There are, it could be said, two elements that distinguish the master journalist. First, the material they write must speak to such fundamental aspects of human nature that it continues to resonate with meaning decades later, long after the specific context in which it was written. Second, they must contribute in some innovative way to style, and demonstrate the ability of a master craftsperson to shape their craft in new and different ways, not simply replicate the models they were trained in.
Author and journalist John Hersey meets both these criteria, so it’s a shame he’s not more widely read today. It’s more a result of our present society’s ephemeral attention span than it is a reflection on the significance of his work.
Hersey is best known for Hiroshima, his account of the atomic bombing of that city and its aftermath. His was one of the first widely published accounts of what happened there, and the book has been continuously in print since its initial publication in 1946. It’s a short book, often assigned in schools (and if it isn’t, it should be), and chronicles the story of the bombing from the interwoven perspectives of six survivors he interviewed. (At the time this was a novel technique for journalism, and one which Hersey’s biographer Jeremy Treglown says he took from Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey).
The original narrative was written as an extended series of articles, which The New Yorker took the unprecedented step of publishing in its entirety as a full issue, kept under total secrecy until it hit the stands. It was a journalistic bombshell heard around the world, providing for most readers their first in-depth glimpse of the horrific devastation caused by the atomic bomb (the details of which the US government was still attempting, as much as it could, to keep secret at the time).
The piece of long-form reportage was also unique for treating the Japanese in a sympathetic manner, so soon after a war in which they had been portrayed as villainous caricatures by the propagandistic wartime press. Yet here they were portrayed as human beings – as survivors, victims, heroes.
The book, one of Hersey’s earliest, reflects many of the qualities which were to prove innate to his writing: a willingness to experiment and innovate with style, a deep concern with the threats and problems of our time and a fearlessness in reporting on them; and a profound sense of empathy which enabled him to repeatedly transcend the (often racist) norms of his time and achieve a humanistic connection with his subjects, no matter who they were.
His flexible frame of mind stemmed in part from his upbringing as the child of liberal-minded American missionaries in China. He would reflect, in later years, on the ways in which this upbringing helped inculcate an early awareness of cultural relativism, of class difference and social injustice, of racism and the nefarious nature of colonialism and other forms of privilege.
He returned to the United States for his later schooling, at which he excelled, and devoted himself to his passion for writing. His early reporting years coincided with the outbreak of the Second World War, and he rapidly distinguished himself as a war correspondent. Even before Hiroshima, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1944 novel A Bell for Adano, which was inspired by his experience reporting on the war in Europe, and that coupled with the success of Hiroshima secured his reputation as one of the world’s premiere journalists.
There was more to come, both hits and misses. After the war, his attention focused on domestic issues, in particular the civil rights movement. He spent time living with a poor African American family in the southern US, and later also published the preeminent coverage of Detroit’s 1967 riots in his book The Algiers Motel Incident (1968). The book had as powerful an impact at the time as Kathryn Bigelow’s 2017 film Detroit, which was based on the same events. Here too he experimented with style, both in his organization of the text as well as his determined placement of himself as writer within the text.
Published decades after Hiroshima, he had moved on from the omniscient point-of-view which he adopts in the earlier book to a realization that the reporter has a responsibility to locate themselves in their work. As part of a moving opening in which he asserts that every white American “with any pretensions to racial understanding” has an obligation to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he also emphasizes – a theme he returned to often – the ways in which coming to terms with racism as a white person is a constant, unrelenting, ongoing process; a remarkably advanced perspective for a white reporter writing in the ’60s:
“At the outset I learned,” he wrote, “that experiences I might have considered as credentials for this task had not given me sufficient insights for all that I was to confront. I had been born in China, had felt as a child the puzzling guilt of being pulled through the streets in a rickshaw by a yellow man; I had witnessed death and pain in war; I had tried to learn something about racism while writing several novels with racial themes; I had lived for part of the anxious summer of 1964 in the home of a black farmer…But these were not enough.”
