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Critical Essay by David Sanders
SOURCE: "John Hersey: War Correspondent into Novelist," in New Voices in American Studies, Purdue University Studies, 1966, pp. 49-58.
In the following essay, Sanders discusses Hersey's writing technique as it develops over his five World War II-related novels, including Hiroshima.
On May 8, 1945—V-E Day—John Hersey won the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, A Bell for Adano. Twenty years later, with the appearance of his eleventh book, White Lotus, he has been told that while he once aspired to have a silver tongue, he has been given instead a golden touch; that instead of writing literature for all time, he has written books that make the Book-of-the-Month Club. Hersey should not have been discouraged by such remarks. They might have been said of any recent American novelist who had published several widely read novels on subjects of immediate social or historical interest. These remarks are passingly ironic only because they were made by someone employed, as Hersey once was, by Time.
In order to have been judged more favorably, Hersey could have blocked out a careful ground of personal experience from his missionary childhood in China to some point in his adult life and then written a WASP novel, without guilt, with just enough humor, with that special access to the theme of racial identity given only to insiders. Or he might have drawn the inescapable conclusion from everything that he reported during World War II. By adding Hiroshima to Guadalcanal, the Sicilian campaign, and the ruins of Warsaw, he should have come up with the sum of absurdity, then canceled it because of its possible consequence of revolt, and settled for meaninglessness.
Instead, he proceeded less imaginatively to become a novelist. Except in such digressions as The Marmot Drive and A Single Pebble, he has taken some of the main historical events and social problems of his time as his subjects. Habits that he acquired as a reporter have gone into the writing of each novel, especially such habits as observation, memory, and research.
His second novel, The Wall, is probably the most thorough example of his method. He saw the ruins of Warsaw in 1944, then the ruins of Hiroshima in 1946. For two years he read documents of the Warsaw ghetto, had others translated for him, and listened for several hundred hours to the wire transcriptions recorded by his translators. He began a longhand draft as he listened to these recordings and then abandoned it because of the strange effect these recordings were having upon him. He finished a second draft after making a crucial change in response to that effect. This is the barest possible outline of how this journalist wrote what is probably his best novel; this sketch will be filled in after we have seen what kind of a journalist he was when he began writing it. Let us also be certain that The Wall is a novel, although "epic," "monument," and "indictment" were terms that came more readily to the people who praised it. Others called it "fictionalized journalism."
The Wall is the story of the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. It begins with the German occupation in the fall of 1939 and ends as the last survivors of the resistance movement escape extermination in 1943. It is told in the form of a scholar's journal, the "Levinson archive," as detailed a record as Hersey might be expected to produce after all his preparation. Fact and history go directly into this fiction, but not at the expense of fiction. The novel is dominated by the brilliantly imagined character of Noach Levinson—though characterization is not consistently Hersey's strength as a novelist. Levinson, the archivist, becomes someone—a complex and compelling person—in the course of making his entries, and he comes to see far more in the characters of his acquaintances than their responses to ghetto conditions. Nor does Hersey's stubbornly acquired knowledge of what happened in the ghetto between 1939 and 1943 crowd out his understanding of how these events are related to the centuries of Jewish history since the Diaspora or keep him from convincing his readers of the timelessness of the theme of survival. The Wall is a novel about the events of the Warsaw ghetto as told by a wholly fictional narrator. And The War Lover is a novel about the conflicting impulses toward life and death that may be found in wartime aviators, The Child Buyer is a novel about the abuse of high intelligence in the American public-school system, and White Lotus is a novel about the psychology of an oppressed race.
Hersey has written these novels and three others, and yet seems less a novelist to many critics and reviewers than does the author of Catch-22 or novelists such as Norman Mailer and James Jones. I have mentioned Hersey's choice of subjects as one reason for his situation, and certainly another might be his affirmative response to some of these subjects. Still another will be found in the praise he has been given. No one has ever condemned Hiroshima, a book still always referred to as "inspired journalism." In fact, no one seems to have found adequate words for praising it. It gave millions of American readers their first knowledge of the human suffering caused by the first atomic bomb; before it, they had known nothing about the explosion but statistics and photographs of mushroom clouds. Albert Einstein is said to have ordered a thousand copies of the famous issue of the New Yorker to distribute among his fellow townsmen in Princeton. Bernard Baruch ordered another thousand. Very few books have ever been urged upon people so suddenly and so imperatively, certainly not the wartime books, including Hersey's own Into the Valley, which the Office of War Information had called "imperative reading." Hiroshima has been praised more often as a deed than as a book. In whatever Hersey would go on to write, he would be marked by the "earnestness of his intentions"—not a novelist's earnest intentions, but a prophet's. It has been assumed, furthermore, that the earnestness that went into Hiroshima could never go into anything else Hersey might write. So, from The Wall to White Lotus, he has written novels that have failed when they have not instead succeeded as "inspired journalism."
