Book Review: John Hersey — Reporting Truthfully, at All Costs
By Robert Israel
John Hersey emerges in this book as a disciplined journalist who held steadfast to an admirably singular goal.
Mr. Straight Arrow: The Career of John Hersey, Author of ‘Hiroshima’ by Jeremy Treglown. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pages, $28.
The title of this “study” of pioneering American journalist and novelist John Hersey (1914-1993) is a long one, obviously meant to draw in readers who are acquainted with his celebrated non-fiction volume Hiroshima, but never knew much about the man who wrote it.
It wasn’t always so. Hersey was once a household name. He was read by legions of men and women who subscribed to Life magazine, or who turned to his front page dispatches cabled during World War II to newspapers like the New York Herald Tribune.
Today, many of these readers — and the publications — are gone. The reason Hersey is important now, author Jeremy Treglown states, is that he labored “to establish positively, painstakingly, and sympathetically, what the facts of a case were.” In today’s Trumpy parlance, he wrote the opposite of “fake news.”
But there is another reason: Hersey, who enjoyed a lucrative 50-plus year writing career, and who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for his novel A Bell for Adano, took the “straight arrow” approach: stories were never about him, they were always about his subjects. He granted only two interviews during his lifetime: one to Publisher’s Weekly, the other to The Paris Review. He insisted that no biography be written about him. His daughter, Brook, executor of his estate, consented to be interviewed for Treglown’s book; she did not authorize its publication.
I can attest to Hersey’s taciturnity. A few years before his death, we met at his home in Vineyard Haven, on Martha’s Vineyard. I had entered a journalism competition earlier that year and returned stateside after spending nine weeks in Japan interviewing hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors, for stories that appeared in several papers. Hersey was one of the judges. The editor at the Chuoku Shimbun, Hiroshima’s daily newspaper, mailed Hersey my pieces. When I returned home, he sent me a note inviting me to chat with him at his waterfront home.
“Follow the path from the Schamonchi and cut across the lawn until you see a boat with the name ‘Barbara’ on it,” Hersey said on the telephone. His voice was friendly. But once I arrived at his house, he was prickly. No, he said, he would not answer my questions. Instead, he would ask them. What had I discovered in Japan? How were the survivors at the Atomic Bomb Hospital? What did the doctors tell me about radiation sickness — keloid scars and worse — that plagued the survivors? We talked for a couple hours. After lunch, he sent me on my way.
Hersey’s reception was not totally unexpected. My father, a decorated officer in the U.S. Army during WWII, treated me like an enlisted man in his platoon. I received a brusque reception whenever we (infrequently) got together. Reading Treglown’s well-researched book — decades after meeting Hersey — did more than generate empathic connections: it helped me understand why Hersey maintained such a similar steely demeanor. It was a projection of his journalistic ethos.
Hersey was born to missionary parents in China and attended a school where the teacher routinely beat boys who did not obey. His family returned stateside, he entered Yale, and became a private secretary (read: errand boy) to Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature (who was an unrepentant drunk). As a WWII foreign correspondent for Life, he survived four plane crashes, including being aboard a plane that fell into the ocean, capsized, and sank (he somehow swam to safety). He witnessed the American invasion of Sicily, writing for Time. He taught at Yale, but happily retreated to a home in Key West during the winter, insisting that it was the work that mattered above all.
Hersey returned to Japan to write an afterword for Hiroshima forty years after the book appeared in a single issue of The New Yorker magazine. When I was in Japan, one of the survivors had a framed photo of Hersey he had autographed for her. It occupied an honored place on her shelf. His inscription: “As if on August 6, 1946.”
I asked Hersey why he wrote that inscription when I visited him in Vineyard Haven. It was the only question he answered: “The stories the survivors told me touched me. They are always with me.”
In today’s media-glutted, branding-crazed world, when journalistic ethics (and lives) are endangered here around the world, Hersey emerges in this book as a disciplined writer who held steadfast to an admirably singular goal: to tell stories truthfully, at all costs.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.