Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Life Sketches, a collection of eighteen biographical vignettes culled from the files of John Hersey, profiles both famous and not-so-famous personages from the second half of the twentieth century. Sometimes Hersey outlines an entire life, as in the sketch of James Agee, and sometimes he offers only a glimpse of a brief moment in a life, as in the sketch of Harry S. Truman. Sometimes, the moment sketched takes on larger connotations in the context of future happenings, as is the case with the 1944 sketch of future American president John F. Kennedy as a PT boat skipper.

Each of the eighteen sketches forms a chapter that deals with one person (with the exception of the seventeenth, a chapter detailing the lives of several of the children of Holocaust survivors), and each of the people sketched was, at one time or another and for however brief or lengthy a time, important in the life of Hersey. The author claims in a prefatory note that he has arranged the entries according to when he “encountered” each figure, and most chapters include a black-and-white photograph of the person profiled. This is the extent of the book’s structural organization. Although the individuals chosen come from all walks of life and some are more famous than others, they all have in common the fact that their lives allow Hersey to express important insights into the human condition and to show that humans can be filled with admirable qualities.


(The entire section is 572 words.)