How John Hersey Bore Witness

How John Hersey Bore Witness
Stanley Troutman/Pool Photo via AP

Some writers are known for their oeuvre. Some are known for their personality. John Hersey, as the subtitle of Jeremy Treglown's biography attests, is known as the “author of Hiroshima.” Taking up most of the August 31, 1946, issue of The New Yorker, Hersey's article was a media sensation, selling out that issue of the magazine, and a spectacular success when reprinted as a book a few months later. Nothing he did after—not his speculative novel imagining China conquering the United States and forcing its white citizens into slavery, White Lotus; not his nonfiction account of a grisly police murder in the 1967 Detroit riot, The Algiers Motel Incident (later fictionalized by Kathryn Bigelow in the film Detroit); not his social novel of bourgeois malaise, The Marmot Drive; not his commentary accompanying Ansel Adams's photographs of Japanese-Americans interred in a concentration camp during World War II, Manzanar; not even his best-selling meditation on fishing, Blues—would reach the level of renown achieved by his slim book about the American atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. Indeed, little of Hersey's other work is read or remembered today. Most of it is out of print.

Sadly, I'm not here to tell you that Hersey is a forgotten genius awaiting rediscovery. Some of his work is plodding and mediocre. His formative years at Time and Life left a deadening, middlebrow mark on his style, blunting the edges of an otherwise singular perspective. Hersey is at his best in extremity, as in his war writing and in Hiroshima, where his restrained, sober voice is able to describe violence and horror that in the hands of a more lively writer might seem lurid. He can write about the panicked tension of a bombing run, a sniper attack, and people's skin melting off their bodies without letting his prose turn purple, without trying to make his sentences perform the reaction the reader must feel. Hersey is often regarded as a progenitor of the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s, but he couldn't be further from the antic gyrations of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, or Michael Herr, or even the brilliantly rococo self-dramatizations of Joan Didion. The title Treglown takes for his biography is apt: Not only morally but also stylistically, Hersey is “Mr. Straight Arrow.”

Yet Hersey's writing is stranger and more obsessive than its conventional form would suggest. His lifelong fixation on East Asia and his insistent interest in the extremes of the human condition were no doubt related to a sense of alienation he seemed to have felt his entire life. His stories and books always seek out the victims of violence, the survivors, the men and women who are trampled by power yet find a way to keep going. Many of his stories might today raise ethical questions about co-opting others' voices—victims of the atomic bomb, concentration camp survivors, black Americans brutalized by police violence—yet in his time he was one of the few to bring these stories into the mainstream of American culture.


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