Hiroshima Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)

John Hersey

Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)

Few works have had the immediate impact of Hiroshima. On August 31, 1946, for the first time in its history, The New Yorker magazine devoted an entire issue to one essay. When the book was published, also in 1946, the Book of the Month Club considered it so important that it distributed free copies; Albert Einstein personally bought one thousand copies. Editions quickly appeared in almost every country—except, ironically, for Japan. John Hersey donated his profits to the International Red Cross.

In 1948, a school edition appeared from Oxford Book Company. The first of Hersey’s books to be used in college history, social science, and journalism classes, it is also taught in high schools and in college literature classes. Far from becoming dated, its approach and political concerns are even more appropriate to the nuclear age, with growing educational and cultural influence.

Like Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (1952), Hiroshima provides individual human stories through which young adults can come to grips with unimaginable, inhuman events. Younger readers may find the book a way to voice their own fears about nuclear weapons, while older teenagers will find much to consider and discuss, politically and philosophically. For any age group, the characters and events are emotionally effective and fascinating, although some details are unsettling and even disgusting. The treatment of Japanese culture and individuals may suggest this book for a multicultural curriculum, although the emotionally distanced presentation and its mainstream white American author may argue against it in favor of the work of actual survivors, such as Keiji Nakazawa’s Manga, a Japanese comic book read by adults and published in book form as Barefoot Gen (1987) and Barefoot Gen: The Day After (1988).

General critical reactions to Hiroshima have been mixed. While many like Hersey’s use of fictional devices in the service of nonfiction, others have been suspicious. Ironically, while some critics fault Hiroshima for its cold objectivity, others find it unacceptably didactic. Hersey’s impassioned advocacy of ordinary social values was especially unfashionable in art of the 1950’s, and his reputation suffered accordingly. Nevertheless, Hiroshima is undeniably a landmark work, effective on both emotional and literary levels. Although Hersey won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel A Bell for Adano (1944), it is Hiroshima for which he may be best remembered.