John Hersey Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

John Hersey is as well known for his nonfiction as he is for his novels. As a young journalist in World War II, Hersey wrote for Time and Life, interviewing such figures as Japan’s foreign minister Matsuoka, Ambassador Joseph Grew, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. His first book, Men on Bataan (1942), was written in New York from files and clippings; his second, Into the Valley: A Skirmish of the Marines (1943), from his own experiences. Hiroshima (1946), generally considered to be his most important book, was based on a series of interviews. After Hiroshima, he concentrated on writing novels for twenty years, though he often employed the techniques of interviewing and research to establish a factual basis for his novels. Here to Stay: Studies in Human Tenacity (1962) reprinted Hiroshima and a number of other interviews with people who had survived similar horrors, such as the Warsaw Ghetto. The Algiers Motel Incident (1968) was based on research and interviews concerning the Detroit police killing of three African Americans during a period of riots. Letter to the Alumni (1970) was a portrait of Yale University during May Day demonstrations, and The President (1975) followed President Gerald R. Ford on a typical day. Life Sketches (1989) is a book of autobiographical pieces.

Hersey’s collections of short stories include Fling, and Other Stories (1990). Blues (1987), also classified as short fiction, is an idiosyncratic book about bluefishing, cast in the form of a dialogue between a fisherman and a curious stranger and interspersed with poems by Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, and others. Hersey also edited The Writer’s Craft (1974), an anthology of famous writers’ comments on the aesthetics and techniques of literary creation.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

John Hersey’s primary achievement was his mastery of the nonfiction novel. Although all the particular techniques of the nonfiction novel have been used for centuries, Hersey can be said to have anticipated the form as it was practiced during the 1960’s and 1970’s, the era of the New Journalism and of such novels as Gore Vidal’s Burr (1973) and E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975), to cite only two examples. At the beginning of his career as a writer, Hersey was a reporter and based his books on events and people he had observed. Rather than merely recounting his experiences, Hersey molded characters and events to fit a novelistic form, basing, for example, A Bell for Adano on what he observed of the U.S. military government at Licata, Sicily. This attention to realistic detail and psychological insight characterizes his best writing and enriches his more imaginative novels, such as White Lotus, although these novels were not nearly as well received. Hersey’s humanistic perspective is also an important trait of his works and provides a sense of values.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Fiedler, Leslie. “No! in Thunder.” In The Novel: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by Robert Murray Davis. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. In discussing authors from his point of view that “art is essentially a moral activity,” the controversial Fiedler accuses Hersey of being the author of “The Sentimental Liberal Protest Novel” who fights for “slots on the lists of best sellers” with his “ersatz morality.” The essay makes for lively reading at best.

Huse, Nancy L. The Survival Tales of John Hersey. New York: Whitston, 1983. An eminently readable and informed study on Hersey which is useful in understanding the scope and development of Hersey as a writer. Explores the relationship between art and moral or political intentions. Includes extensive notes and a bibliography.

Sanders, David. “John Hersey.” In Contemporary Novelists, edited by James Vinson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Covers Hersey’s work from wartime journalist to novelist. Cites The Wall as his greatest novel and considers him the “least biographical of authors.” A rather dense study but helpful in quickly establishing themes in Hersey’s writings. A chronology and a bibliography are provided.

Sanders, David. John Hersey Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Begins with Hersey’s career as reporter and novelist, while subsequent chapters discuss his major fiction and nonfiction, including his later stories. Includes chronology, notes, and bibliography.

Sharp, Patrick B. “From Yellow Peril to Japanese Wasteland: John Hersey’s Hiroshima.” Twentieth Century Literature 46, no. 4 (2000): 434-453. Discusses the role of Hiroshima in changing American attitudes toward the Japanese and nuclear weapons.