Obituary: John Hersey
Saturday 27 March 1993
IT IS OF course possible that John Hersey had a bad life, and that posthumous investigations will reveal a disappointed man in the clutch of shameful obsessions. In the year of his death, however, there seems little to anticipate but a deepening portrait of stylish decency. His youth was colourful; he had a good war; and he enjoyed a long and productive peace. He served as a keeper of the literary conscience of America for half a century, but seems to have made no significant enemy; he taught at Yale for 35 of those years, but he never ceased paying attention to the world at large.
Hersey was born in Tientsin, China, in 1914. His parents were missionaries. He spoke Chinese before he spoke English. One of his weaker novels, A Single Pebble (1956), treats these early years in mystical terms, without much success. Though he attempted allegory more than once, he was in fact a seizer of occasions, and needed concrete situations to flourish: the China of his childhood memories is fatally thin. He graduated from Yale in 1936.
The Second World War found him in the prime of life, and he responded to its apocalyptic intensity with a series of books, half fiction, half reportage, through which it became apparent, en passant, that he was a man of genuine physical courage as well as a reporter of genius. Men on Bataan (1942) and Into the Valley (1943) were vivid recountings of the war in the Pacific, and A Bell for Adano (1944), a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, described in intimate (though somewhat sentimentalised) terms the life of a small Italian town under compassionate American occupation. The most significant of his war books soon followed, the text for which he will be best remembered. Hiroshima (1946) is a harrowing personalised account of the atomic bombing of that city, told through the viewpoints of six survivors. It first appeared in the New Yorker on 31 August 1946, occupying the entire issue, and constituted the first real attempt to give the American people a full account of what had been done in their name. It remains in print.
Except for The Wall (1950), a gigantic fictional depiction of the doomed Warsaw ghetto uprising of the Jews against the Nazis, and The War Lover (1959), which examined the darker side of the military psyche, Hersey then left the war behind. He may have had his finest hour then; but unlike many survivors, and many writers, he did not beome a victim of the time when he was at the centre of the turning world.
From 1950 until 1984, Hersey taught at Yale University, with distinction; for a period he served as Chancellor of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
None of Hersey's later writing was negligible, though no title achieved greatness. The Child Buyer (1960) satirised a near-future world in which corporations can literally buy talented children; The Algiers Motel Incident (1967) reported on racial violence in Detroit; The Conspiracy (1972) was set in the time of Nero. Later novels, like The Walnut Door (1977) or Antonietta (1991), showed some slackening of grip. But always a liberal clarity of mind gave to readers a sense that the world could be understood, evil combated, respite earned.
It is perhaps revealing of our present cultural mood to note that John Hersey now seems to be a figure from the deep past.
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