Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)
Hiroshima, Hersey’s fourth book, is pivotal in the author’s canon. From one point of view, it represents the finest example of the sustained journalism which characterizes Hersey’s writing. A reporter for Time-Life throughout World War II, Hersey had produced two book-length works of journalism before Hiroshima: Men on Bataan (1942), a series of character sketches on General Douglas MacArthur and his men in the Philippines, and Into the Valley: A Skirmish of the Marines (1943), an account of a Marine battalion in the Battle of Guadalcanal. Both works are clear, clean depictions, and though they are not simply propaganda, they are so broadly commendatory, so committed to the depiction of war as event, that they lack the balanced, timeless quality of Hiroshima and that book’s affirmation of the human spirit despite mankind’s weaknesses.
By the same token, Hiroshima stands as a transitional work—the last major journalistic book Hersey wrote before turning to the novel. Although A Bell for Adano (1944), his first novel, received the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1945, it is regarded today as a somewhat naive book, lacking the social consciousness of such later and more characteristic works as The Wall (1950), a story of the Warsaw ghetto, and The Child Buyer (1960), an indictment of the American educational system. These novels justified Hersey’s own account of himself as a “novelist of contemporary history,” but they also gave him an ambivalent status among critics, who found it difficult to classify his works. Deftly composed from existing records and evidence from research, these and other novels, such as The War Lover (1959), a story of American bombing crews in England during World War II, and White Lotus (1965), concerning racial unrest in the 1960’s, strike some critics as merely fictionalized sociology. They see these novels as anachronisms at a time when fiction deals more with the introspective and personal view and less with the public. Hiroshima is thus Hersey’s most critically satisfying work as well as his most widely read. It shuns the awkward portentousness of the novels, avoids the overreaching sociological bias of his fiction, and remains a simple, honest treatment of the human will to survive.