American war correspondent and author John Hersey on the Yangtze River in 1946, before going on to Japan from China for his Hiroshima assignment.
A 115-minute PBS documentary shown on SBS TV here in Australia last night, marking the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and simply called The Bomb, was so engrossing I felt compelled to stay up way beyond bedtime to take in the whole thing.
For all that, there was just one really startling revelation in it for me. And that was about the American reporter who changed, with one, albeit long story, the entire world's thinking about the atomic bomb. I had had no idea about the enormous global impact of John Hersey's The New Yorker article, to which the magazine devoted one whole issue, on August 31, 1946; worse still, that the article even existed. I felt a glow of pride that a journalist had made such an important contribution to our understanding of the harsh realities of the atomic bomb, but at the same time a tinge of guilt that I hadn't previously been aware of his story. Yet in 1999 it was adjudged the finest piece of American journalism of the 20th century by a 36-member panel associated with New York University's journalism department.
Celebrated journalist: John Hersey in 1945
TIME magazine said of Hersey's story: "Every American who has permitted himself to make jokes about atom bombs, or who has come to regard them as just one sensational phenomenon that can now be accepted as part of civilisation, like the airplane and the gasoline engine, or who has allowed himself to speculate as to what we might do with them if we were forced into another war, ought to read Mr Hersey. When this magazine article appears in book form, the critics will say that it is in its fashion a classic. But it is rather more than that." TIME later termed Hersey's account "the most celebrated piece of journalism to come out of World War II".
The New Yorker issue of August 31, 1946, arrived in subscribers' mailboxes bearing a light-hearted cover of a summer picnic in a park. There was no hint to what was inside. Hersey's article began where the magazine's regular "Talk of the Town" column usually began, immediately after the theatre listings.
Naturally, I had to wonder what typewriter Hersey used at that time. As far as I can see, there are no photographs of Hersey using a typewriter - but use typewriters he did, dating right back to when he was six, in 1920, while he was living with his Protestant YMCA missionary parents in China. "My father was a shy, studious, contemplative man, and I spent a lot of time in his study in our house in China. I was into The Book of Knowledge all the time, and later the Encyclopedia Britannica. I was allowed to play, I guess you would say, on his typewriter at a very early age. My mother kept scrapbooks of everything any of her children did all their lives, and among my scrapbooks are newspapers that I wrote on the typewriter at the age of six, The Hersey Family News, with ads offering my older brothers for various kinds of hard labour at very low wages."
Hersey's father, Roscoe Monroe Hersey, in China. He was a Protestant missionary for the Young Men's Christian Association.
The Hersey family in China, including mother Grace Nancy Baird Hersey and older brother Arthur Baird Hersey. John had another older brother, Roscoe Jr.
As well as this insight, in one of only two interviews Hersey ever granted, to Jonathan Dee for the Summer-Fall 1986 issue of Paris Review, the war correspondent and author also disclosed that in the mid-1940s he used a small Olivetti portable. It seems he must have acquired it toward the end of World War II, while in Italy covering the conflict for TIME magazine.
(He was on assignment for TIME magazine when he wrote A Bell for Adano in 1944; it then appeared as a book, a play and as a long episodic article in LIFE, and soon after that as a movie. The novel won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize. Hersey heard he had won the Pulitzer on V-E Day, May 8, 1945. By that time he had left TIME and had gone to work for LIFE. He went to China and Japan a few months after that on an "odd assignment" for LIFE and The New Yorker - "two magazines that hated each other. But I made separate arrangements with them to do a given number of articles for each one.")
Given was what being made by Olivetti at that time, I'm assuming Hersey's "little" portable must have been an ICO MP1. I'd like to think it was bright red, like mine (at top of post).
How long Hersey's Olivetti portable lasted after the war is unknown. He told Paris Review that he brought it back to the United States from Europe in 1944, as a memento, since it had suffered badly in two plane crashes, both of which Hersey himself survived.
"I had flown back from Europe with a colonel - I’ve forgotten his name, but let’s say it was Wilcox - and I rode in a taxi with him from the airport. I had been in two airplane accidents my last few days in Sicily; one plane crashed when it landed in a bomb crater in the Licata airport, and shortly after takeoff the other ran into the anchoring cable of a barrage balloon, which had inadvertently been put up by the Navy in the takeoff path of the Army field the night before. I had a little Olivetti typewriter that had been badly bent up, and I was bringing it home as a souvenir of the accidents. I was fortunately not very badly bent up myself. I had tucked my draft chapters [for A Bell for Adano], and the outline I wanted to follow, in the case of the typewriter. When we got into New York I was so excited about getting home that I left the typewriter in the taxi with Colonel Wilcox. He went on, and I realised of course right after I’d gotten out of the taxi that my work was lost. I called the Pentagon and got a very friendly lady who said she would be willing to look up the Wilcoxes; she found there was one who came from New London and was indeed on leave, and she gave me his address. I called the telephone company and asked for the phone at that address. I rang the number. There was no answer. The telephone information operator, who had stayed on the line, was a wonder. She said, well, I’ll get the number of the people across the street. I called them and they said yes, they’d heard that Colonel Wilcox was coming on leave but he wasn’t home yet, they thought he was going to be there in a few days. So I waited a few days. I called him, and he said yeah, he’d taken that thing in with him, he was supposed to meet his wife in the Commodore Hotel, and she was an hour late. He was so mad that when she came, he got up and walked out and left the typewriter there. I called the Commodore Hotel and they said yeah, it’s here in Lost and Found, come and get it."
