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John Hersey and the Art of Fact


What everybody knows about John Hersey is that he wrote “Hiroshima,” the one widely read book about the effects of nuclear war. Its place in the canon is assured, not only because it was a major literary achievement but also because reporters haven’t had another chance to produce an on-the-scene account of a city recently blasted by a nuclear weapon. Yet Hersey was more of a figure than that one megaton-weighted fact about him would indicate. Born in 1914, he had an astonishingly rapid ascent as a young man. Because he was a quiet, sober person who lived an unusually unflamboyant life by the standards of celebrated American writers, it’s easy to miss how much he achieved.

By the time Hersey reached his mid-thirties, he had worked as an assistant to Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and as a reporter for Henry Luce, the founder of Time-Life. He had published five books about the Second World War—two works of nonfiction and three heavily researched novels. One of these novels, “A Bell for Adano,” which he wrote in a month, won a Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a long-running Broadway play and then a Hollywood movie. Another, “The Wall,” set in the Warsaw ghetto, was the first major book about the Holocaust. Meanwhile, Hersey, as a magazine writer, had reported from all over the world. For The New Yorker, he wrote the original version of “Hiroshima,” along with the first, mythmaking account of John F. Kennedy’s heroics as the skipper of PT-109 in the Pacific theatre, and a five-part Profile of Harry Truman, based on what must be the most copious access a sitting President has ever given to a journalist. At thirty-nine, he became the youngest person to be made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. An essay he wrote on children’s books may have inspired Dr. Seuss to write “The Cat in the Hat.”

Some details of Hersey’s life in those halcyon years call to mind a Cole Porter song or a Philip Barry play, though he seems to have been too earnest to experience them that way. He spent the first decade of his life in China, as a child of missionaries, and was descended from a family that had been in America since Colonial times, and had more social capital than money. He went to Hotchkiss on a scholarship, and worked his way through Yale by waiting tables and by tutoring. Then he won a scholarship to Cambridge, where, Jeremy Treglown tells us, in his new life of Hersey, “Mr. Straight Arrow” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), “there were country-house weekends, dinner dances, birthday parties, in the course of which he met a covey of upper-class Englishmen and ‑women.”

Back in New York, in the late nineteen-thirties, he successfully wooed Kennedy’s girlfriend, a North Carolina textile heiress named Frances Ann Cannon, while Kennedy was away in England. A few years later, after Hersey had married her and published his second book of war reportage, “Into the Valley,” Kennedy groused in a letter to his sister Kathleen, “He’s sitting on the top of the hill at this point—a best seller, my girl, two kids—big man on Time—while I’m the one that’s down in the God damned valley.” When Hersey won his Pulitzer Prize, at thirty, Treglown tells us, he got a congratulatory letter from the Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius, Jr., and dined with Jean-Paul Sartre at the home of Alfred Knopf, who published both of them. His decades-long association with The New Yorker began when he and Kennedy, out for the evening at a night club called Café Society, encountered William Shawn, then the magazine’s managing editor, and had a conversation about the PT-109 episode.

“Hiroshima” is still probably the best-known piece The New Yorker has ever published. When it appeared, in August, 1946, it took up an entire issue, a signal the magazine has chosen to send only that once. Its publication marked the end of the magazine’s founding era and the beginning of its maturity. Before the war, The New Yorker was, as Treglown puts it, “generally associated with light entertainment.” Its psychic home was the kind of night club where Hersey had encountered Shawn. During the war, Shawn began to function as the magazine’s de-facto editor; it was Shawn—not The New Yorker’s founding editor, Harold Ross, who died in 1951—who commissioned Hersey to go to Hiroshima, and who edited the article. By the end of the war, the magazine had become far broader in its concerns, trading in its characteristic urbane-bleeding-into-sneering tone for a journalistic core of moral engagement.

Like many élite Wasps who came of age in the early decades of the twentieth century (including Henry Luce, who also grew up in China as a child of missionaries), Hersey started out in a deeply religious world and became essentially secular in the course of his life. It’s not that the religious impulse left him; rather, he transferred it to his writing and to his myriad civic activities, all of which had a strong quality of moral preachment. Religious contacts also provided his initial entrée into Hiroshima; two of the book’s six characters are clergymen. Treglown regularly depicts Hersey, and the power of “Hiroshima,” in quasi-religious terms. Hersey “worked like a war poet as much as a journalist,” he writes; the essential quality of his work is “the way in which a personal quest of the author’s makes itself felt through his scrupulous attention to someone else.”

