Hersey, John Richard
Hersey, John Richard
(b. 17 June 1914 in Tientsin, China; d. 24 March 1993 in Key West, Florida), writer whose reporting in World War II helped awaken the nation to the horrors of nuclear warfare and whose postwar fiction and journalism grappled with contemporary moral issues and the effect of major events on the lives of ordinary people.
One of two sons born to Grace Baird, a missionary, and Roscoe Monroe Hersey, a secretary for the Young Men’s Christian Association, Hersey spent the first ten years of his life in China. He learned to speak Chinese before he spoke English, but he said later that he could recall very little of his early life abroad. He attended the Tientsin Grammar School and then its American School until the family returned to the United States in 1924, settling in Briarcliff Manor, a suburb north of New York City. From 1927 to 1932, Hersey was at Hotchkiss, a private school in Lakeville, Connecticut. Entering Yale in the autumn of 1932, he was, according to a classmate, “an aesthete” who played varsity football—a tall, thin athlete who wrote poetry. As an upperclass student he was chief music critic and vice chair of the Yale Daily News. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1936 and sailed for England to attend Clare College, Cambridge, as a Mellon fellow, although he did not take a degree.
Back home in 1937, he spent a “marvelous summer” in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, as personal secretary and—in his word—“factotum” to the novelist Sinclair Lewis. In the autumn he was hired as a reporter for Time magazine by the publisher Henry Luce, himself the son of missionary parents and a graduate of Hotchkiss and Yale. By 1939 Hersey had become a favorite of Luce’s and Time’s chief correspondent in the Far East, where he interviewed such luminaries as the Chinese general and politician (later president) Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese general Masaharu Homma. On 27 April 1940, Hersey married Frances Ann Cannon, with whom he had three sons and a daughter. The marriage ended in divorce in February 1958. Hersey married Barbara Day Adams Kaufman on 2 June 1958; they had one daughter.
Hersey was in New York writing Time’s coverage of the war in Europe when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, precipitating the entry of the United States into World War II. He applied for a commission in the navy but ended up as a war correspondent for Time and Life with a noncombatant’s officer rank equivalent to that of first lieutenant. While awaiting assignment to the Pacific, he wrote Men ofBataan (1942), a tribute to General Douglas MacArthur’s ill-fated defense force in the Philippines.
By October, Hersey was in the Solomon Islands at Guadalcanal, where he received a letter of commendation from the secretary of the navy for helping medical corpsmen remove the wounded under fire. On one occasion, he accompanied a Marine patrol along the Mataniko, a stream on the coast of Guadalcanal where they were caught in a Japanese ambush. He described the action in spare prose reminiscent of the style of the American novelist Ernest Hemingway for Life and then in Into the Valley: A Skirmish of the Marines (1943), which a wartime publishers’ council cited as “imperative” home-front reading. From May to September 1943, he reported on the U.S. Army engagements in North Africa and Italy. By the time he returned home that fall, he had survived injuries from two plane crashes in the Pacific and two in the Mediterranean. He was grateful, he wrote, that in each accident his notebooks, which he kept sheathed in condoms, were undamaged.
In 1944, Hersey published his first novel, A Bell for Adano, based on the experiences of a New Yorker, Major Joppolo (a character derived from the real-life figure Major Frank E. Toscani), who became the military governor of a small Sicilian town. It was an instant best-seller and the winner of the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Translated into French, Russian, and Swedish, among other languages, the book was adapted into a hit Broadway play in 1944 and a Hollywood film the following year.
Hersey’s assignments for Time and Life took him to Moscow and Eastern Europe in August 1944 and to China and Japan at the war’s end. In May 1946, he visited Hiroshima for the New Yorker to interview survivors of the first atomic bomb blast nine months earlier, on 6 August 1945. “A Noiseless Flash”—his calm, clear recital of what happened to six men and women that fateful morning— filled all sixty-eight pages of editorial space in the 29 August 1946 issue of the magazine, creating a publishing sensation. Newsstand copies sold out in a matter of hours. Newspapers across the country and in Europe requested reprint rights, and the Book-of-the-Month Club mailed free reprints to its entire mailing list. Published as Hiroshima (1946), the prize-winning book sold more than 3 million copies and remained in print for the next fifty years.
In 1946, after a bitter break with Luce, Hersey turned to freelance writing—notably for the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly—and to books. Over the next forty years, he produced more than a dozen novels and a half-dozen works of nonfiction, all of which proceeded from his belief that his writing (especially fiction) must be directed to the ethical understanding of modern social problems and contemporary events. As he put it in the Atlantic Monthly (November 1949), imaginative literature is a “clarifying agent” that comes closer than any other literary form to providing “an impression of the truth.” His books appeared after months of exhaustive research and were filled with facts and telling detail, yet in the eyes of many reviewers, the end results were closer to journalism than to art, and his characters were stick figures too thinly drawn to make them real. Few critics faulted his craftsmanship: his plotting and use of language were much admired, but as his writing became increasingly experimental, allegorical, and sometimes mystical in form, the later novels were dismissed as didactic and simplistic or were viewed simply as disappointing.