William Shawn with typewriter
How Hersey came to write the Hiroshima article is interesting. Before leaving for China and then Japan in 1946, he had discussed story ideas with one of The New Yorker's editors, William Shawn. "One that we thought about was a piece on Hiroshima [one year after the atomic bomb was dropped, on August 6, 1945]. At that point, what seemed impressive was the power of the bomb, and almost all the reporting had had to do with the devastation it had caused, the physical devastation; it was really in terms of the destructive power of the bomb that Shawn and I envisioned the story. But as I thought about it in advance, while I was working in China, I thought more and more that I wanted to try to do something about the impact on people rather than on buildings, on the physical city."
Thornton Wilder in 1931, four years after he wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
On an assignment in China, Hersey was being taken on a destroyer to Shanghai. "Some crew members brought me books from their library, one of which was The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. Reading that, I sensed the possibility of a form for the Hiroshima piece. The book is about five people who were killed when a rope suspension bridge over a canyon in Peru gave way, and how they had happened to find their way to that moment of fate together. That seemed to me to be a possible way of dealing with this very complex story of Hiroshima; to take a number of people - half a dozen, as it turned out in the end - whose paths crossed each other and came to this moment of shared disaster. So I went to Hiroshima and began right away looking for the kinds of people who would fit into that pattern ... I must have talked to 40 or 50 people, trying to find the ones that would work for what I wanted to do. I narrowed it down to the six I finally wrote about, and got their stories. I spent about three weeks doing that, and came home and wrote it, in about a month, I guess."
"It was originally intended as four separate pieces to be run [in The New Yorker] in four successive weeks. One of the problems in handling it serially was that of giving enough clues in the second instalment about what had happened in the first, so that the reader who hadn’t read the first would be able to pick up on it. But not so much as to stop someone who had read the first from wanting to read the second. That difficulty led Shawn finally one day to say, 'Look, we just can’t, we’ll have to do this all in one week'. He took the idea to [Harold] Ross, who a few days later called me and said that he wanted to give an entire issue to the account. So we then went back and untangled it all - made it consecutive, for one issue."
John Hersey in the office of TIME magazine in early 1945. There's a typewriter behind him.
Asked if the Wilder book was a model in terms of style as well, Hersey said, "Not really. Wilder’s was a much more ornate and meandering style than mine would be. My choice was to be deliberately quiet in the piece, because I thought that if the horror could be presented as directly as possible, it would allow the reader to identify with the characters in a direct way. I’ve thought quite a lot about the issue of fiction and journalism as two possible ways of presenting realities of life, particularly such harsh ones as we’ve encountered in my lifetime. Fiction is the more attractive to me, because if a novelist succeeds, he can enable the reader to identify with the characters of the story, to become the characters of the story, almost, in reading. Whereas in journalism, the writer is always mediating between the material and the reader; the reader is conscious of the journalist presenting material to him. This was one of the reasons why I had experimented with the devices of fiction in doing journalism, in the hopes that my mediation would, ideally, disappear. I believe that the reader is not conscious of the writer of fiction, except through the author’s voice - that is, you are conscious of the person behind the work. But in journalism you are conscious of the person in the work, the person who’s writing it and explaining to you what’s taken place. So my hope was, by using the tricks and the ways of fiction, to be able to eliminate that mediation and have the reader directly confronted by the characters. In this case, my hope was that the reader would be able to become the characters enough to suffer some of the pain, some of the disaster, and therefore realise it."
John Hersey at TIME magazine in 1945
Hersey's Hiroshima article and the subsequent book - published less than to months later - are regarded as being among the earliest examples of New Journalism, in which the story-telling techniques of fiction are adapted to non-fiction reporting. It successfully melded elements of reportage with the pace and devices of the novel. Hersey's plain prose was praised by critics as a model of understated narrative. The book has sold more than three million copies.
