Hersey has gone back through his critically acclaimed magazine articles on various personages—those important both in his own life and in the lives of people throughout the world over fifty years—and chosen those individuals who most represent what he has described in his own writing career. Hersey unfolds the human condition by capturing the essence of people either moved by or involved in moving the forces that have dominated twentieth century history.
Hersey’s biographical style follows the rigors of journalism and remains factually correct, yet he goes beyond the physical facts to reveal the inner struggles behind them. For example, instead of concluding his biography of Agee with the factual how, what, where, when, and why, Hersey sums up the inner man:In low times through his life, self-loathing and suicide had hung at the edge of his mind. In the end, as it turned out, he jumped to his death by indirection; he was defenestrated from the upper stories of life, as if in slow motion, by alcohol, nicotine, insomnia, overwork, misused sex, searing guilt, and—above all, we can guess—by his anger and want and despair at finding that with all his wild talent he had never been able to write the whole of the universe down on the head of a pin.
By entering into these inner struggles, Hersey reveals his own conscience, and within it his great love for humans and their noble desires to stand up to the challenges of fate and the hardships...
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In the note at the beginning of the book, Hersey expresses his desire to reach for Joseph Conrad’s dictum that “a work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line.” Hersey then immediately admits his belief that he has not done so but has at best been able to give but “smudged and blurred lines” that can only “hint at” the clear pictures that he has of his subjects. This admission of failure is also an indication of the strength of the book: Those blurred lines are in reality the inner, psychological workings of the personages’ hearts and souls, expressions rather than explanations of matters that cannot be explained in clear, sharp lines.
It must be admitted that Hersey’s “friendly” journalism does, at times, suffer, as The New York Times critic Helen Benedict put it, from “too much ponderous detail dwelled on too lovingly.” Nevertheless, Hersey’s use of details and his obvious love for these people ultimately rise above these lapses to create a fine tapestry of both history and the workings of the human soul.