His second novel, The Wall (1950), was conventional in form, generally well received by reviewers, and a commercial success. An account of the German razing of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, it was dramatized on Broadway (1950) and filmed for television (1982). The first of the experimental novels was The Marmot Drive (1953), an allegorical account of a New England town’s effort to destroy invading woodchucks that reviewers found puzzling and unconvincing. Hersey then wrote A Single Pebble (1956), centering on cultural differences, and two best-selling books— The War Lover (1959), a parable of humanity’s propensity for violence, and The Child Buyer (1960), satirizing the government and educational reformers. Less artistically and commercially successful were the futuristic White Lotus (1965), in which Chinese captors enslave American whites, and Too Far to Walk (1966), which examined contemporary college-age youth—a theme to which Hersey returned in The Walnut Door (1977). He explored the relationship of two couples caught in a hurricane on board a yacht in Under the Eye of the Storm (1967). In nonfiction he offered true stories of human survival under adverse conditions in Here to Stay (1963), and attacked the American justice system as fundamentally racist in The Algiers Motel Incident (1968), which recounts the trial of white policemen charged with the death of three black men during the Detroit riots of 1967.
A liberal Democrat, Hersey worked actively in Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaigns in 1952 and 1956. His growing interest in public education in the fifties and sixties led him to service on several local, state, and national commissions that sought to address educational problems. He was an outspoken critic of America’s role in the war in Vietnam from 1964 onward and one of the organizers of the March for Peace in Washington, D.C. (1965). From 1945 on, he was an active member of the Authors League of America (serving as its president from 1975 to 1980), the Authors Guild, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which he served as secretary (1961-1978) and chancellor (1981-1985). He was master of Pierson College at Yale (1965-1970)—the first nonacademic to hold that appointment. He taught classes in writing and literature (1965-1985), first as a lecturer and after 1975 as a full professor of English. In the early 1980s he reduced his teaching load to a weekly writing seminar for selected students.
In this later period he produced four novels: The Conspiracy (1972), an imaginary account of an assassination attempt on the Roman emperor Nero; an anti-utopian novel, My Petition for More Space (1974); The Call (1985), based on the lives of American Protestant missionaries in early-twentieth-century China; and a fictionalized history of a Stradivarius violin, Antonietta (1991). Hersey’s first short story collection, Fling and Other Stories, appeared in 1990. His nonfiction included Letter to the Alumni (1970), a memoir of student unrest over the war in Vietnam in his last year at Yale; The Writer’s Craft (1974), which brought together essays by such writers as Gustave Flaubert, e. e. cummings, and Virginia Woolf; and The President (1975), a critical appraisal of Gerald Ford. Hersey subsequently merged that book with an earlier New Yorker profile of Harry Truman in Aspects of the Presidency: Truman and Ford in Office (1980). He revisited Hiroshima in 1985 for the New Yorker and three years later wrote “A Mistake of Terrifically Horrific Proportions,” a powerful introductory essay for John Armor and Peter Wright’s Manzanar (1988), a book featuring Ansel Adams’s photographs of a detention center for Japanese Americans in World War II. His last nonfiction books were Blues (1987), a celebration of deep-sea fishing, and Life Sketches (1989), a fifty-year compilation of biographical profiles he had written for various magazines. He also completed his second collection of short stories, Key West Tales (1993), which was published a few weeks after his death. Hersey died of cancer at home in Key West. He is buried on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
Throughout his long career, Hersey was virtually ignored by academic critics, who viewed him as a gifted journalist rather than an accomplished writer of fiction. Little changed with his death. In postmortem evaluations, the consensus seemed to be that Into the Valley and Hiroshima might have continuing historical or literary interest. The novels, on the other hand (including A Bell for Adano and The Wall), were already considered dated by the end of the century and were unlikely to attract an audience from a new generation of readers.
Hersey’s papers are at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. The principal collection is in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and the research materials for his novel The Call (1985) are in the Divinity Library Special Collections. There is no autobiography or biography of Hersey, and in later years he gave no interviews. See his reflections on combat journalism in the foreword to the reprint edition of Into the Valley (1989), his accounts of his experiences as secretary to Sinclair Lewis and as a writer for Henry Luce in Life Sketches (1989), and his reflection on his years as a Yale professor in A Letter to the Alumni (1970). See also his article “Hiroshima: The Aftermath” in the New Yorker (15 July 1985), which has been added to all subsequent editions of Hiroshima. Brief studies of his writing include two books by Nancy Lyman Huse: John Hersey and James Agee: A Reference Guide (1978) and The Survival Tales of John Hersey (1983). There are also two books by David Sanders: John Hersey (1967) and John Hersey Revisited (1991). See also David Sanders, “John Hersey: War Correspondent into Novelist,” in New Voices in American Studies, edited by Ray B. Browne, Donald M. Win-kelman, and Allen Hayman (1966). Tributes from his college classmates and others are in the Yale Alumni Magazine (October 1993). Obituaries are in the New York Times (25 Mar. 1993) and New Yorker (5 Apr. 1993).
Allan L. Damon