Book Reviews - Spring 2019

The Writer at Ground Zero

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The chronicler of the first horror of the nuclear age

By Phyllis Rose | March 4, 2019
John Hersey in 1958. After he joined the staff of The New Yorker, nearly all of his work was a critique of the American way of dominating the world. (Everett Collection)

Mr. Straight Arrow: The Career of John Hersey, Author of Hiroshima by Jeremy Treglown; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp., $28

This admirable book about an admirable man, while insisting it is not a biography, recounts enough of John Hersey’s life to explain some of his enduring concerns and the arc of his career. It belongs to that elegant, reticent, wholly non-sleazy, and sadly disappearing genre known as literary biography, and for anyone interested in how a writer’s life is really lived as opposed to its incidental moments of glamour, Jeremy Treglown’s account of Hersey’s career—its constraints and opportunities, the worries and satisfactions, and the nature of the actual work—is deeply satisfying.

Hersey’s parents were missionaries working on behalf of the YMCA in China, where the boy lived until the age of 10, speaking Chinese before he spoke English. He admired his parents as ethical models but couldn’t accept their religious belief and sought, Treglown writes, “a purely rational support system for the humanitarianism that, in the elder Herseys, was nourished by Christianity.” His Chinese childhood also gave him, Hersey always believed, an outsider’s view of the American century.

After a high-WASP education at eastern private schools and Yale, where he belonged to that nexus of insiderdom, Skull and Bones, Hersey went to work at Time and Life. The war was on, and at first Hersey worked in New York as an editor, shaping war correspondents’ dispatches into magazine copy. He used those dispatches to write his first book, Men on Bataan, a work done with urgency and purpose but little of the direct reporting that Hersey would later be famous for. Bataan fell to the Japanese after a four-month battle on April 9, 1942. With a speed now inconceivable, the book came out in early June. General MacArthur was its hero, in charge of a valiant if futile defense of the Philippines.

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