Books from the 40s – John Hersey’s Hiroshima

By Annie Grey

The 40s was a decade of great upheaval and change. It bore witness to the wake of two World Wars and the devastation of an atomic bomb, the revelation of the horrors of the Nazi regime, the independence of India and Pakistan from Britain, the creation of NATO, and the deaths and gradual decline of the three European dictators: Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin.  

As is often the case, the more eventful the decade, the more intense, experimental, wrought and complex the literature it produces. The 40s produced literary linchpins like Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), and Native Son (1940) by Richard Wright. It also saw a few of George Orwell’s most scouring political novels like Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) with a smattering of existentialist philosophy from Camus in the form of L’Étranger (1942), Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942) and La Peste (1947). 

But since we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of Palatinate, Durham’s student newspaper, it would be amiss of me not to give significant space to a piece of journalism that reshaped the craft of reporting. John Hersey’s Hiroshima, traced the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on the busy capital of Honshu, Japan. Over 100,000 people were left dead, their bodies immediately evaporated by the infernal heat of billions of splitting and fissioning nuclei. Shadows seared onto the pavement were all that remained of many, but there were also survivors whose stories became the subject of a feature piece for The New Yorker, and eventually a book in 1946. 

It would be amiss of me not to give significant space to a piece of journalism that reshaped the craft of reporting

Hersey moulded his work around the lives of six survivors he met in Hiroshima. A widow and mother of three, a doctor, a pastor, a surgeon, a female clerk and a German priest. Toshiko Sasaki, the 20-year-old clerk, waited days for treatment on her leg that was disfigured by shrapnel from the bomb. The pastor, Kiyoshi Tanimoto, and the German priest Wilhelm Kleinsorge both displayed symptoms of “radiation sickness,”: nausea, diarrhoea, headaches, fever, dizziness, weakness, hair loss, blood-infused vomit and stools caused by internal bleeding. Masakazu Fujii and Terafumi Sasaki, the doctor and the surgeon, bore little physical injury, but instead possessed mental scars from having witnessed the new breed of injury caused by the bomb; and the widow, Hatsuyo Nakamura, grappled with the pieces of her life, attempting to rebuild structure while rearing three fatherless children. 

Characteristically unsentimental, Hersey writes unflinchingly of the new type of bomb wound. “… their faces were wholly burned, their eye sockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks.” This was a new subject matter and a new type of journalism that read like a confrontation, as if it sought to hold its safe and unharmed readers to account, ambushing them at home or on the commute with descriptions that were as pervasive and nauseating as nuclear radiation. 

This was a new subject matter and a new type of journalism

Hiroshima had a generational impact. Marie Colvin, the eye-patched war journalist whose commitment to her craft brought her to her death in 2012, was trained by Hersey, and deeply inspired by his Hiroshima. After attending his class at Yale, she was resolved to follow in his footsteps. “Marie would always say that Hersey’s Hiroshima was the best book on war she had ever read,” wrote Lindsey Hilsum in her biography of Colvin. Coming from a war journalist, this was high praise indeed, and you can trace the strands of Hersey’s influence in her determination that the “mission” of a journalist “is to report the horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice.” 

Hiroshima was important, not only for allowing the stories of those living in the wreck and ruin of the bomb to seep across borders and be told, but also for the legacy of journalism. Its complete lack of sentiment that gripped with clenched knuckles to matters of fact also said something about the 40s as a period of literary production. In the wake of Hiroshima, there could be no more literary navel-gazing. Books don’t help, nor does the excess of emotion they were associated with. As Hersey writes, “There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.” 

Image Credit: Moyan Brenn via Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “Books from the 40s – John Hersey’s Hiroshima

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