Hersey, John 1914–
Hersey is an American novelist born in China. He was a foreign correspondent during World War II and has always been concerned in his fiction with major events and issues of current history. Hersey won a Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for A Bell for Adano. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
In its attempt to seem merely the jottings of an archivist [The Wall] succeeds in being, in the Jamesean sense, scarcely written at all. Avoiding the poetic tone, the epic ambition, it is drawn toward the low-keyed prose of the report. Stylistically, it exists at the point where history, journalism, and fiction blur into that un-form which we may as well call, as the movies have taught us to, the "documentary." Overwhelmed, perhaps, by the political fact which was his occasion, Hersey does not dare to give the demands of form precedence over those of documentation; and yet he is no longer content to do the modest job of reportage that made Hiroshima effective. In the end, he merely flirts with fiction: sketching characters, tentatively striving for inwardness, but always retreating to the "facts" of the researcher.
The dry, matter-of-fact approach of the reporter is viable in literature only when, as in Defoe or Swift, the fable is not "true," but merely the outward form of a consistent and serious symbolism trying to get by in a literal-minded age. In Hersey's book, the opposite is the case; his book is an allegory stood on its head, with its literal story being verified history but its inner meanings essentially false. What one resents is The Wall's effort to bully us into accepting moral and political insights that we know are invalid by insisting on the documentary veracity of a historical event that we cannot deny. As a result, we are left feeling that the value of the book depends entirely on the truth of its statements down to their last detail; the whole structure, we suspect, would collapse if it turned out that in Warsaw during the March of 1941 there were not 1,668 but 1,669 deaths from typhus. (pp. 37-8)
When a writer compels us outward toward the world of statistics, he betrays a basic uncertainty about his ability to convey poetic conviction and inward truth, which can lead him only into further difficulty and confusion. To maintain the kind of verisimilitude he has chosen, Hersey is forced to impose unnecessary strains on our credulity. Wishing his account to seem more archive than fiction, Hersey narrates it all from the point of view of the single archivist Levinson; but to make this probable, he asks us to believe that scores of people have chosen to confess to one man their most intimate thoughts and have recollected, while doing so, the most insignificant details of their past. The author himself feels the absurdity of this from time to time and apologizes in a backhand way…. (p. 38)
If he had been content merely to aim at a good book, he might have avoided such embarrassments; but he is driven by the desire to write a great one, a work of art as great as its subject. In the interest of such greatness, he feels obliged to go beyond the mere evocation of horror and despair and defeat, feels compelled to demonstrate that the ordeal of the Ghetto was, for a chosen few at least, a school for nobility. It is possible that this was, in fact, true; but for a writer to convince us of it is another matter. In this regard, Hersey's plight is rather like that of an author who has imagined a great poet as his protagonist and finds himself forced to invent verses capable of persuading us of his protagonist's talent. So Mr. Hersey must persuade us that his ennobled survivors are, indeed, noble; and to do this, he must find for them a language appropriate to their redeemed state rather than to the editorial demands of the New Yorker. (p. 39)
Leslie A. Fiedler, "Straddling the Wall" (1950), in his The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler, Vol. 2 (copyright © 1971 by Leslie A. Fiedler; reprinted with permission of Stein and Day/Publishers), Stein and Day, 1971, pp. 36-40.
Hersey could have blocked out a careful ground of personal experience from his missionary childhood in China to some point in his adult life and then written a WASP novel, without guilt, with just enough humor, with that special access to the theme of racial identity given only to insiders. Or he might have drawn the inescapable conclusion from everything that he reported during World War II. By adding Hiroshima to Guadalcanal, the Sicilian campaign, and the ruins of Warsaw, he should have come up with the sum of absurdity, then canceled it because of its possible consequence of revolt, and settled for meaninglessness.
Instead, he proceeded less imaginatively to become a novelist. Except in such digressions as The Marmot Drive and A Single Pebble, he has taken some of the main historical events and social problems of his time as his subjects. Habits that he acquired as a reporter have gone into the writing of each novel, especially such habits as observation, memory, and research.
His second novel, The Wall, is probably the most thorough example of his method. He saw the ruins of Warsaw in 1944, then the ruins of Hiroshima in 1946. For two years he read documents of the Warsaw ghetto, had others translated for him, and listened for several hundred hours to the wire transcriptions recorded by his translators. (pp. 49-50)
When he had finished writing The Wall, Hersey could accurately if modestly speak of himself as a novelist of contemporary history. Complexities beyond a reporter's grasp were breached in the writing of this novel. Through his reading, through taking notes on his notes, and through that process by which he became captive of his translators and creator of Noach Levinson, he wrote a novel which goes beyond recording its day to affirm that survival from the ghetto was an instance of a universal theme. How far he had come from the prologue to A Bell for Adano and how surprising that he had also advanced beyond the "inspired journalism" of Hiroshima!
Not all of his subsequent fiction consists of such exemplary novels of contemporary history. The five later books differ in content and in form as much as any five books by any of Hersey's contemporaries. He remains outside the ranks of acceptable subject for the growing criticism of postwar American fiction. He is excluded because he is or was a journalist. Sometimes it is said flatly that he is not a novelist. He is a little like John Dos Passos, who is so difficult to pin down as a novelist or a reporter or an historian that we may all come to accept his own definition of his works as "contemporary chronicles." Both Hersey and Dos Passos might be called "writers." Unfortunately, we seem to have no such sweeping term. (p. 58)
David Sanders, "John Hersey: War Correspondent into Novelist," in New Voices in American Studies, edited by Ray B. Browne, Donald M. Winkelman, and Allen Hayman (© 1966 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Purdue University Studies, 1966, pp. 49-58.