That’s fair enough, but the impact of “Hiroshima” can also be explained in a prosaically journalistic way. Shawn and Hersey grasped that an on-site report on the effects of the first-ever atomic-bomb attack would be a monster story. That they were so obviously right obscures how unobvious the idea was at the time, which is why Hersey had the story pretty much to himself. The pressing necessity of winning the war, and the nationalistic spirit that accompanied it, meant that even very good reporters were completely comfortable writing about “Japs” and measuring the American effort solely in terms of its progress toward victory. But Hersey had grown weary of being made to include peppy local color in his wartime dispatches from Asia, which is one reason that he gradually shifted his journalistic base from Time to The New Yorker, much to Luce’s distress. (In intensively researching the slaughter of European Jews for his novel “The Wall,” published in 1950, he again saw a story other prominent journalists missed.)

Then, too, “Hiroshima” was a marvel of journalistic engineering. Someone had given Hersey a copy of Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” to read on the destroyer that took him to East Asia, and he adopted the novel’s technique of braiding the stories of an ensemble of characters. From the dozens of people he interviewed, he chose six, alternating among them so that each character appeared in every major phase of the chronology. Hersey’s writing voice is calmly recitative, bordering on affectless—“deliberately quiet,” as he later put it. The opening words of “Hiroshima” convey the effectiveness of Hersey’s tone and narrative approach:

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors.

Hersey didn’t have to sell the story, or make an argument. There’s nothing in the account about whether Truman was right to drop the bomb rather than to stage a more conventional invasion of Japan. “Hiroshima” is told entirely in an unadorned, omniscient third-person voice, which is why it’s often called the first nonfiction novel. A brief editor’s note in The New Yorker, likely written by Shawn, said, “Few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon. . . . Everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use.” That falls on contemporary ears as gently stated, but the method Hersey used relieved him of ever having to say explicitly what he took the message of his story to be.

The novelty of Hersey’s approach doesn’t mean that it lacked a lineage. You can trace it to the “sketches” about urban characters that newspapers started to publish in the eighteen-nineties. These were sometimes written by novelists like Stephen Crane and William Faulkner, who found ways to make the author disappear, both as a character encountering people and as a voice offering judgments. You can find precursors, too, in social-realist photography about “conditions” and in certain cinematic works, especially documentaries without voice-over narration.

Still, “Hiroshima” was a hinge moment. Before it, New Yorker pieces usually used some device—the editorial “we,” or a generalizing preamble—that put a measure of distance between the reader and the material. Hersey obliterated that. Countless writers over the years have taken advantage of the journalistic breakthrough that “Hiroshima” represented, sometimes with frustrating results—you don’t always want a writer to refrain from telling you what to think. Hersey himself, oddly, used the technique relatively seldom during his subsequent career. He kept experimenting with form, but never as successfully.

Like many journalists with a literary bent, Hersey convinced himself that his real calling was fiction. Lacking the usual writers’ vices—drink, drugs, sexual adventurism, neurotic unproductivity—and freed from any pressure to think commercially, thanks in part to David O. Selznick’s having paid him very generously for the rights to a never-produced film of “The Wall,” he spent much of his last four decades turning out novels. Many of them involve in-depth research delivered through some kind of overdesigned formal device. “The Wall” is presented as the diary of a character named Noach Levinson, clearly inspired by Emanuel Ringelblum, who wrote an extensive record of his life in the Warsaw ghetto and buried it in milk cans; Hersey, before writing his book, had the contents of the Ringelblum archive translated, by the historian Lucy Dawidowicz, among others. “The Child Buyer” (1960) is a dystopian fantasy in the form of a fictionalized legislative hearing. “White Lotus” (1965) is a civil-rights parable in which white Americans become slaves of the Chinese. In Hersey’s last novel, “Antonietta” (1991), the central character is a Stradivarius violin that passes through the hands of various owners, including, finally, Hersey.

Treglown is a thorough biographer, and a kindhearted one. There are more than a hundred boxes of Hersey papers in the archives at Yale. Treglown appears to have read through all of them, plus a lot of related material. He is mainly willing to accept Hersey’s version of himself as a major literary figure, even though, particularly in the later innings of the book, Hersey’s career often seems less interesting for what he published than for how it illustrated changes in his cultural milieu. Treglown shows us a long procession of gentle interventions in which editors at Knopf and The New Yorker tried to steer Hersey back toward journalism, with only intermittent success. Reviewers often found his novels fact-stuffed, overexplained, didactic, and lacking in vibrancy and humor. In Treglown’s view, Hersey’s return to form was “The Algiers Motel Incident” (1968), a work of nonfiction about the 1967 Detroit riots, which Kathryn Bigelow’s 2017 film, “Detroit,” drew upon. It demonstrates his astonishing talent for eliciting oral history and forensically reconstructing the experiences of people who have endured a major disaster. But it doesn’t have the pure-gold narrative structure of “Hiroshima.” In effect, Hersey ceded what may be the greatest technical advance in the history of nonfiction to others—as if, like the atomic bomb, it deserved to be renounced immediately after its unveiling.

