Critics have generally agreed that John Hersey’s greatest strengths as a novelist derive from two sources: the observational skills he developed as a journalist and his belief in the importance of individual human beings in difficult situations. Reviewers throughout his career have praised his attention to realistic detail, which rivals that of William Dean Howells. Hersey gets close to the details of the lives of his characters, so that in his most successful works (both fiction and nonfiction), the reader gets a strong sense of “being there.”
When Hersey recaptured his memories of China in the novel A Single Pebble, in 1956, he was praised for his acute observations and simple handling of realistic detail, as he would be for nonfictional works such as Here to Stay, The Algiers Motel Incident, Letter to the Alumni, and The President. Throughout his career, however, Hersey insisted that he mentally separated and saw a clear difference between the way he wrote fiction and the way he wrote nonfiction. He saw the fiction as his chance to make more profound statements of lasting value—tending to push the works into the allegorical realm—although, ironically, most critics have seen his most profound themes in his more journalistic works, whether fiction or nonfiction, such as Hiroshima, The Wall, and A Single Pebble.
Sometimes, however, Hersey has been criticized for having insufficiently explored his characters in the apparent belief that documentary evidence sufficiently explains them. He has also been charged with cluttering hisnarratives with excessive detail. Although A Single Pebble was generally positively received, one of the criticisms leveled at it was its heavy use of nautical terms that the main character would readily understand but that are confusing to most readers. A similar criticism was leveled at The War Lover by a reviewer who asked if Hersey’s accounts of twenty-three bombing raids, heavily laden with hour-by-hour details, were really necessary to develop his theme.
Ironically, in his 1949 essay for The Atlantic Monthly, “The Novel of Contemporary History,” Hersey presented an aesthetic that established the primacy of character over realistic detail. “Palpable facts,” he wrote, “are mortal.The things we rememberare emotions and impressions and illusions and images and characters: the elements of fiction.” He went on to argue that the aim of the novelist of contemporary history was not to illuminate events, but to illuminate the human beings caught up in the events. This concern with the individual gives Hersey great sensitivity to suffering, a sympathy that, combined with his liberal political views, makes his thematic intentions manifest in nearly all of his works, leading to the accusation that Hersey is too allegorical, too moralistic, and too “meaningful” to be taken seriously as a creative artist. Although some critics hoped he would reverse the general trend of antimoralism and experimentalism in the postmodern fiction of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the more Hersey tried to escape the reportorial style, the less critically successful his novels became, though they continued to sell well.
A Bell for Adano
The genesis of Hersey’s first novel, A Bell for Adano, was a journalistic assignment in wartime Italy. During the Sicilian campaign, he visited the seaport of Licata, where he observed the workings of the U.S. military government and filed a story for Life titled “AMGOT at Work,” which was printed on August 23, 1943, along with photographs. The article described a typical day in the life of an anonymous Italian American...
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