Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 21 Oct 2019

Rereading John Hersey’s Hiroshima

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that the first time I read John Hersey’s historic Hiroshima – either in the very late-70s or early-1980s – I read it primarily as ‘campaign literature’, perhaps even propaganda. It was required reading for CND activists and nuclear disarmament campaigners. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this but mass movements – even important life-or-death ones – encourage a kind of blinkered zealotry: books and pamphlets and polemics are hoovered up almost indiscriminately to furnish campaigning messages, ammunition for argument and advocacy, a means of rebuttal. I don’t say this negatively or even necessarily as a criticism: I think it is an inevitable consequence of mass campaigning, of any battle for hearts and minds and for the political ‘agenda’. But certainly, it is not conducive to an appreciation of literature or of literary effort.

The extraordinary story of the publication of Hiroshima is well known – indeed, perhaps better known now than the text itself. It is a thirty-thousand word essay about the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombing of the Japanese island city of Hiroshima at 8.15am on the morning of the 6th August 1945 – the first use of an atomic weapon on a civilian population. It was followed three days and three hours later by the dropping of a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. The two bombs killed over a quarter-of-a-million people and created firestorms that maimed and horrifically injured tens of thousands more. Radiation sickness killed many more over the ensuing months and years.

In conditions of absolute secrecy – there was not a single word of pre-publicity, not a single leak – the entire text was prepared and published in a special issue of The New Yorker magazine on the 31st August 1946, a year and a few weeks after the bombing itself. The Penguin edition was published in an edition of 250,000 in November 1946; a further 100,000 copies were printed in December of that year. The text was eventually published in serial form in over fifty US newspapers, as well as around the world. In an abridged form personally approved by Hersey, the account was broadcast by the American Broadcasting Company and the BBC Third Programme. Albert Einstein personally purchased a thousand copies of The New Yorker issue. At Hersey’s insistence, after tax deductions all copyright fees were donated to the American Red Cross. Hiroshima has never been out of print.

At the time, Hersey was a young reporter in his very early-30s, the son of American missionaries who were based in China, and it was here that he was born in the first year of the First World War. He went on to publish twenty-five books but despite winning a Pulitzer prize for one of his novels, it is for this short piece of reportage that he has gone down in history.

In 1946 The New Yorker sent Hersey to Japan to investigate the circumstances of post-war reconstruction. It was during this trip that he found or was given a survivor’s journal which gave an eyewitness account of the Hiroshima bombing and life in the scorched and irradiated rubble it left behind. This was the genesis of his account – not a technical report about the workings of nuclear weapons, not an official tract about reconstruction or post-war occupation and administration, but an account of the experiences of a small group of survivors, told as far as possible in their own words. What they saw. What happened to them and to their families and their friends. What they endured. What they thought about what had happened to them.

Make no mistake. This is an account of hell written from the inside. But it is also an extraordinary and controlled account, its language clear, direct and simple – but also utterly unflinching. There is no prevarication, no euphemism, no drawing of a tactful veil over suffering on a scale that is almost impossible to describe. And because it focuses on the first-hand accounts and experiences of half-a-dozen survivors and some of the friends and family known to them it has a shattering immediacy. Nothing like it had been written before – and we can only hope that nothing like it will need to be written again.

Some have said that Hersey was amongst the originators of ‘The New Journalism’, a new hybrid form of reporting that mixed journalism with the methods of fiction, foregrounding the experiences of the journalist in the process of getting the story. Mailer was one of the bug guns of this new form but it can also be seen in Joan Didion’s work and war reporting such as Michael Herr’s Dispatches (see below). But personally I don’t think this is true, and it doesn’t seem to be a view that Hersey himself accepted either. In the New Journalism, reporters sought the impact – the emotional heft, the lasting impressions, the creative freedoms – of fiction, but in many practitioners the shortcomings of this approach were quickly evident: their primary lens was the self, their own role, their own experience. The reporter became almost as important as the events described.

This was not Hersey’s aim. He knew that his was a mission of world-historical importance and his task was to present, as faithfully and as fully and as truthfully as possible, the experiences, the suffering and in some cases the quiet heroism and courage of a small band of eyewitness-survivors.

Hiroshima on rereading emerges as a more subtle, more nuanced and more accomplished work than I remembered – or frankly was equipped to know or recognise when I first read it. It remains a benchmark for what reportage is capable of and of what a lone reporter can do, almost single-handedly, in conditions which even now stretch the powers of language and imagination and understanding until they buckle under the strain. To read it now, after the millions, perhaps billions, of words that have been written about nuclear weapons, is still an almost overwhelmingly powerful experience – because what Hersey captured, just a year after those dreadful events, still has the shock of the new: he was showing us a new man-made hell of a kind previously unseen; he was reporting from a new post-apocalyptic world, even as it was still unfolding.


Alun Severn

October 2019



Further reading elsewhere on Letterpress


Classic Covers: The Wall by John Hersey


Dispatches by Michael Herr


A Fire on the Moon by Norman Mailer


A Fire on the Moon by Norman Mailer (slight return)


Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion