Few are the books with as immediate an impact and as enduring a legacy as John Hersey’s Hiroshima. First published as an entire issue of The New Yorker in 1946, it was serialized in newspapers the world over and has never gone out of print. By conveying plainly the experiences of six survivors of the 1945 atomic bombing and its aftermath, Hersey brought to light the magnitude of nuclear war. And in his adoption of novelistic techniques, he prefigured the conventions of New Journalism. But how did Hersey—who was not Japanese, not an eyewitness, not a scientist—come to be the first person to communicate the experience to a global audience?
In Mr. Straight Arrow, Jeremy Treglown answers that question and shows that Hiroshima was not an aberration but was emblematic of the author’s lifework. Born in China, the son of YMCA missionaries, Hersey (1914-93) was a WW2 reporter for Time and Life. His themes as a journalist and novelist included masculine aggression, imperialism, racism, civil rights and the environment. As a correspondent in Moscow he was taken to some of the first Nazi concentration camps liberated by the Communists, and to the site of the Warsaw ghetto, experiences which led to his deeply researched 1950 The Wall -- the first American novel to deal with the Shoah. He also wrote for The New Yorker about the early kibbutzim, and, later, about the second generation of Israelis. By the time of Hiroshima’s publication, Hersey was already a famed war writer and had won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He continued to publish journalism of immediate and pressing moral concern; his reporting from the Freedom Summer and his exposés of the Detroit riots resonate all too loudly today. But his obsessive doubts over the value of his work never ceased. Mr. Straight Arrow is an intimate, exacting study of the achievements and contradictions of Hersey’s career, which reveals the powers of a writer tirelessly committed to truth and social change. Join us for a lunch time conversation with Jeremy Treglown.
Supported by the generosity of the Kaye Family.
Co-sponsored by the Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism and the Spiritual Life at Columbia's Journalism School.
Jeremy Treglown is the Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study at the University of London and Emeritus Professor at the University of Warwick.