The Conspiracy is John Hersey's first novel in five years, and it may be his most distinguished in more than twenty. It is set forth in the form of letters between the poets Lucan and Seneca, and selections from the files of secret police at the time of a conspiracy against the Emperor Nero. Why a serious novelist should suddenly turn to the ancient world for an appropriate context for his thoughts is perhaps answered here by Hersey's Seneca who asserts more than once that the duty of the writer is to avoid frenzy. Hersey does, and thereby illuminates the present from the vantage point of a thoroughly "cool" past. There is no feeling of pretense, of learning paraded, nor the false note that frequently clings to fictions elaborately distanced. The reader comes to know not only the characters but a questing intelligence not ashamed to think about philosophy, and to pose large unfashionable questions. Perhaps the chief question is the writer's question posed at the novel's end. Seneca, under house arrest and sentenced to suicide, writes this in a farewell to his nephew: "What is the responsibility of a writer? Be consoled, Lucan. You have done your duty as a writer as best you could, which was to be true to your gifts. The responsibility of a writer is to write. What more can be said?" (p. 31)
The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1972 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 1, 1972.
Since well before dawn Sam Poynter has been waiting, just waiting, in a jam-packed line that stretches four abreast for three-quarters of a mile. And for the duration of John Hersey's … futuristic novel [My Petition for More Space], Sam inches along an overcrowded New Haven street toward a Kafkaesque government office building where, if he ever gets there, he will put in his petition for more living space.
It is an outrageous petition for anyone to file in this not-too-distant future, when maximum living space for a single person is eight feet by twelve, when "every square inch of concrete and asphalt is taken up" at rush hour. By his very presence on the line, Sam is cutting down on the chances of the others—people who want to change jobs, have a child, buy cigars, get more food—to gain permission for their basic requests.
Combining an Orwellian vision and the absurdist techniques of Beckett, Hersey has vividly portrayed the horrors of overpopulation and the deathly fear, hostility, and terror that rage through those who must mutely wait. In Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four Winston Smith fights for the right to have a personality. Similarly, Hersey's Sam Poynter is fighting for the right to have more space. And the reader soon realizes that like the characters of Beckett, who wait for someone (like Godot) who does not come, Hersey's characters wait to present a petition that will not be granted. It is a novel in which, essentially, nothing happens. Yet its mounting tension sustains the action of the novel and compels you to keep turning the pages.
This portrait of human uncertainty, of empty, anguished waiting, is ultimately ambiguous. While it is obviously pessimistic about the inevitability of overcrowding, frustration, and the indefinite postponement of gratification, it is also informed by a certain obstinate hope. Hersey's is a vision that belongs, dreadfully, to our time; its greatest power is, simply, that it is unbearably close to being true.
Susan Heath, "'My Petition for More Space'," in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 21, 1974, p. 26.
"This morning I have some hope of reaching the petition windows," begins John Hersey's latest allegorical lesson in existential peril ["My Petition For More Space"]. Here, the doom that hangs over a future society is overpopulation and hideous regimentation. Sam Poynter, 37, nursing happier childhood flashbacks, stands wedged into a static sea of human flesh in a future New Haven, where it takes twenty minutes to move a block and where the only greensward left is a museum piece (kept behind glass) that only the mayor has the privilege of mowing…. [Sam] chafes at his living-space allotment of 7 by 11 feet. He determines to petition for more space—an unthinkable, shocking request in this society….
To his credit, Hersey heightens the horror by making claustrophobia seem almost cozy. But he is no Orwell, and along with the "waitlines" come such watered-down Kafka dialogue as "You all ought to be asking for more space," or "The bureau has no feeling about petitioners one way or another." Hersey's didactic streak mars his poetic flashes and suggests that as a novelist he needs less space, not more.
S. K. Oberbeck, "Waiting for Maisie," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 14, 1974, p. 128.
John Hersey's newest contribution to social forecasting, a novella entitled My Petition for More Space, unhappily produces an effect more like the feeble fizzle of a damp squib than the awesome resonances of Doomsday he seems to have intended. Brave New World and 1984, classics of this variety of fiction, were stunning in their persuasiveness because of Huxley's and Orwell's chilling ability to extend everyday experience to a grotesque but entirely plausible conclusion—a conclusion, moreover, made ineluctable because it proceeded from a carefully developed philosophical framework. Furthermore, both Huxley and Orwell were adroit at creating appealingly credible characters whose victimization by the forces of the future was genuinely moving.
Hersey, by contrast, is more a worrier than a philosopher; more a reporter than a novelist. And it makes all the difference, especially in fantasies of the future. (p. 1421)
Rene Kuhn Bryant, "More Worrier than Philosopher," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1974; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), December 6, 1974, pp. 1421-22.
The American novel continues its prolonged flirtation with the apocalyptic bizarre in [My Petition for More Space], John Hersey's story of a man standing in a queue somewhere in a New England of the future. The baldness of the book's title is matched by Hersey's characteristically thoughtful treatment of his material: names and places yield significance to the horrifying bleakness of his prophetic vision. This waitline of petitioners becomes a veritable universe in which he and Maisie, next in line, can live out an entire shared existence as they shuffle towards the turnstiles. It's a smart idea, but altogether too slender to support a full-length novel. Liberal (one might almost say wasteful) expanses of blank paper between chapters and paragraphs reinforce the notion that it might have been better as a novella. (p. 668)
Jonathan Keates, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), May 16, 1975.