John Hersey Hersey, John (Vol. 9) - Essay

Hersey, John (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hersey, John 1914–

An American journalist, essayist, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist, Hersey was born in China. He writes of the major social events and problems of his time, producing contemporary histories that are probing accounts of the world he perceives. Hersey's work is characterized by the journalist's thorough analysis of his subject as well as the novelist's ability to tell stories that have a certain poetic conviction. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Hersey shows himself at the peak of his form in this love story [The Walnut Door] that positively shimmers with vitality and controlled suggestiveness. (p. 38)

[The] story is tender, deep-rooted, and … subtly grained…. It is a novel of erotic discovery in the best sense because in the widest sense. Moreover, it bears an upbeat message for our fear-ridden and somewhat frenzied generation. (p. 39)

Peter Gardner, in Saturday Review (© 1977 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), September 17, 1977.

Throughout his long and meritorious career, John Hersey has been an author of the public kind. By that I mean that through his previous 18 books, 11 of them novels, Hersey has sought always to measure and define the impact of public events—often of the most massive and cataclysmic variety—upon the private character and mores of the individuals he has written about…. But while no one has ever denied his craftsmanship—Hersey's ability to combine strong plot lines with meticulous research into the subjects that have concerned him—his reputation in literary circles has suffered at the hands of reviewers who do not care to be preached at in a novel, or who have found his parables thin, his allegorical tendencies unconvincing.

Accordingly, although Hersey has spent much of the past 20 years at Yale, his alma mater, and has more intellectual energy than whole regions of the Modern Language Association, his work has not been made the object of academic enshrinement and very likely never will. Probably this does not bother Hersey overmuch…. [He] has always aimed for an audience broader than the one literary eminence customarily brings. His novels teach themselves.

Even so, "The Walnut Door" seems to mark a kind of departure. The focus of this novel is the curious personal relationship between two pampered children of the educated middle class; therefore Hersey's ability to define character in this book is more important than the events he describes. To a point Hersey succeeds quite well. (p. 9)

Hersey's mastery of plot is as sure as ever; very few readers who begin the novel will fail to complete it.

But narrative facility can detract as much as it adds: By using the technique most familiarly seen in the thriller—quick, often truncated, vignettes from the point of view of one or the other character, and always in the present tense—Hersey inherits the shallow characterization that often goes with it. Why [Elaine and Eddie, the novel's two central characters are] drawn together so compulsively, and why, in the final analysis, we should care about them for over 200 pages remains unclear….

Hersey's attempts to juxtapose private life against the public events of the past two decades establishes little more than that All Americans in their mid-20s remember Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan and Vietnam….

Ultimately though, "The Walnut Door's" main flaw is that Hersey has made his protagonists' fecklessness too convincing. Each seems less an actor than one acted upon, less a survivor of a difficult time than a victim of his or her incapacity for serious choice. All that remains in them is sexual melodrama—the anodyne of their class and time. But Hersey handles sensuality unconvincingly; what makes these characters compelling to each other will remain a mystery to most readers. One almost wishes he had appended a moral; it would be interesting to know what he makes of it all. (p. 48)

Gene Lyons, "What Remains Is Sexual Melodrama," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 18, 1977, pp. 9, 48.

[The Walnut Door] fairly glows with the author's fundamental humanity. Hersey's decency is both transparent and transcendent. He cares about matters that deserve to be cared about, and he writes about them with palpable passion. Scarcely a subject of contemporary moment has escaped his attention; he has written about everything from overpopulation to racial discrimination to the student revolution to war, and in every case he has written with his heart and mind firmly set in the right direction….

But as a novelist Hersey has been less successful [than as a writer of nonfiction], artistically if not commercially. Like so many writers whose deepest motivation is political belief, he tends to be didactic and simplistic when he turns to fiction. His symbolism is too obvious, his characters too ordinary, his situations too pat.

The Walnut Door suffers under all these difficulties. It is rescued from being either boring or trite by an inner tension that Hersey sustains rather successfully, but it has too many problems to work well as fiction. It is a variation of sorts on John Fowles's early, and far more effective, novel, The Collector, in which a young woman is held captive and abused sexually by a curiously demented man. It is intended, clearly, as a parable about the real and imagined fears of contemporary urban existence, but the parable overwhelms the story….

[As] a work of fiction The Walnut Door lies down and dies. The two central characters are only mildly interesting, it becomes too obvious too soon what is going on, and the tone of the novel is all wrong. Hersey has obviously kept in touch with the young folk from his vantage point at Yale, but his efforts to capture their argot and culture are clumsy, if endearingly so. Like a middle-aged man with a wig or a woman with a facelift, he is trying to occupy the country of the young, and it doesn't work. Despite its good intentions, to read The Walnut Door is to wince.

Jonathan Yardley, "Lost in the Country of the Young," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 16, 1977, p. E5.