John Hersey Hersey, John (Vol. 1) - Essay

Hersey, John (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hersey, John 1914–

An American novelist born in China, Hersey writes novels of social consciousness, among these A Bell for Adano, Hiroshima, The Wall, The Child Buyer, and White Lotus. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

The Wall, if it is atypical Hersey, is still his best and most solid work, where his virtuosity as a craftsman met a large moral and social drama. It was indeed the first American novel of the Forties and Fifties to seize upon such a theme. It brought back echoes of Frank Norris' The Octopus, or The Grapes of Wrath itself, the period when American writing was directly concerned with social justice. And part of the critical resistance to Hersey's book in our literary journals proceeded directly from the fact that "social themes" in general were now equated with the Russian Revolution, and were therefore suspect.

Maxwell Geismar, "John Hersey: The Revival of Consciousness" (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1958 by Maxwell Geismar), in his American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity, Hill & Wang, 1958, pp. 180-86.

The nature of Hersey's career precludes tracing any careful pattern of development of any recognizable scheme of a life work. (p. 7)

The Wall is one of Hersey's two longest novels and is the result of his most exhausting effort as a writer. Many critics have considered it his best book, but there is no possible way that its virtues could be compared with those of A Single Pebble or The Child Buyer. It is obviously a heroic advance over A Bell for Adano…. Obviously, The Wall has much in common with Hiroshima in pursuing the theme of survival—the two books share an accumulation of Hersey's observations from the ruins of Warsaw to the ruins of Hiroshima. But The Wall is beyond the brilliant journalism of Hiroshima because of Hersey's determination to make fiction of the history of his time. He faced his first great creative problems in writing The Wall, just as he had bypassed them five years before in filling out the details of a week in Licata. (p. 57)

John Hersey [had] to write some kind of a book about the racial problems of the 1960's, not because race had become a desirable topic for any self-consciously serious writer, but because racial struggles are the most revealing contemporary test of his lifelong theme: man's will to survive in a peaceful world. (p. 122)

John Hersey is clearly in the middle of his career: an energetic writer with disciplined work habits, he is both blessed and cursed by the compulsion to deal with a wide variety of subjects and to attempt as great a diversity of fictional forms…. Hersey is a skillful writer who is devoted to the profound treatment of several of the most serious topics his era affords. He cannot be ignored because he treats these topics directly. If critical essays are not necessary to interpret his lucid writing, he should be no less esteemed. (pp. 137-38)

David Sanders, in his John Hersey, Twayne, 1967.