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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Mr. Straight Arrow

The Career of John Hersey, Author of Hiroshima

Jeremy Treglown

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


1. A Sentimental Journey

WHEN JOHN HERSEY WAS IN HIS SIXTIES he made what he called “a sentimental journey” to Tientsin, now Tianjin, the east China port where he and his brothers had been born and where he had lived until he was ten. He wrote about the trip in a series of four articles published, like the majority of the nonfiction he had written since the mid-1940s, in The New Yorker.1 He was at an age when it’s common for people to look back over their lives and their family histories. He was researching a big novel about the YMCA in China, where his parents had been missionaries. His own life, too, offered plenty to review with pride, though that wasn’t the topic of this fifty-thousand-word analysis, or not directly.

More than forty intensely busy, satisfying, at some points glamorous years had passed since the appearance in 1942 of his first book, Men on Bataan, which used journalistic sources to give a ringside view of the United States’ earliest efforts to fight back against Japan while those efforts were still going on and it was far from certain that they would succeed. For reasons we’ll come to, Hersey would be embarrassed by Men on Bataan, but, together with Into the Valley—a directly personal account of another, smaller but similarly unsuccessful military episode—the book made his name as a war writer, one who understood the popular appetite for heroes but didn’t shy away from awkward facts like fear, retreat, or defeat. As early as July 1942, the young correspondent already himself made news. “Well, yesterday evening I had quite an exciting time,” an army medic wrote home from a station hospital. “John Hersey was here.”2

Hersey’s globally translated account of the immediate impact on people in Hiroshima of the 1945 bomb has never gone out of print. First published in The New Yorker soon after the first anniversary of the bombing, and filling an entire issue—an unprecedented move for the magazine—Hiroshima was the earliest, arguably the only, work on its subject to have such an impact. Four years later the author also became the first American to publish a novel about the Shoah, and it’s hard to imagine, today, just how extraordinary, how huge, how problematic-seeming that achievement was. It’s called The Wall. Around the same time, Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl was rejected by ten English-language publishers3 and Primo Levi had difficulty finding a substantial Italian outlet for If This Is a Man.

Novels by Hersey based on other aspects of the Second World War won prizes and were made into films. A Bell for Adano, set in Sicily in 1943, was published while the Italian campaign was still being fought and despite the fact that it hinges on a strongly critical portrait of the American commander, General Patton. The War Lover (1959), set on a U.S. air base near Cambridge, England, is what it says it is: an attempt to depict a man who, not unlike Patton, really enjoys war. Sufficiently trusted to be given unprecedented personal access to serving presidents Truman (in 1950–51) and, in the early 1970s, Ford, to write day-by-day accounts of the workings of the U.S. government, Hersey was nevertheless a forthright critic of many national policies and actions, particularly the Vietnam War, to which he objected publicly even within the White House itself.4 His participation in the Freedom Summer of 1964, staying with an African American family and writing for a mass-circulation magazine about attempts by people like his hosts to register for the vote was part of a series of battles by him to affect people’s attitudes toward race: the attitudes of lawmakers and law keepers, administrators, and politicians, as well as private individuals. This was the heyday of the New Journalism, which Hersey’s Hiroshima is sometimes said to have prefigured,5 and while younger writers were making the genre their own—Joan Didion, Michael Herr, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Hunter S. Thompson, and Nicholas Tomalin, as well as their anthologist Tom Wolfe—Hersey went on contributing to it in his own way. His furious, self-castigating, procedurally controversial exposé of the torture and killing of a group of young people, mainly black, by white police and National Guardsmen in Detroit during the riots of 1967 still resonates all too loudly today,6 as does his defense of the radical actions of Yale students during the Black Panthers trials, held within shouting distance of the campus two years later—actions that had led wealthy alumni to threaten to withdraw funding from the university.7