The Bomb's claims about the immediate worldwide response to Hersey's one article were not overstated. Here in Australia, this was a part of the interest it aroused:
Hersey after joining joined LIFE in 1945
The New Yorker essayist Roger Angell said Hersey's story "became a part of our ceaseless thinking about world wars and nuclear holocaust”. "If ever there was a subject calculated to make a writer overwrought and a piece overwritten, it was the bombing of Hiroshima", wrote Hendrik Hertzberg, "yet Hersey's reporting was so meticulous, his sentences and paragraphs were so clear, calm and restrained, that the horror of the story he had to tell came through all the more chillingly." James Michener added, "John Hersey's writing about the moral problems in World War II was of the highest quality."
A young John Hersey in China
John Richard Hersey was born on June 17, 1914, in Tientsin, China, and arrived in the United States with his family when he was 10. He attended public school in Briarcliff Manor, New York, including Briarcliff High School for two years. Later he attended the Hotchkiss School, followed by Yale University. He subsequently was a graduate student at Cambridge University in England as a Mellon Fellow. After his time at Cambridge, Hersey got a summer job as private secretary and driver for author Sinclair Lewis in 1937; that autumn he began work for TIME, for which he was hired after writing an essay on the magazine's dismal quality.
John Hersey, right, with fellow war correspondent Tom Lea in 1944
Shortly before writing his Hiroshima story, Hersey published his novel Of Men and War, an account of war stories seen through the eyes of soldiers rather than a war correspondent. One of the stories was inspired by President John F. Kennedy and the PT-109. Hersey's war novel The Wall (1950) was about the Warsaw Ghetto. His article about the dullness of grammar school readers in a 1954 issue of LIFE, "Why Do Students Bog Down on First R? A Local Committee Sheds Light on a National Problem: Reading" was the inspiration for Dr Seuss's juvenile story The Cat in the Hat.
Hersey also wrote The Algiers Motel Incident, about a racially-motivated shooting by police during the 12th Street Riot in Detroit, Michigan, in 1968. His 1965 novel, White Lotus, explored the African-American experience before civil rights, as reflected in an alternate history in which white Americans are enslaved by the Chinese after losing "the Great War" to them.
John Hersey with his family, Pegout Yacht Club, 1948. He had three sons, Martin, John and Baird, and one daughter, Ann, by his first marriage and a daughter, Brook, by his second.
From 1965–70, Hersey was Master of Pierson College, one of 12 residential colleges at Yale University, where his outspoken activism and early opposition to the Vietnam War made him controversial with alumni, but admired by many students. Hersey also pursued an unusual sideline: he operated the college's small letterpress printing operation, with which he sometimes used to publish broadsides. In 1985 Hersey returned to Hiroshima and wrote Hiroshima: The Aftermath, a follow-up to his original story. The New Yorker published Hersey's update in its July 15, 1985, issue, and the article was subsequently appended to a newly revised edition of the book.
"What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, so much as it's been memory", wrote Hersey. "The memory of what happened at Hiroshima". Hersey died at 2.45am on March 24, 1993, aged 78, at his winter home in Key West, Florida, at the compound he and his wife shared with his friend, writer Ralph Ellison. Hersey had suffered a stroke a year earlier and also had cancer of the colon and liver.
The first Mrs Hersey, Frances Ann Cannon, 1945
Barbara with her first husband, Charles Addams
He was survived by his second wife, Barbara Jean Day Kaufman Hersey (1919-2007; the former wife of Hersey's colleague at The New Yorker, artist Charles Addams, and the model for Morticia Addams; she married Hersey in 1958).
Admirer: David McCullough
Yale University had decided to honour its long-serving alumnus with an annual John Hersey Lecture, the first of which was delivered two days before his death, on March 22, 1993, by historian and Yale graduate David McCullough, who noted Hersey's contributions to Yale but reserved his strongest praise for the former magazine writer's prose. Hersey had "portrayed our time", McCullough observed, "with a breadth and artistry matched by very few. He has given us the century in a great shelf of brilliant work, and we are all his beneficiaries."
On October 5, 2007, the United States Postal Service announced that it would honour five journalists of the 20th century with first-class rate postage stamps, to be issued on Tuesday, April 22, 2008: Martha Gellhorn, Hersey, George Polk, Rubén Salazar and Eric Sevareid.
Further reading here, the full original Hiroshima article here, and access to the Aftermath story here.
Hersey in 1950
Very interesting. I was penumbrally aware of Hersey and, I think, of his Hiroshima piece, but have never read it. Evidently it was an extremely important piece of writing.
Thought-provoking. Contrary to the opinion of the American Ambassador to Australia. John Berry, speaking recently on ABC Breakfast, I still don't believe there was, or ever could be, any justification for dropping an A-bomb!
I have Hiroshima sitting on my bookshelf and have been meaning to read it. Thanks for the reminder -- this was an excellent piece, quite thoroughly researched as always.
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