Hersey, John (Richard)

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HERSEY, John (Richard)

Nationality: American. Born: Tientsin, China, 17 June 1914. Education: Yale University, B.A. 1936; Clare College, Cambridge University, 1936-37. Family: Married 1) Frances Ann Cannon in 1940 (divorced 1958), four children; 2) Barbara Day Addams Kaufman in 1958, one daughter. Career: Private secretary, driver, and factotum for Sinclair Lewis, summer, 1937; writer, editor, and correspondent, Time magazine, 1937-44; editor and correspondent, Life magazine, 1944-45. Fellow, Berkeley College, 1950-65, master, 1965-70, and fellow, 1965-93, Pierson College, all Yale University; writer-in-residence, American Academy in Rome, 1970-71; adjunct professor of English, 1970-84, and professor emeritus, 1984-93, Yale University. Writer for New Yorker and other magazines, 1945-93. Chairman, Connecticut Volunteers for Stevenson, 1952; member of Adlai Stevenson's campaign staff, 1956. Editor and director of writers' co-operative magazine, '47. Member of Westport, Connecticut School Study Council, 1945-50, of Westport Board of Education, l950-52, of Yale University Council Committee on the Humanities, 1951-56, of Fairfield, Connecticut Citizens School Study Council, 1952-56, of National Citizens' Commission for the Public Schools, 1954-56; consultant, Fund for the Advancement of Education, 1954-56; chairman, Connecticut Committee for the Gifted, 1954-57; member of Board of Trustees, Putney School, 1953-56; delegate to White House Conference on Education, 1955; trustee, National Citizens' Council for the Public Schools, 1956-58; member, visiting committee, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1960-65; member, Loeb Theater Center, 1980-93; member, 1959-61, and chairman, 1964-69, Yale University Council Committee on Yale College; trustee, National Committee for Support of the Public Schools, 1962-68. Awards: Pulitzer prize, 1945, for A Bell for Adano; Anisfield-Wolf award and Jewish Book Council of America Daroff Memorial fiction award, both in 1950, and Sidney Hillman Foundation award, 1951, all for The Wall; Yale University Howland medal, 1952; National Association of Independent Schools award, 1957, for A Single Pebble; Tuition Plan award, 1961; Sarah Josepha Hale award, 1963. M.A.: Yale University, 1947; D.H.L.: Dropsie College, 1950; New School for Social Research, 1950; Syracuse University, 1983; LL D: Washington and Jefferson College, 1950; D.Litt.: Wesleyan University, 1954; Bridgeport University, 1959; Clarkson College of Technology, 1972; University of New Haven, 1975; Yale University, 1984; Monmouth College, 1985; William and Mary College, 1987; Albertus Magnus College, 1988. Honorary fellow, Clare College, Cambridge University, 1967. Member: National Institute of Arts and Letters; American Academy of Arts and Letters (secretary, 1961-78, chancellor, 1981-84); American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Authors League of America; Authors Guild. Died: 23 March 1993.



A Bell for Adano. 1944.

The Wall. 1950.

The Marmot Drive. 1953.

A Single Pebble. 1956.

The War Lover. 1959.

The Child Buyer. 1960.

White Lotus. 1965. Too Far to Walk. 1966.

Under the Eye of the Storm. 1967.

The Conspiracy. 1972.

My Petition for More Space. 1974.

The Walnut Door. 1977.

The Call: An American Missionary in China. 1985.

Antonietta. 1991.

Short Stories

Fling and Other Stories. 1990.

Key West Tales. 1994.


Men on Bataan. 1942.

Into the Valley: A Skirmish of the Marines. 1943.

Hiroshima. 1946.

Here to Stay: Studies on Human Tenacity. 1962.

The Algiers Motel Incident. 1968.

Letter to the Alumni. 1970.

The President. 1975.

Aspects of the Presidency: Truman and Ford in Office. 1980.

Blues. 1987.

Life Sketches. 1989.

Editor, Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays. 1973.

Editor, The Writer's Craft. 1974.


Film Adaptations:

A Bell for Adano, 1945; The War Lover, 1962; The Wall (television), 1982.


John Hersey and James Agee: A Reference Guide by Nancy Lyman Huse, 1978.

