I first read John Hersey last year when a book friend gave me a remaindered copy of Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives (2011). In this book, the critic and scholar John Sutherland chronicles English language fiction dating back to the 17th century. Sutherland’s theme is to list the authors who will still be read 100 years from now and why. He includes some stalwarts, some surprises, but mostly authors I had not read.
Hersey (1914-1993) was a combination of all three for me. I knew about his most famous book, Hiroshima from high school, but as a youth I was reluctant to read such sobering material. However, while planning my books for a vacation to Florida and browsing the Sutherland book, I noticed that I had a copy of Hersey’s Key West Tales (1993) on my shelves. I brought this short collection of Hersey stories to the beach and thoroughly enjoyed them as several of the offerings were light and almost whimsical. (See this posting from last year, which includes a brief comparison of Hersey to Ernest Hemingway.)
More recently, I stumbled across a yellowed, crumbling copy of Hiroshima in one of those neighborhood library kiosks. Its condition didn’t deter me from bringing it home, because feathery-light and portable paperbacks are ideal for my MARTA subway commute. I read the short book in a few days.
The book has renewed relevance, especially now as North Korea and the United States goad each other with threats of destruction as cavalierly as soccer hooligans trade barbs and fists, Hersey’s Hiroshima is a reminder of why the horrors of nuclear attack should be avoided at all costs. As Sutherland summarizes:
Hiroshima follows the experiences of six survivors – all intensively interviewed by the author: a clerk, a doctor, a tailor’s widow, a German priest, a surgeon, and a Japanese minister. The interviewees were chosen to overturn the monolithic image of the subhuman ‘Jap’ promulgated during hostilities. The description of physical effects of the ‘Bomb’ were horrific: melted eyeballs, bone-rotting radiation sickness, and the image that went around the world – a victim whose only relic was a shadowy profile on a wall; the rest of him vaporized.
Published in 1946 as a special piece in The New Yorker, Hersey used narrative fiction techniques to tell these stories. Moreover, he seems to capture the rhythms of his subject’s Japanese speech patterns as well. It reminded me of a Haruki Murakami novel.
The Algiers Motel Incident
If this were not enough, Hersey is in the news because of a connection to the recent Kathryn Bigelow film, Detroit. Screenwriter Mark Boal mentions Hersey’s book The Algiers Motel Incident (1968) as one of the sources for his screenplay about the 1967 race riots that engulfed the city. In Algiers Motel, Hershey uses some of the same techniques as he did in Hiroshima extensively interviewing eyewitnesses and participants of the event that ignited the riots. Hersey donated the royalties for the book, which sold a half a million copies, to a scholarship fund for African-American students.
Today’s headlines include racial violence in Charlottesville and the threat of thermonuclear war. It seems like we are all living in John Hersey Days.