Many novelists have begun as reporters and then gone back into reporting in the midst of their novel-writing. Hemingway, Crane, and Dos Passos have done so without damage, but Hersey's case is not quite like theirs. His background as a war correspondent did not disqualify him as a novelist, but the peculiar circumstances of his reporting differ significantly from those of these other reporter-novelists and they are peculiarly responsible for Hersey's flying in the face of literary taste and writing novels about contemporary history. These circumstances include his employers, his media, his beats, and the Second World War.
Hersey went to work for Time in October 1937, after spending the summer as Sinclair Lewis' secretary. He had waited patiently for an opening on Time because this magazine was, he felt, "the liveliest enterprise of its type." After a year and a half in the New York headquarters, where he became thoroughly grounded in Timestyle and Time editing (that process by which the news became arranged as "World Affairs" or "Miscellany"), he was sent to the Chungking bureau, a logical assignment for a man who, like Henry Luce, was a native of Tientsin. There he began reporting the Sino-Japanese war Timestyle with dispatches on Chungking air raids and interviews with the Generalissimo. Then he abruptly went off to Tokyo to interview Foreign Minister Matsuoka and United States Ambassador Joseph Grew. Reporting an air raid called for graphic details, quickly chosen and then processed by Time's formular understatement. Interviews invariably led to the significant quote. All assignments required the reporter's instant adaptation to the day's new scene, no matter how much it might differ from the scene of the day before. Hersey, fresh from listening to Chiang Kai-shek's plans to win the war, could shift easily to write about Ambassador Grew's policy of "dynamic appeasement."
Hersey was not in the Philippines during the early months of the war, but after four and a half years of working for Time he was able to put together a book called Men on Bataan, which was published in June 1942. Time's files, letters from servicemen, and interviews with colleagues who had been on Bataan gave him the material for a book, which was half about General MacArthur and half about fifty of the other 50,000 men who fought there. Fletcher Pratt, in reviewing the book for an issue of The Saturday Review of Literature—an issue devoted to the question of wartime morale and guest-edited by Mrs. Roosevelt—said that it "should be read by every participant in the struggle" and that "it was literature that will not be read with shame after the war." In 1942, this meant that Men on Bataan was not like Three Soldiers or A Farewell to Arms. "You ought to know [these men] for they are like you," Hersey wrote in the second chapter. "They have reacted as you will react when your crisis comes, splendidly and worthily, with no more mistakes than necessary." Although the writer was plainly caught up in the war effort, turning out a book for morale's sake and, as nearly as possible, for truth's sake in a year of American defeat, he was also at the farthest point in his recent career from his best journalism or from the possibility of becoming a novelist.
Fortunately for his development in all respects, he was assigned to Guadalcanal in 1942 and was privileged to observe men he would write about. He accompanied a Marine detachment into the third battle of the Matanikau River and filled most of his next book, Into the Valley, with what he had seen. He was with a company when it was pinned down by sniper fire. He was in line as a false rumor of retreat was passed back eagerly from man to man. He helped to carry a litter bearing a man with a mortal abdominal wound. These things he reported, along with his own admission that if he had known what was to happen during those three days he would never have gone along. Into the Valley was honest reporting that anticipated Hiroshima, even though it had such asides on the "larger questions" as this: "If people in their homes could feel those feelings for an hour or even just know about them, I think we would be an inch or two closer to winning the war and trying like hell to make the peace permanent." Hersey balanced such a statement earlier in the book when he wrote that the Marines fought, above all, to "get this goddam thing over and get home."
Hersey stayed a month on Guadalcanal and never afterward spent any more time with a particular military unit than he did with the Marine company at the three-day battle of the Matanikau. He never again had as close and sustained a view of combat, although he would spend many hours interviewing such survivors of combat as Lieutenant John F. Kennedy. He lacked the intensive exposure of correspondents Richard Tregaskis or Ernie Pyle. But he was given a spectacular view of the war.
He went from the Solomons to Sicily and later to Russia. He interviewed men from all the American fighting services and most of the special fields within each service. He met a great assortment of the war's civilian victims. He reported occupation, liberation, and rehabilitation. Time and Life also gave him solemn duties that most other reporters were fortunate to avoid: his beats occasionally included morale and war aims. At the same time that he wrote about the Matanikau battle, he filed a story about the Marines on Guadalcanal, sections of which could have been run with the Nash-Kelvinator ad: "As a fighter, he is a cross between Geronimo, Buck Rogers, Sergeant York, and a clumsy, heartsick boy." For Life's Christmas number in 1943, Hersey wrote a text to accompany reproductions of paintings by the magazine's overseas artists. Titled "Experience by Battle," the article is a curious mixture of statements. He mentions hatred of the Japanese enemy: "call it neurosis, call it hatred that consumes men and never leaves them, call it whatever you wish, the feeling of men who have fought the Japanese is permanent and terrible." The future author of Hiroshima and The War Lover also wrote: "The war will end sooner for aviators, and their scars will heal quicker, if they can concentrate on hitting the enemy carefully and well." A few pages later, he wrote:
For American soldiers, who know their duty when they see it but who love life so very much, the Japanese warrior code is beginning to be a thing of pity. It says "Duty is weightier than a mountain, while death is lighter than a feather." The Marines who fought on Guadalcanal wanted only to live to fight victoriously another day and after the fight, to be happy and relaxed and American for many other days.
