Hiroshima Essay - Critical Evaluation

John Hersey

Critical Evaluation

In 1945, John Hersey was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for A Bell for Adano (1944), a novel based on his observations as a reporter in Italy and characterized by attention to realistic detail and psychological insight. (The novel led to a lawsuit filed against the author by an Army officer who felt that his experiences to some extent paralleled those of a character in the book.) Hersey demonstrated anew his powers as a reporter and a writer when he documented the experiences of survivors of the atomic bomb in his nonfiction account Hiroshima. Hersey’s interest in the Far East, which is evident both in Hiroshima and in his novel The White Lotus (1965), probably stemmed from his having spent his childhood in China, where his parents were missionaries. In his years as a professor of literature at Yale University, Hersey wrote fiction as well as nonfiction works, including The Writer’s Craft (1974).

Hersey’s account of six survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was initially written as a three-part series for The New Yorker, but the editors of the magazine instead decided to print the entire text in the issue dated August 31, 1946. The first edition and its subsequent printings presented four sections: “A Noiseless Flash,” “The Fire,” “Details Are Being Investigated,” and “Panic Grass and Feverfew.” Each section dramatically presented the experiences of the six survivors in a chronology, respectively, of moments, hours, days, and months. A fifth section, “The Aftermath,” which marked the fortieth anniversary of the bombing, detailed the biographies of the six survivors during the years following the war.

Although it is nonfiction, Hersey’s account uses such structures and devices common to fiction as scene-by-scene construction, dialogue that reveals character, third-person point of view, symbolic detail, and theme. Although time determines the five major divisions of the book, each scene is recounted from the perspective of one of the survivors. Hersey describes, for example, Mr. Tanimoto’s feelings as he attempts to swim across the river, praying all the while for God to help him and thinking “It would be nonsense for me to be drowned when I am the only uninjured one.” Hersey thus establishes Tanimoto’s sense of purpose and his expectation of God’s order.


(The entire section is 974 words.)