My Thoughts on “Hiroshima” by John Hersey

In John Hersey’s book “Hiroshima,” he writes in third-person. Considering the scenario of history presented here, I find it very impressive that he leaves his own voice out of this work. As a reader, it feels as though you are there experiencing the trauma with the characters and also going through the aftermath and healing process. One way Hersey gives his audience the chance to feel for the characters is through very descriptive imagery. In “A History of American Literary Journalism,” Asch said Hersey falls into the ‘descriptive’ category because he “achieved the pose of a neutrality of tone- leaving it up to the reader to draw his own conclusions” (p. 185). Of course every reader will feel sorrow for the tragedies that happen within “Hiroshima,” but each reader will draw his own conclusion(s). For example, Hersey explains in the last chapter of “Hiroshima” the scars survivors had as “hideously ugly, thick, itchy, rubbery, copper-red crablike growths” (p. 102). For readers, we picture how horrid these battle wounds appear but can almost imagine what they feel like, too.

Hersey created this work where readers are able to “see” people and events, just as Lincoln Steffens did when he wanted to create a new kind of journalism (Connery, Thomas. “A Third Way to Tell the Story”). This differs from traditional journalism that seems to only record, report and interpret because Hersey does not interpret the bombing of Hiroshima, but rather takes his readers step by step through the lives of six, average residents of the city who encounter the bombing. Traditional journalism prioritizes facts and uses an inverted pyramid, but “Hiroshima” has a story that remains important until the end. Much like the article written by Sam Ward (Thomas Connery) that was very disliked because it was “not news,” Hersey, too, created a literary work where the people were real and the events had just happened. Much of Hersey’s writing is hard to interpret as a reader who has never been through a tragedy such as this. Like Hutchins Hapgood’s work, Hersey’s work also “went beyond journalism’s facts but stopped short of fiction” (Thomas Connery). The events prior to the bombing and the events to follow are interpreted through a narrative point of view.

The way Hersey develops the six characters throughout the book falls under the category of literary journalism. In the beginning, Hersey gives a character’s introduction as to what they are doing before the bomb drops. He even gives descriptive detail as to what steps they took (such as “taking the next street car”) that saved them from being closer to the bomb that saved his life (“Hiroshima,” p. 2). Throughout the rest of the book, we see what characters encounter as the bomb drops, the family members and friends lost, the injuries they dealt with, then what their lives look like when trying to make things “normal” then how their lives develop after the catastrophe subsides. In “A History of American Literary Journalism,” Hersey’s work is considered “probably the best known journalism work of the post World War II period.” This is because of the detail behind these six characters’ lives during this time of what they were seeing while going through this misfortune. For example, Father Kleinsorge in the book befriends two children who could not find their mother. Hersey goes on to explain that Father Kleinsorge attempts to distract them by playing games or changing conversation topics, but as time goes on, the children begin frequently yelling out of distress for their mother to return. The whole time, Father Kleinsorge knew the children’s mother was dead.

My favorite part of this book is chapter five, when Hersey subtitles every couple of pages with each of the six characters individually. This is where resolution after conflict is developed. In the article “Dissent” by Dan Gerstle, Hersey is known for doing more than to “recreate the atomic bombing in an empathetic and stylistically innovative way.” He also helped create literary journalism because this book is “recreating the event rather than disinterestedly reporting events.” Hersey did this by detaching his tone from the stories of these characters. He probably did this to remove his emotion. The layout in chapter five, although written forty years later, is very substantial to the book overall as it guides readers through how these characters’ lives develop after the bomb. For example, Mrs. Nakamura goes from barely making enough money for food alone, to then getting two new jobs, then seeing all three of her kids get married. Her son Toshio takes care of her and gifts her a new sewing machine after she lost her husband’s, who was a former tailor who had lost his life to an “honorable death” in Singapore. At that point in her life, she knew she had hit her lowest point. But after all of her kids are happily married and she is financially eased, she take up embroidery, makes dolls and goes dancing once a week. This is just one example of how the six characters form a better ending after seeing how the bomb had taken a toll on her family’s life.

While reading chapter five, I found it interesting how there was a subtitle for Father Kleinsorge, but then Hersey went on to discuss Father Takakura without a subtitle. My instinct about this choice is that Hersey had a large emotional attachment to Father Takakura, and was unable to differentiate objectivity from subjectivity as he did with the rest of the characters (“A History of American Literary Journalism”).

A critic of Hersey’s said that “Hiroshima” failed to “bring home” the horror the Americans caused the Japanese because of his detached tone (“Politics”). I do not agree with this since the reader is able to infer his own conclusion regarding the bomb placed on the Japanese. In another article, Hersey’s “impersonal” writing regarding the characters makes the occasion appear unimportant (“Frus”), but I disagree with this because of the horrific detail involved in the six characters’ lives.


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