This observation lying so close to the real questions of life and death in wartime faintly anticipates what he would write years later about survival and tenacity, but in 1943 and 1944 he was incapable of pursuing its implications.
Because World War II was fought more globally than the first, because news coverage had become more extensive and instantaneous, and because he worked for publications which exploited these new conditions in capsulating the news more effectively than their competitors, John Hersey had opportunities and handicaps given no earlier writer. He stood somewhere between the wire service editor in Oklahoma who wrote a novel about the Russian front from the leavings of his teletype and Norman Mailer, who was taking notes as a rifleman for a novel he was determined to write after the war.
A Bell for Adano is the sort of book one might expect Hersey to write at that time. He finished it within six weeks after he had filed a story for Life on the operations of the American military governor of Licata, Sicily. The article, which took up only two of Life's back pages, described a typical day at the desk of an unnamed American major, a New Yorker of Italian extraction. A merchant was told to compile a fair price list for food and clothing that had been impounded by the Fascists. A pretty girl was assured that her fiancé was a prisoner of war. Charges were dismissed in the case of a cart driver arrested for obstructing traffic. Hersey followed his training in observing these details, and then began his story in the spirit of his writing on war aims:
For a long time we have taken pleasure in the difficulties met by Germany and Japan in organizing the conquered lands. Here at the major's desk you see difficulties, hundreds of them, but you see shrewd action, American idealism, and generosity bordering on sentimentality, the innate sympathy of common blood that so many Americans have to offer over here. You see incredible Italian poverty, you see the habits of Fascism, you see a little duplicity and a lot of simplicity and many things which are comic and tragic at one time. Above all you see a thing succeeding and it looks like the future.
This is a good precis of A Bell for Adano. When he turned to write the novel, Hersey borrowed General Patton, contrived a romantic interest for the major (provoking a lawsuit after the war), and added the story of replacing the town bell. Everything else is fictionalized journalism in the strictest sense. The point of the first paragraph of the article is expanded and set in italics as the foreword to the novel, and each case at the major's desk is developed into an episode. A Bell for Adano was a huge popular success. Even more than when he had written Into the Valley, Hersey was praised in terms that made him a literary 90-day wonder. He was told that he had written "a magnificent parable," and that, unlike the World War I cynics, he "could look beyond both horror and heroics to the truth of what he had seen." He "had everything needed to make a front-rank novelist," especially because of "his consuming interest in men and women and his genuine love for them."
Hersey a modest man, could not accept these tributes as a balanced critical estimate of his work. He understood better than the reviewers of A Bell for Adano what effect the war had had on his writing, and his understanding increased during his assignment in Moscow in 1944. There, while he was compelled to report the war by listening to the salvos in Red Square proclaiming the recapture of cities to the west, Hersey wrote an article for the Time book section on the activity of Russian writers in wartime. The section editor borrowed Gorki's phrase, "engineers of the soul," for the title. "Not a word is written which is not a weapon," Hersey observed, and he must have known of the old Party slogan. The books of Sholokhov, Simonov, and others that he had to summarize for his report he felt could not be criticized in conventional terms. "The only fair test," Hersey wrote, "is to see whether these writers have fulfilled their aims." He saw their aims exactly as they saw them—nothing but to defeat the hated enemy. The single determining fact about these Russian writers, Hersey insisted, was that they had been in and out of the war.
Although more of a spectator than the Russians had been, as he went in and out of the war, Hersey was more the war's product than they were. To suggest what else influenced Sholokhov, Simonov, and their colleagues in the war years is to ask if there could have a Soviet novel like A Bell for Adano, with a Soviet major standing up for a Hungarian cart driver against a Soviet general. Hersey had only the war as milieu and guide. Such assignments as writing notes under the heading of "Experience by Battle" and producing a book on Bataan a month after the surrender of Corregidor strained Hersey as much as Russian writers had been strained in using words as weapons. While his wartime books must be judged honestly by standards applied to other American books printed in 1942 and 1944—Saul Bellow's Dangling Man, for example—they must also be judged by their aims for the same extenuation that Hersey sought for the Russians. When he had the opportunity to study how men survived their ordeals, as he did at the Matanikau and when he interviewed Lieutenant Kennedy, Hersey helped himself become a novelist. Otherwise, on V-E Day, when he won his Pulitzer Prize, Hersey was a man who had had to write too much too soon.
