The Call

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

The Call is the story of David Treadup, a rural New York boy, who, after a period of aimless drifting in school, finally heeds the call of missionary service and goes to China to devote a long lifetime to the cause of literacy and Christian service, only to find, at the end of his life, that he no longer believes in the Christian God. The Call is also an impressionistic history of modern China through the Communist Revolution, with its long narrative being divided into ten sections, each focusing on an important phase of Treadup’s life. Sketches of Treadup’s pioneer forebears give the story additional historical sweep, as does the account of the futile efforts of Treadup’s oldest son, Philip, to have his father’s ashes buried in Shanghai in 1981.

The Call is an old-fashioned apprenticeship novel—and more. It is the story of a young man’s confused first attempts to find himself and his discovery of a life’s work as a missionary in China. David Treadup was born in 1878, in the small town of Salt Branch, in the Onandagan region of western New York. His aimless adolescent life was transformed by a severe attack of osteomyelitis, when he was seventeen. His illness constitutes a form of spiritual death and rebirth, as he developed a new insight into the life of the mind while forced into inactivity and left with little to do but read.

David is fortunate in the quality of his tutors. A kind teacher, Maud Chase, guides him in his studies, and when he later attends the Enderby Institute, he is inspired by the exciting classroom genius of Absolom Carter, who becomes the greatest influence on his life. Carter is “an all-around thinker-athlete,” a model of what David knows he wants to become. Carter shapes David’s mind by having him read Benjamin Franklin, Xenophon, Plutarch, and Plato—secular writers who strengthen his thinking powers and foster mental integrity. So “the agnostic Carter’s instinct in giving David this extracurricular course in ethics was to bear fruit: Something skeptical, temporal, and sophisticated would stay with David all of his life—and would give him difficulties as a missionary.”

It is at Syracuse University that David gets the call to Christian service as a missionary. It comes at exactly the right time, for he has had an exhausting struggle against his sense of aimlessness and his insistent carnal desire. All at once, he is a new man: His hypochondria is dispelled by his sense of a religious purpose in life, and he achieves a spiritual confidence that supports him for four decades.

Buoyed by his faith, Treadup gives his life to the service of church work in China. The Syracuse Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) first extends to Treadup the call to a Christian life, and soon after his conversion, Treadup attends a conference featuring the lectures of James B. Todd, charismatic leader of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions. (The historical basis for these events is seen in John Hersey’s remark that “As it was to turn out, more than half the missionaries sent overseas into North American Protestant compounds between 1888 and 1919 were SVM volunteers.”)

David Treadup’s new life begins in Tientsin, in northern China, in 1905, where, as a newly married man, he takes up teaching. His pedagogy is simple: Educate the elite and the knowledge will flow downward to the masses, like gravity. His chosen subject is science, his favorite teaching device the gyroscope. Using the astonishing properties of the gyroscope in conjunction with the teaching methods of Absolom Carter, Treadup becomes enormously successful on the lecture circuit. When his old idol, Todd, comes to China, there is a discernible tension between them, Treadup remaining basically more in tune with the sensibilities of Carter than with the mass appeal of Todd. Nevertheless, the two of them embark on a joint tour, with Treadup giving his science lectures while Todd evangelizes. Treadup tries to beat back the pride and satisfaction he feels when he outdraws Todd, but his pleasure shows through.

Treadup’s philosophy of using gravity to spread knowledge is challenged by his experience in France, during World War I, when he goes there in the company of the many Chinese sent as virtual slave laborers for the Allies. The misery of the homesick, illiterate Chinese in France leads to a literacy program that demonstrates to Treadup the need for more such programs in China. Hersey’s sympathetic depiction of the plight of the exiled Chinese is one of the more moving episodes of The Call.

When he returns, rejoining his wife, Emily, and their three sons, Treadup devotes all of...

(The entire section is 1923 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In The Call Hersey has written a work which involves some of his oldest memories and his deepest interests. China was the country of...

(The entire section is 585 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

John Hersey suffered from the lack of serious critical attention through much of his career, and the quality of his work is uneven. Some of...

(The entire section is 789 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A child of missionary parents, John Hersey spent the first ten years of his life in Tientsin, China. During this time he acquired a knowledge...

(The entire section is 341 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Although Hersey did not publicly comment on Pearl Buck's novels about China, they were contemporaries and he certainly knew her work. Any...

(The entire section is 49 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In Hersey's first book with a Chinese background, A Single Pebble (1956), a young American engineer, determined to build a dam on the...

(The entire section is 130 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

America. CLIII, July 20, 1985, p. 36.

Christian Century. CII, August 14, 1985, p. 742.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVII, May 9, 1985, p. 25.

Fiedler, Leslie. “No! in Thunder.” In The Novel: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by Robert Murray Davis. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. In discussing authors from his point of view that “art is essentially a moral activity,” the controversial Fiedler accuses Hersey of being the author of “The Sentimental Liberal Protest Novel” who fights for “slots on the lists of best sellers” with his “ersatz morality.” The essay makes for lively reading at best.

Huse, Nancy L. The Survival Tales of John Hersey. New York: Whitston, 1983. An eminently readable and informed study on Hersey which is useful in understanding the scope and development of Hersey as a writer. Explores the relationship between art and moral or political intentions. Includes extensive notes and a bibliography.

Library Journal. CX, April 15, 1985, p. 86.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 14, 1985, p. 6.

The New Republic. CLIXII, May 13, 1985, p. 28.

The New York Review of Books. XXXII, May 30, 1985, p. 17.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, May 12, 1985, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LXI, June 3, 1985, p. 125.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, March 8, 1985, p. 84.

Sanders, David. “John Hersey.” In Contemporary Novelists, edited by James Vinson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Covers Hersey’s work from wartime journalist to novelist. Cites The Wall as his greatest novel and considers him the “least biographical of authors.” A rather dense study but helpful in quickly establishing themes in Hersey’s writings. A chronology and a bibliography are provided.

Sanders, David. John Hersey Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A revised edition of Sanders’s 1967 study. The first chapter introduces Hersey’s career as reporter and novelist, and subsequent chapters discuss his major fiction and nonfiction, including his later stories. Includes chronology, notes, and bibliography.

Sanders, David. “John Hersey: War Correspondent into Novelist.” In New Voices in American Studies, edited by Ray B. Browne, Donald M. Winkelman, and Allen Hayman. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1966. A well-known scholar on Hersey, Sanders defends him and insists that he should not be dismissed because of his popularity. Traces Hersey’s origins as a war correspondent and the writings that emerged from these experiences. Finally, Sanders settles the dispute as to whether Hersey is a novelist and hails him as a “writer.”

Time. CXXV, May 6, 1985, p. 89.