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Thursday, June 17, 2021

Portrayer of the Time

“Journalism allows its readers to witness history; fiction gives its readers an opportunity to live it.”  John Hersey


Born on this date in 1914, Hersey is best known for two amazing pieces of writing.  In 1944, he published the bio-novel A Bell for Adano, and in 1946, he wrote an account of the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.  In the span of two years he won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel, and then wrote the journalistic piece later judged  “the finest piece of American journalism of the 20th century” by a 36-member panel associated with New York University’s journalism department.

Adano (just one of 25 books Hersey authored) won the 1945 Pulitzer.  It’s the story of an Italian-American officer who wins the respect and admiration of the people of Adano, Sicily, by helping them find a replacement for the town bell that the Fascists had melted down for rifle barrels.   The tale grew directly out of his experiences as a war correspondent traveling, living with and writing about the troops in the field.

That book alone would have made his career, but in August, 1946, commemorating the anniversary of the Aug. 6, 1945, dropping of the first atomic bomb, The New Yorker published his most notable work, a 31,000-word article "Hiroshima.”  The story occupied almost the entire issue – something The New Yorker had never done before, nor has since.  Told from the viewpoint of 6 survivors it is, perhaps, the first example of what was to become called “New Journalism,” in which fiction storytelling techniques are adapted to non-fiction reportage. 

                                                              Hersey in the late 1940s and in the early 1990s

Shortly before his 1993 death, Yale (his alma mater) honored Hersey by creating an annual lecture series in his name.  In dedicating the series, fellow Yale alum, the author David McCullough, had this to say about Hersey.   Hersey "portrayed our time,” McCullough observed, "with a breadth and artistry matched by very few. He has given us the century in a great shelf of brilliant work, and we are all his beneficiaries."

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