Then came Hiroshima for which Hersey had more time for an assignment than he had ever been given before—and a subject without precedent. Not just because it appeared in The New Yorker, instead of in Time or Life, this reporting is stripped of any overt pleas for disarmament and international cooperation. Paradoxically, as Hersey was becoming a better reporter than he had been for the Luce publications, he was also preparing to write a far greater novel than A Bell for Adano.
He first knew that he would write the novel which became The Wall when he toured the sites of German atrocities in Eastern Europe shortly after they had been uncovered by the Red Army. The fact that there were survivors on hand to interview struck him even more than the horrors themselves. He saw what he called "evidence that mankind was indestructible" at the same time that he saw evidence of previously unimaginable genocide. His months in Hiroshima later, as he said, "lent urgency to what had been a vague idea."
In 1947 he talked with survivors of Auschwitz, particularly with one man who had struggled and connived to become a kapo—a camp official. This unnerving experience, which he withheld from print until 1963, when it was published in Here to Stay: Studies in Human Tenacity, led him to write instead about the ghetto survivors who had lived as families and communities up to the end. When he began work on this, he soon learned that there existed a flood of diaries, organization records, statistics, medical histories, and songs about the Warsaw ghetto, and that very little of all this would ever be translated. Undertaking to read what he could, he also engaged two translators to read from the original Polish and Yiddish onto a wire recorder in rapid English. Most of his time for the next several months was spent listening to these recordings. They changed all his plans and reversed his established habits of approaching materials. His translators had relatives who had died in the ghetto, and their sight translating turned them into involuntary story-tellers as they began to skip, summarize, and add their own impassioned comments on the documents. The process gave Hersey the illusion of felt experience, instead of seeing a documentary—exactly the reverse of the information-gleaning for Men on Bataan. As a result he decided, tentatively, to shape his novel as a series of first-person narratives, but he kept on listening, and by the time his translators were through, they had given him a million recorded words. It was late 1948 and he was still not ready to begin writing. He took notes on his notes, "as if," he said, "I were interviewing the three of us—the two translators and myself." He thought of seeking out actual ghetto survivors, but decided that the translations had brought him close enough to events while still permitting him to create his own characters.
He performed several routine chores such as devising a ghetto chronology and a list of nineteen themes. The first of these themes was, "In danger, some men surprised into heroism; others amazed to find themselves corrupt." Theme number eighteen was "The Wall." A few characters began sticking out from a list of fifty; among them, Noach Levinson, who was changing from a Judenrat official to "a kind of intuitive historian," whose comments would be inserted between the other characters' narratives.
After a year and a half of preliminary work, Hersey had come with a plan he thought final. Then, four-fifths of the way through a longhand draft, he realized that Noach Levinson's choruses were becoming too long to squeeze into their assigned spaces, and that Levinson, with the help of the storytellers on the wire-recorder, had taken over the novel. Hersey then made a frightening decision for a journalist-turned-novelist. "This particular story needed to be told with an authority my gifts could not evoke," he wrote. "It needed to be told by a participant in the events; and my creature, Levinson, some of whose literary mannerisms, I confess, were annoying, did seem to me to have the gifts, the background, and above all the experience to make his story believed." Thus, the novel took shape as "the Levinson archive," the jottings of a fictional hero who enters the story as a scholarly isolate and leaves as a child of a family of survivors.
When he had finished writing The Wall, Hersey could accurately if modestly speak of himself as a novelist of contemporary history. Complexities beyond a reporter's grasp were breached in the writing of this novel. Through his reading, through taking notes on his notes, and through that process by which he became captive of his translators and creator of Noach Levinson, he wrote a novel which goes beyond recording its day to affirm that survival from the ghetto was an instance of a universal theme. How far he had come from the prologue to A Bell for Adano and how surprising that he had also advanced beyond the "inspired journalism" of Hiroshima!
Not all of his subsequent fiction consists of such exemplary novels of contemporary history. The five later books differ in content and in form as much as any five books by any of Hersey's contemporaries. He remains outside the ranks of acceptable subject for the growing criticism of postwar American fiction. He is excluded because he is or was a journalist. Sometimes it is said flatly that he is not a novelist. He is a little like John Dos Passos, who is so difficult to pin down as a novelist or a reporter or an historian that we may all come to accept his own definition of his works as "contemporary chronicles." Both Hersey and Dos Passos might be called "writers." Unfortunately, we seem to have no such sweeping term.
This section contains 4,119 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)