He addressed the dilemma with similar poignancy in his 1970 manifesto Letter to the Alumni (the last of a series of annual letters he wrote as a college master at Yale, which was subsequently published as a book):
“The drive is to purge the self, through new and ever new experience, of the whole station-wagon load of junky white middle class values and of the guilt the wagon carries on its chrome luggage rack. The greatest need, hidden from the mind though it may be is to be purified by having the experiences one cannot have – being poor, being black, for some even being a member of the opposite sex – and the experiences one does not want…”
The work demonstrates a writer and journalist who conscientiously avoided shutting himself off from a world of changing values and ideas by seeking out “new and ever new experience” and by remaining open to those new experiences and ideas (if only more contemporary journalists presented themselves with similar humility). In contrast to those once-innovative thinkers who grow stuffy and stodgy with age, turn conservative and complain that youth have gone too far and lost sight of the things that matter, Hersey understood that times change; values change; societies change; and change is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it’s part of a struggle to build a better world, for better or for worse.
In his openness to change and to new ideas, one senses the intense ethical framework in which he operated. It was a malleable one — some might argue he moved further to the left with the passing years — but was complemented by his disinterest in drink or drugs or the other diversions which ruined many of his contemporaries. Raised abroad and armed with a classical education, he was one of those liberal reporters whose personal pursuit of truth and integrity was such a focused one that it’s not surprising he got on well with radicals. His intensity and his clean lifestyle were two of the characteristics often remarked on by his contemporaries, but they were really just byproducts of that very concentrated pursuit of truth and of understanding the human condition which made him such a good journalist.
Hersey was less successful with his fiction. Despite winning an early Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, his publishers tended to tolerate his fiction because of his journalistic reputation; on their own his later novels received mediocre reviews. In later years his work took an academic turn, and he became a sought-after professor of writing in America’s university system. But if anything, it seems academia ruined his writing, which became more formulaic, didactic and contrived as he sought to consciously apply higher ideas and theory to his fiction. Treglown, like others, is fair yet critical of much of this later body of work.
Yet I believe it’s impossible to assess Hersey’s writing separately from his journalism. His journalism – he was an early pioneer of the ‘new journalism’, though not often remembered as such because his clean and sober lifestyle distinguished him from its other proponents – was creative, innovative and flexible; an approach that is reflected as well in his deeply ambitious, if not always successful, novels. His thematic matter varied widely, from contemporary period works and psychological novels, to ancient Roman intrigue, to speculative fiction about a future America conquered by China (an allegory on American racism and neo-colonialism).
His fiction was a foil to his journalism, and if he managed to keep his creative tendencies in the latter medium in check, it was probably in part because of the wilder license he granted himself in his fiction. Fiction was a more expansive, less restrained playing field in which he could experiment with writing techniques and allow his imagination free rein, sometimes honing techniques that he would apply in a more controlled manner to his journalism. It’s not, I would argue, that he was more successful in one discipline than the other, but that his work in each discipline fed the other, and helped shape the remarkable success of his overall oeuvre.
Hersey’s open-mindedness is reflected in the fact that he remained at the forefront of the ideas which characterized the rapidly changing times in which he lived. He was a college master at Yale during the turbulent ’60s, and yet he was respected by his revolutionary students, always remaining tolerant and respectful of their views and their impatient energy (he once referred to his students as “the most open, most threatened, most serious, most generous people I had ever known” — a far cry from the disdain many older academics today evince toward progressive-minded youth). As his humble approach to covering America’s racism indicates, he was painfully aware of his own privilege and shortcomings, and struggled better than many contemporary white reporters with how to do responsible journalism in spite of them.
Treglown’s biography is a superb framing of the life and work of one of the 20th century’s most remarkable journalists. The author is sparing in his treatment of Hersey’s personal life (particularly his two marriages), and instead concentrates first and foremost on his work as a writer and journalist. The result is a nice balance between engaging biographical narrative and literary appreciation that offers an intelligent and thoughtful consideration of Hersey’s texts without becoming inaccessibly academic.
It was high time for a biography of John Hersey, and Mr. Straight Arrow excels at the task. If any 20th century white American reporter deserves a renascence, it’s Hersey. While several of his books are still in print and others are easily obtainable used, what’s needed now is a decent collection of his shorter journalistic articles and reporting. Such a collection, intelligently curated, would not only provide an inestimable contribution to the historical record but more importantly would offer invaluable stylistic and creative ideas for writers and reporters in the present. One may hope such a collection will someday appear.