50 years, Hersey wrote 14 novels and several books of nonfiction, as well as numerous articles, profiles, short stories, essays, commentaries, and sketches for Time, Life, and The New Yorker.

His work as a reporter fed his novels, and in a sense both were fed by poetry and his aesthetic sensibilities. Hersey’s nonfiction and fiction were precursors of New Journalism. Critics called him another Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Crane, or Ernest Hemingway.

Hersey had an eye for the telling detail and a talent for pacing a story. He knew how to let the action build precisely, slowly, and evocatively until he had fully enmeshed his readers in his narrative, and in this way, as Jeremy Treglown shows, Hersey not only reported his stories, he brought them to life. How he did so is the province of Mr. Straight Arrow: The Career of John Hersey, Author of “Hiroshima.”

Starting in 1937, when Hersey joined Time as a staff writer and ending with the posthumous publication of his final book, Key West Tales (1994), Hersey was a prolific and inspiring writer. He wrote mostly about actual events — some of them connected to the Far East and World War II.

In 1939, Time sent Hersey to Chungking (now Chongqing) in China to report on the Second Sino-Japanese war. His early work consisted of unsigned dispatches and was often blended with that of other reporters. This method used by Time, Treglown suggests, has been used to push a false charge of plagiarism against Hersey.

By 1942, Hersey had married Frances Ann Cannon, who had formerly been John F. Kennedy’s sweetheart, and written his first book, Men on Bataan, based on reports coming from the Philippines. In the next year, he wrote Into the Valley about the battle of Guadalcanal. In 1944, he wrote the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Bell for Adano, the first of his novels. Two years later, he wrote what some consider his masterpiece, Hiroshima. This book, an international bestseller that reads like a prose poem, has never gone out of print.

Influenced by his work as a reporter, he generally did not write about himself and used an omniscient narrator and an objective point of view along with the techniques of literary fiction — developing character, action, and setting — to tell an always well-researched story. He was an innovative thinker and often wrote against the grain, with the possible exception of Men on Bataan, which he asked Knopf, his publisher, to stop printing because in retrospect he thought it too adulatory of General Douglas MacArthur.

Hersey came from modest beginnings. He, his two brothers, and his parents lived in Tientsin, a small town in China, until 1924. His parents were Presbyterian missionaries who worked under the auspices of the YMCA and received very little pay. They had raised him with a strong moral sense, which would influence his later interest in eliminating poverty, war, and racism.

In Tientsin, he went to public and private schools, spoke Chinese before he spoke English, and learned to play the violin. Studying and practicing the violin (four to six hours per day), Hersey early on had hopes of becoming a concert violinist, but he switched to writing when he worked on the newspaper as a student at Yale. Later his son Baird would compose a piece for two violins called “Lost Dreams” about his father “relinquishing [the violin] to be a writer.”

When, in his 60s, Hersey returned to Tientsin — now named Tienjin — several memories stood out for him. One was of his parents bringing food, medicine, and care to the townspeople.

Another was of being carried to school in a rickshaw and feeling that this was wrong. Still another was of accidentally tipping over a laborer’s water cart and guiltily realizing the amount of work it took to fill the jug and carry it.

Those memories, among others that shaped Hersey’s approach to life, would become the basis of columns that he wrote in 1982 for the “Reporter at Large” section of The New Yorker. They would also inspire his novel The Call (1985), which, Treglown says, “maps his moral origins” as it tells the story of a missionary family living in China during the first part of the 20th century.

Describing Hersey’s books in detail, Treglown shows how his experiences meshed with his work; he discusses his childhood and his relationship with his parents as well as with several of his friends and editors — Sinclair Lewis, Henry Luce, T. H. White, William Shawn, Gerald Ford, Lillian Hellman, Kingman Brewster, John F. Kennedy, and others.

Treglown, however, says little about Hersey’s first marriage and divorce and his second marriage to Barbara Day. He also says little about Hersey’s five children (four by Cannon and one by Day), noting only Hersey’s comment in Letter to the Alumni (1970) that he loved them. To some extent, that’s understandable, because much of this book, the second major biography of Hersey, harks back to the first one written by David Sanders, which is based on interviews with Hersey and mostly ignores Hersey’s private life, probably in accord with his wishes.

Both books, though, would have been enlivened by including more information about the Hersey family. In the early part of the book, for example, Treglown shows readers that Hersey was very close to his mother, especially after his father’s death. Yet Treglown says next to nothing about his mother’s death.

Ironically, one of Hersey’s talents lay in his ability to focus on people. In The Algiers Motel Incident, he focused on the victims of police brutality. In The Wall, he told the story of resisters in the Warsaw ghetto. In Hiroshima, Hersey wrote about six people, what they were doing when the atomic bomb fell, and how they were affected by the destruction it sowed.

As Treglown shows, Hersey was a “war poet as much as a journalist.” Although he did not write poems per se, reading Hersey, one sees how he transferred his musical ability and feel for rhythm to the sound of words.

Hersey’s understanding of the power of imagery shines through his opus — especially in Hiroshima. Treglown says the book showcases Hersey’s “startling intimacy with the people he writes about” and his innate sensitivity for language. Even the title of the first section, “A Noiseless Flash,” suggests Hersey’s appreciation for the image.

Ultimately, he knew how to generate an emotional response in readers, and as can be seen in this thoughtful biography, his greatest achievements exemplify a supreme skill in the transformative word.

Diane Scharper is a lecturer for the Johns Hopkins University Osher Institute. She is the author or editor of seven books, including Reading Lips and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability.

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