Hersey himself was a Yalie. Not only that, he was a member of the elite fraternity Skull and Bones and, by the time of these radical interventions, master of one of the university’s residential colleges.8 Unlike many of the New Journalists (or many famous war correspondents), he was a reserved, sometimes aloof-seeming man, “not exactly an Abbie Hoffman type,” as one contemporary joked, referring to the anarchist countercultural founder of the yippies.9 Moderate in his habits except in his devotion to work, physically fit, devoted to his family, a bit formal in dress and manner, he worked from inside the conventional establishment. In his day the youngest-ever fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and soon one of the academy’s officers, he served on advisory bodies and commissions of inquiry large and small and was in constant demand as a speaker. The need to keep these activities under control, along with the complexities of his literary affairs—film and stage rights, radio adaptations, translations, paperback reprints—would have persuaded anyone else to employ a small office of assistants, but Hersey had begun his career as an individual with a notebook, and all his life he managed most of his business affairs himself. Again there was something of his parents in this. As a child, he had watched them doing their best for other human beings, within and sometimes despite a massive international organization, in the vast, complexly divided, and rapidly changing China of the early twentieth century.

His 1982 New Yorker series was more, though, than a meditation on origins. “The House on New China Road” contemplates then-new cultural, political, and economic developments against a geologically long history, putting Western privileges and Eastern political upheavals into revelatory contexts. Even the title is rich in meanings. The street the Herseys’ home stood on had been known as Recreation Road, after the sports ground that it ran alongside. The language used for place-names, like for everything else in the British concession, was English. Now the street is called Xinhua—New China. To most Western readers in 1982, “New China” meant something unclearly situated between Mao’s failed Cultural Revolution and the more outward-looking but still imperfect and unproven reforms of Deng Xiaoping. There’s a paradox, too, in the idea of newness in so ancient a setting. Hersey’s lens is sometimes long, sometimes wide, but he had learned his trade at Time-Life, so there’s also an acutely sympathetic if unsystematic focus on people’s domestic circumstances, their ambitions, their compromises and refusals to compromise, above all their individuality. In the course of the weekly installments, he steadily drew away from autobiographical preoccupations—from a stage-setting, disappointable kind of nostalgia—toward optimism about China’s present and future. In its emphasis on resilience, enterprise, and the power of education, the approach is characteristic of him: despite everything he had seen by then, and despite an underlying puritan strain of melancholy, he was still hopeful about human beings. Typical, too, is his journalistic knack for being a bit ahead of others on any big story. For all the reforms the country was making and the détente heralded by President Nixon’s visit a decade earlier, not all commentators saw in Deng’s China an impressively diverse, sophisticated, adaptable, and—in relation to the region’s own history and beliefs—surprisingly free culture.

Still, in his return Hersey was also investigating a personal question: whether, as he bluntly phrased it, “my parents’ lives had been worth living.”10 There’s no way to ask that without also, and perhaps first, wondering about the value of one’s own existence. The premises of Hersey’s career were moral to an extent that went beyond the engagements he had in common with many of the cultural idols of his time. The period he lived through confronted everyone with questions about whether the world could truly be made a better place—questions or hopes or doubts that, however perennial, are sharpest when they occur, as these did, at times of widespread material growth. Hersey’s parents were his first ethical models and, in being determined to emulate them, he was prompted by two extra pressures. He thought he had discarded the religious beliefs they taught him.11 Whether or not that was true, he thought it and was eager for a purely rational support system for the humanitarianism that, in the elder Herseys, was nourished by Christianity. At the same time he had watched as illness caused his father and therefore his mother, too, to give up their work in China, to settle for the comforts but also the limitations of the Hudson River suburbs of New York and, in his father’s case, to die relatively young. The death of fathers, as Hamlet knew, is nature’s common theme, but it only happens to anyone once, and for the young man to see his idealized father-hero brought low was a testing experience.12

Hersey publicly confronted his childhood’s intensest moments in his 1982 series—or as much of them as anyone so uncommunicative about himself could have been expected to. That uncommunicativeness was itself a bit of an illusion, but how Hersey begins is with the classic story of a certain kind of American past:

My father grew up on a small farm in Red Creek, New York, not far from the eastern end of Lake Ontario. He and his brothers worked hard on the farm from an early age, most years going to the local district school only in winter. They had a Methodist upbringing. By prodigies of application … my father somehow managed to get up the Latin and Greek needed to get into Syracuse University.

Copyright © 2019 by Jeremy Treglown