Hersey taught writing at Yale from 1965 to 1984, and in 1980 he wrote an uncharacteristically ill-tempered article for The Yale Review titled “The Legend on the License.” Then sixty-five, he declared himself to be “one worried grandpa” of the nonfiction novel. His major gripe was that nonfiction writers had begun blurring the line between fact and fiction. “There is one sacred rule of journalism,” he wrote. “The writer must not invent. The legend on the license must read: NONE OF THIS WAS MADE UP.”

Hersey had three specific targets, books recently published to great attention: “The Executioner’s Song,” by Norman Mailer; “The Right Stuff,” by Tom Wolfe; and “Handcarved Coffins,” by Truman Capote. It’s an odd essay, partly because the examples don’t really fit the argument. Mailer subtitled his book “A True Life Novel,” and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, not nonfiction. Capote described “Handcarved Coffins” as “a short novel.” “The Right Stuff” does present itself as straight-up nonfiction, but Hersey, despite what appear to have been strenuous efforts, was unable to find clear evidence that Wolfe had fictionalized anything. Hersey went to the trouble of interviewing two former astronauts, and finally admitted, “The Right Stuff has been accepted as fairly accurate by people in the know.”

What had so nettled Hersey? In those days, the nonfiction novel was an exciting cultural form, not unlike certain ambitious television series in the post-“Sopranos” era. (David Simon, the creator of “The Wire,” was in fact a nonfiction novelist before he was a TV auteur.) Hersey’s three foils were all New Yorkers who adored publicity and made loud claims for their work, a writerly stance that he—by that time living quietly on Martha’s Vineyard and in Key West—found repellent. A number of Capote’s reported works were methodologically in the line of descent from “Hiroshima,” culminating with “In Cold Blood,” which The New Yorker excerpted at great length in 1965. Hersey may have been the inventor of the nonfiction novel, but Capote, in describing “In Cold Blood,” invented the term itself.

In the same year that “In Cold Blood” appeared, Wolfe published a two-part takedown of Shawn’s New Yorker in the New York Herald Tribune. Wolfe’s main complaint was that the magazine was constrained by the bounds of what he considered milquetoast gentility and what Hersey would have considered human decency. Unlike “The Right Stuff,” Wolfe’s reporting on The New Yorker really did have a fair number of mistakes and flights into quasi-invention; in “The Legend on the License,” Hersey calls it “a vicious, slashing lampoon” motivated by “stunningly irresponsible street cruelty.” Hersey thought of himself as a literary artist who experimented with various forms to create work that was guided by a high moral purpose; now one of those forms was being used by people who had no moral purpose that made sense to him.

There are other journalistic sins besides invention, of course. Hersey himself had to apologize, in 1988, for having used unattributed material from Laurence Bergreen’s biography of James Agee in a New Yorker essay. After Hersey’s death, he was accused of plagiarism for extensively incorporating, in his 1942 best-seller “Men on Bataan,” reporting by Annalee and Melville Jacoby, a married couple who worked with Hersey as war correspondents in the Time-Life journalism factory. These misdeeds were different from the ones Hersey was focussed on in “The Legend on the License,” but they take away some of the burnish from his image as the promulgator of sacred rules.

What Hersey and Wolfe had in common was a preoccupation with what they took to be fiction’s superiority to journalism as a form of writing, or at least its superior prestige. Back in 1973, Wolfe had written an essay called “The New Journalism,” which presented competition between the two forms as a kind of populist fable. In his telling, novelists in the late twentieth century had abandoned realism, the method that gave fiction its power, and this had left the gate open for an especially humble cohort of journalists—newspaper-feature writers—to adapt the techniques of realism and so to “wipe out the novel as literature’s main event.” Wolfe’s argument now seems quaint. It depended on defining the successful novel in an extremely narrow way (it had to be a Balzac-style “social tableau” about status-striving in a big city); on characterizing contemporary fiction even more narrowly, so that he could dismiss it entirely; and on insisting that nonfiction writers could achieve greatness only by adopting a set of techniques taken from nineteenth-century fiction. Wolfe then abandoned journalism—“The Right Stuff” was his last nonfiction novel—to produce the kind of novel that he had been criticizing novelists for not writing, beginning with “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” in 1987. It was hard to miss that the extremely status-conscious Wolfe was implicitly accepting that the novel still outranked journalism, and that, if he wanted to be a writer of the highest rank, he’d better produce one.