Critical Studies:

John Hersey, 1967, and John Hersey Revisited, 1991, both by David Sanders; "A Definition of Modern Nihilism: Hersey's The War Lover " by Robert N. Hudspeth, in University Review, 35, 1969, pp. 243-49; "The Wall: John Hersey's Interpretation of the Ghetto Experience" by Michael Haltresht, in Notes on Contemporary Literature, 2(1), 1972, pp. 10-11; The Survival Tales of John Hersey by Nancy Lyman Huse, 1983; "Confucianism, Christianity, and Social Change in John Hersey's The Call " by John T. Dorsey, in Tamkang Review (Taiwan), 18(1-4), Autumn/Summer, 1987-88, pp. 323-31; "Dirty Hands, Bloody Hands: Commitment in John Hersey's The Conspiracy " by Peter G. Christensen, in Classical and Modern Literature, 12(4), Summer 1992, pp. 375-87; "From Yellow Peril to Japanese Wasteland: John Hersey's Hiroshima " by Patrick B. Sharp, in Twentieth Century Literature, 46(4), Winter 2000, pp. 434-52.

* * *

The American novelist John Hersey was born in China in 1914 to Protestant missionary parents. A graduate of Yale University, he spent a year at Clare College, Cambridge, studying eighteenth-century English literature before beginning a career as a journalist. Hersey worked as Sinclair Lewis's secretary during the summer of 1937 before he joined the staff of Time magazine that fall. During World War II the precocious Hersey was a correspondent for Time (1939-45) and Life (1942-45) in China, the South Pacific, the Mediterranean theater, and Moscow. While at Time, he worked under Henry Luce, whose parents had been evangelistic Presbyterian missionaries also based in China. Some of Hersey's wartime correspondence was published as Men on Bataan (1942) and Into the Valley (1943). During a period of three weeks in 1943, Hersey drafted his first novel, A Bell for Adano, published early in 1944. Set in a small Sicilian town after the Germans were defeated there, the story concerns the conflict between a humane American major, in charge of the occupying forces, who is determined to replace a village bell that had been melted down for armaments, and a bombastic autocrat modeled on General George Patton. A Bell for Adano won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction on 8 May 1945 (V-E Day), was turned into a stage play, and then made into a motion picture.

At the end of the war, while he was stationed in Moscow, Hersey was taken with Soviet journalists to the ruins of recently liberated ghettos in Warsaw, Lodz, and Tallinn (Estonia) as well as to a detention camp at Klooga, Estonia. These experiences touched him deeply, leading him to an overriding concern with wartime disaster and atrocity. In 1945-46 Hersey was assigned by Life and the New Yorker to travel in China and Japan. The book that resulted from his travels, Hiroshima (1946), is the one readers have come to know best. First published on 31 August 1946 as a long essay in the New Yorker —which devoted its entire issue to Hersey's account—Hiroshima was published in book form that October. Having interviewed about 30 survivors of the atom bomb attack, Hershey chose to focus on six Hiroshima residents, starting with a separate account of where each was when the explosion occurred and then describing their activities during the following days. The book's detached, matter-of-fact voice highlights the horrors of the story. In 1985 Hersey wrote a long article for the New Yorker on the 40th anniversary of the bombing, in which he followed up on each of his survivor-subjects, four of whom were still alive. Later editions of Hiroshima include this severe new chapter as an "Aftermath."

During the next three years Hersey conducted the massive research needed to write The Wall, his one novel devoted completely to the Holocaust. At the time there was no overall history of the Holocaust and little writing in English on the Warsaw Ghetto. Much testimony had, however, been published in both Yiddish and Polish, neither of which Hersey could read. To remedy this, he hired two research assistants who read their translations aloud into a wire recorder. (One of them, Lucy Davidowicz, became a well-known Holocaust historian.) Using the device of the "buried manuscript," Hersey constructed a narrative situation similar to the creation of the Oneg Shabbat archive in Warsaw under the direction of the historian Emmanuel Ringelblum .

The narrative of The Wall covers the period from shortly after the German occupation of Poland: the construction of the wall that created the terribly crowded ghetto, the building of a team that organized resistance to the Nazis, and finally the historic Warsaw Ghetto revolt, in which a group of well-organized but minimally armed fighters held off the Nazis for more than six weeks. That Hersey's characters are based primarily on the survivors gives the novel a more positive spin than a focus on victimhood might have done. The narrative voice, Noach Levinson, writes in much the way Hersey did in Hiroshima, and his characters—both major and minor—linger in the mind. The Wall was turned into a play by Millard Lampell, and it ran on Broadway, with George C. Scott playing the lead role of Dolek Berson.

Hersey's career after 1950 was long and productive, although none of his later works achieved the recognition or commercial success of his earlier books. Among the best-known later works were A Single Pebble (1956), The War Lover (1959), The Child Buyer (1960), White Lotus (1965), The Algiers Motel Incident (1968), and The Call (1985). None of these works deals with the Holocaust.

Hersey was active throughout his career in the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in writers' organizations. He spent five years as the master of Pierson College, Yale University (1965-70), and also served as adjunct professor of English at Yale (1970-84), during which time he taught two writing seminars each year, one in fiction and one in journalism. Hersey died in 1993.

—Michael Hoffman

See the essay on The Wall.

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