John Hersey Hersey, John - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Major Themes

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?

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Men on Bataan (nonfiction) 1943
Into the Valley: A Skirmish of Marines (nonfiction) 1943
A Bell for Adano (novel) 1944
Hiroshima (nonfiction) 1946
The Wall (novel) 1950
The Marmot Drive (novel) 1953
A Single Pebble (novel) 1956
The War Lover (novel) 1959
The Child Buyer (novel) 1960
Here to Stay: Studies on Human Tenacity (essays) 1962
White Lotus (novel) 1965
Too Far to Walk (novel) 1966
Under the Eye of the Storm (novel) 1967
Robert Capa [with others] (nonfiction) 1969
The Algiers Motel Incident (nonfiction) 1970
Letter to the Alumni (nonfiction) 1970
The Conspiracy (novel) 1972
My Petition for More Space (novel) 1974
Ralph Ellison [editor] (nonfiction) 1974
The Writer's Craft [editor] (nonfiction) 1974
The President (nonfiction) 1975
The Walnut Door (novel) 1977
Aspects of the Presidency: Truman and Ford in Office (nonfiction) 1980
The Call: An American Missionary in China (novel) 1985
Blues (nonfiction) 1987
Life Sketches (sketches) 1989
Fling, and Other Stories (short stories) 1990
Antonietta (novel) 1991
Key West Tales (short stories) 1994

Bruce Bliven (review date 9 September 1946)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Hiroshima, in The New Republic, Vol. 115, No. 10, September 9, 1946, pp. 300-01.

[In the following review, Bliven praises Hiroshima as "true and indescribably tragic."]

By now, you have doubtless heard that last week's New Yorker devoted its entire space to one subject for the first time in the history of that periodical. The subject is the atomic bombing of Hiroshima; the author is John Hersey; and we understand the magazine sold out on most newsstands within a few hours of its appearance. If so, the public showed discernment. Hersey's piece is certainly one of the great classics of the war; if it is eligible for a Pulitzer Prize and doesn't get it, the judges should go and take a Rorschach.

Everyone has read the statistics on what happened at Hiroshima (statistics which Hersey says gravely underestimated the actual damage). But figures have no grappling hooks with which to take hold of dim human imagination. With the simplicity of genius, this author had the idea of doing what many other journalists should have thought of long ago: he has reduced the story of the bombing to its effect on the lives of six people in Hiroshima, and their relatives and friends: Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the East Asia Tin Works; Dr. Masakazu Fujii, a physician; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, impoverished widow of a tailor killed in battle; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German missionary priest; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of a Japanese Methodist Church.

Hersey, with indefatigable research, and the great abilities demonstrated in his earlier war books, Into the Valley...

(The entire section is 704 words.)

Charles Poore (essay date 10 November 1946)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Most Spectacular Explosion in the Time of Man," in The New York Times Book Review, November 10, 1946, pp. 7, 56.

[In the following essay, Poore offers a contemporary exposition on Hiroshima.]

In the waning days of last August people all over the United States who read The New Yorker suddenly began to discuss the harrowing experiences of a clerk in the personnel department of a tin works, a doctor in a private hospital, a tailor's widow, a priest, a young member of a surgical staff and the pastor of a church. What had happened to them might happen to any or all of us, and there were new inflections and intensities in our discussions of the source and...

(The entire section is 1792 words.)

Ruth Benedict (review date 7 December 1946)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Past and the Future," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 163, No. 23, December 7, 1946, pp. 656, 658.

[In the following review, Benedict examines the cultural affects of Hiroshima.]

John Hersey's story [Hiroshima] of what happened to six ordinary persons at Hiroshima has been read all over America and heard by great radio audiences. Its stark simplicity has brought home to hundreds of thousands of persons what is meant to drop an atomic bomb on a great city. Some Americans have reacted with painful guilt at the thought that they belonged to the nation which catapulted this horror into the houses and streets of a city of whose very existence they had...

(The entire section is 1351 words.)

George Herbert Clarke (review date Summer 1947)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Hiroshima, in Queens Quarterly, Vol. LIV, No. 2, Summer, 1947, p. 251.

[In the following review, Clarke offers a brief review of Hiroshima.]

Mr. Hersey's earlier works—Men on Bataan, Into the Valley and A Bell for Adano—have brought him distinction. Hiroshima has brought him an enduring reputation. In point of style, organization and sensitive perception, this is a memorable book. The style is clear and pure; and the organization uses balance and cross-reference with delicate skill. The controlled objectivity places before the reader scene after scene within the aftermath of the explosion of the first atomic bomb used...

(The entire section is 355 words.)

David Sanders (essay date 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Hersey: War Correspondent into Novelist," in New Voices in American Studies, Purdue University Studies, 1966, pp. 49-58.

