Hiroshima John Hersey
The following entry presents criticism on Hersey's nonfiction book Hiroshima (1946). See also John Hersey Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 7, 9.
Hersey is probably best known as the author of Hiroshima, a nonfiction account of the explosion of the first atomic bomb. Like many of Hersey's World-War-II writings, Hiroshima focuses on the moral problems associated with war. The work, which is written in straightforward prose, combines a thorough analysis of subject matter with a novelist's attention to narrative. Hersey gathered material for Hiroshima in the actual rubble of bomb-crippled Hiroshima itself, interviewing survivors and probing their agonies and triumphs. Hersey's efforts helped supply Hiroshima with a strong sense of the human consequences of the bombing. Previously, most of the material written about the bombing tended to focus on the science and engineering behind the bomb itself—for example, the force of the blast, the physical principles governing the explosion, and the mass devastation to the landscape of Hiroshima. By contrast, Hiroshima awakened Americans to the bomb's impact on everyday human beings leading everyday lives. Originally published as an entire issue of The New Yorker on August 31, 1946, Hersey's book forced a nation to grapple with its conscience in the wake of a seminal—and signal—act of war.
Plot and Major Characters
In Hiroshima, the dropping of the bomb is experienced through the eyes of six survivors: two doctors, Terufumi Saski and Masakazu Fujii; two religious figures: Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German missionary, and Reverend Kioyoshi Tanimoto, a Japanese Methodist minister; and two women, Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in a factory, and Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a poor tailor's widow with several children. Hiroshima recreates the entire experience from the victims' points of view, beginning fifteen minutes before the explosion and covering the period directly thereafter. The six whose stories Hersey tells are probably not truly representative of the average Hiroshima survivor; indeed, critics have noted that the six were more fortunate than most. But by weaving vignettes of the bomb's tragic effects, Hersey created powerful images, sensitively detailing internal emotions by describing external actions. The impact on readers was enormous. According to Charles Poore, "Hiroshima penetrated the tissue of complacency we had built up. It penetrated it all the more inexorably because it told its story not in terms of graphs and charts but in terms of ordinary human beings."
Hersey intentionally created Hiroshima as a relatively objective, non-judgmental account of the bombing. His purpose was to jar the American reading public, upon whom an atmosphere of complacency had descended in the days and months following the blast. Hersey attempted to counteract this reaction by portraying the Japanese people as human beings, not as just an enemy in war. Readers of Hiroshima were made to visualize the terror the six survivors experienced and to understand the horrific human suffering caused by the bomb. The book's message is fundamental: Grave consequences follow grave acts. Hersey does not directly confront the moral issues surrounding the blast, choosing instead to spur serious, personal reflection on the part of all readers. Having read Hiroshima, each reader could hardly help facing this essential question: When, if ever, is it right for a nation to carry out such an act?
When Hiroshima originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1946, the issue was quickly sold out. Many alternative sources for gaining access to the text—for example, readings on national radio, free copies to Book-of-the-Month-Club members (on the grounds that nothing else in print "could be of more importance at this moment to the human race"), and complete reprintings in other publications—were quickly established. The immediate response was overwhelmingly positive—Albert Einstein ordered 1000 copies of the book, Bernard Baruch ordered 500, and numerous other readers purchased multiple copies. A few critics feared Hiroshima would create unwarranted sympathy for the Japanese, but even these commentators recognized the work's important cultural impact. In general, critics praised Hiroshima's humanistic view of war. A few, including Kingsley Widmer, faulted Hiroshima on stylistic grounds—Widmer claimed that "artful detail substitutes for moral intelligence"—but most were impressed by Hersey's simple, straightforward narrative technique. Today, commentators value Hiroshima as one of the most gripping works to emerge from the horrors of World War II. The work continues to reach a wide audience, ranging from young students in educational settings to more advanced students of philosophy, war, and geopolitics.