Hersey, by the later stages of his career, was at pains to counter what he perceived as an underrating of his fiction because of his work as a journalist. Treglown quotes him writing defensively to an academic admirer, “If the fact that I still write journalism puts off serious critics of fiction, then that will have to be their problem.” In 1986, when he sat for a Paris Review interview with the novelist Jonathan Dee, a former student of his, he said that fiction had always been “more attractive to me,” because “there was a better chance, if what I did worked, to get the reader to experience the material than there would be in journalism.” He also made the standard novelist’s assertion that “it really doesn’t matter what a writer does; the argument that you should go out and meet raw life, work on the crew of a freighter, take part in revolutions and whatnot, doesn’t seem to me valid.” It’s heartbreaking to listen to someone who exhaustively researched much of his fiction, who was first exposed to the writer’s life through Sinclair Lewis, and whose most enduring book was a work of journalism make such a large claim for the primacy of pure inspiration in writing. Hersey acknowledged that he had “experimented with the devices of fiction” in his journalism. But he was understandably loath to admit that his early work had been his strongest, and his disapproval of what latter-day nonfiction novelists had made of his inventions prevented him from taking pride in his enormous contribution to the techniques of journalism.

The relationship between fiction and nonfiction is like the one between art and architecture: fiction is pure, nonfiction is applied. Just as buildings shouldn’t leak or fall down, nonfiction ought to work within the limits of its claim to be about the world as it really is. But narrative journalism is far from artless. In crafting “Hiroshima,” Hersey left out most of his interview material so that he could focus on a limited number of characters whom his readers would remember; he built suspense by cutting away from each character, as he notes in the Paris Review interview, at “the verge of some kind of crisis”; and he carefully calibrated the pace at which the events he was describing unfolded. Wolfe, in his “New Journalism” essay, enumerated his own set of techniques, which overlapped somewhat with Hersey’s: scene-by-scene construction, use of an omniscient narrator’s voice, use of dialogue, close observation of “status details.” All of these, like Hersey’s methods, have their roots in fiction writing—without, of course, representing the entirety of the fiction writers’ craft.

Hersey and Wolfe were given to issuing restrictive obiter dicta about nonfiction writing. Wolfe declared that the miracle of New Journalism depended on writers “resorting as little as possible to sheer historical narrative,” a rule he broke repeatedly in his own work. Hersey maintained that, “in fiction, the writer’s voice matters; in reporting, the writer’s authority matters,” because in nonfiction “the quality we most need in our informant is some measure of trustworthiness.” His implication was that nonfiction should be delivered relatively without affect. In fact, there’s no reason why nonfiction can’t be delivered with a sense of deep personal engagement, while retaining its authority. Hersey regularly demonstrated this himself. Journalists can write historical or social narratives with style and brio while maintaining fidelity to the record. Book-length journalism is a capacious discipline. As long as the work is accurate and honestly reported, it shouldn’t have to operate under constraints with a severity usually reserved for ex-offenders and reformed drunks.

By the time Hersey wrote “The Legend on the License,” politics, as well as concern for journalistic ethics, was probably motivating him. Over the years, he moved about as far left as you could get while remaining a member of the establishment. He spent much of the sixties as the master of Pierson College, at Yale, where, unlike most Yale men of his generation, he was deeply sympathetic to the student-protest movements, which he saw as aiming “to purge the self . . . of the whole station-wagon load of junky white middle-class values and of the guilt the wagon carries on its chrome luggage rack.” He called Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty “pitifully, even absurdly, inadequate.” He went to Mississippi to register black voters during Freedom Summer, in 1964, and wrote a powerful piece about the struggle for voting rights there. In 1965, during a visit to the White House as part of a delegation of prominent writers, he stood and read an excerpt from “Hiroshima,” adding, “I address this reading to the conscience of the man who lives in this beautiful house.” One reason he disliked “The Right Stuff” was that he read it, not entirely correctly, as a celebration of the space program, which he saw as “horrendous.”

John Hersey’s last big book was another of his formal experiments, a work of fiction wearing some of the garb of nonfiction. “The Call,” published in 1985, was based on his parents’ experience as missionaries, and included both real and made-up characters, along with invented documents, such as letters and journals. He never quite gave up trying to lend his morally concerned fiction the texture of veracity. Hersey had received his own call during the Second World War, which he was early in coming to understand primarily as a great catastrophe rather than an inspiring American triumph. He went to the scene, he tirelessly looked where most journalists didn’t, and he found ways of writing about what he saw that gave his journalism an enduring power. In a long, relentlessly productive career, that’s what stands out. If we want to understand Hersey’s contribution, we should pay more attention to what he did than to what he said. ♦



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