[In the following essay, Sanders discusses Hersey's writing technique as it develops over his five World War II-related novels, including Hiroshima.]

On May 8, 1945—V-E Day—John Hersey won the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, A Bell for Adano. Twenty years later, with the appearance of his eleventh book, White Lotus, he has been told that while he once aspired to have a silver tongue, he has been given instead a golden touch; that instead of writing literature for all time, he has written books that make the...

(The entire section is 4133 words.)

Kingsley Widmer (essay date 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "American Apocalypse: Notes on the Bomb and the Failure of Imagination," in The Forties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1969, pp. 141-54.

[In the following excerpt, Widmer gives Hiroshima a mixed review.]

The murderous glare of the American Hiroshima Bomb, the single most destructive moment of that part of the twentieth century Eurasian barbarism quaintly labeled World War II, casts a peculiar light on some literary as well as moral faiths. Surveying the writings linked to the atomic bomb must impress us with how dimly literature reflects and comprehends the actual. Even the obvious symbol of the mushroom-cloud rising above a...

(The entire section is 848 words.)

Michael J. Yavenditti (essay date February 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Hersey and the American Conscience: The Reception of Hiroshima," in Pacific Historical Review, Vol. XLIII, No. 1, February, 1974, pp. 24-49.

[In the following essay, Yavenditti outlines the context of the public's response to the stories in Hiroshima.]

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and of Nagasaki, three days later, has spawned a considerable literature by survivors, journalists, novelists, scholars, and official government sources. Several films on the development of the atomic bomb (the Manhattan Project), the decision to use it, and the ordeal of its victims have reached limited audiences in America and abroad. Yet of all...

(The entire section is 6938 words.)

Mas'ud Zavarzadeh (essay date 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Stubborn Fact: The Exegetical Nonfiction Novel," in The Mythopoeic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel, University of Illinois Press, 1976, pp. 93-127.

[In the following excerpt, Zavarzadeh analyzes Hiroshima as an exegetial nonfiction novel.]

The exegetical nonfiction novel is a fictual narrative registering the public or private events which have taken place, usually in the absence of the author, in the past. In attempting to repossess the empirical constituents of the occurred events and to recover their original configurations and mythic resonance, the exegetical nonfiction novelist subjects all the available evidence to an intensive...

(The entire section is 3271 words.)

John T. Dorsey (essay date Autumn 1983–Summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Theme of Survival in John Hersey's Hiroshima and Ibuse Masuji's Black Rain," in Tamkang Review, Vol. XIV, Nos. 1-4, Autumn 1983–Summer 1984, pp. 85-100.

[In the following excerpt, Dorsey explores the theme of survival in Hiroshima.]

In the fifth year of the atomic age, William Faulkner stated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech his belief that man would not merely survive—he would prevail. The background to Faulkner's affirmation is the very negative experiences of World War II, in particular the experiments in mass killing which culminated in the development of nuclear weapons. If it is still possible to speak in affirmative terms about...

(The entire section is 3771 words.)

John Toland (review date 4 August 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Beyond the Brink of Destruction," in The New York Times Book Review, August 4, 1985, pp. 3, 24.

[In the following review, Toland examines a 1985 edition of Hiroshima that contains a new postscript detailing the post-World War II lives of the six survivors.]

When John Hersey's account of six survivors of Hiroshima appeared in the Aug. 31, 1946, issue of The New Yorker it caused a sensation. For the first time the entire editorial space was devoted to a single article. The magazine was overwhelmed by requests for reprints. Albert Einstein asked for 1,000 copies. Newspapers throughout the country clamored for the rights, which were granted provided...

(The entire section is 1700 words.)

Chalmers M. Roberts (review date 11 August 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Hersey Returns to Hiroshima," in Book World—The Washington Post, August 11, 1985, p. 3.

[In the following review, Roberts praises the long-lasting power of Hiroshima.]

When John Hersey's Hiroshima first appeared in The New Yorker magazine of August 31, 1946, its impact was instant and massive. For one thing it took up the entire magazine, for another its powerful effect came from the simplicity of the writing, a vivid, straightforward, non-polemical reportorial account of half a dozen survivors of the first atomic bomb, of what happened to them and their city that day and in the following year. As a book it sold 118,000 copies in hard...

(The entire section is 840 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Huse, Nancy Lyman. John Hersey and James Agee: A Reference Guide. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1978, 122p.

Important bibliography of works by and about Hersey, covering the years 1942–47.

――――――. The Survival Tales of John Hersey. Troy, NY: Whitson, 1983.

Study of Hersey's fiction and journalism through 1977.

Ridenour, Louis. "What Is the Crime of War?" Saturday Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 44 (2 November 1946): 16.

Explores the moral issues raised by Hiroshima.


(The entire section is 117 words.)