8:15 am tomorrow will be 67 years since the bombing of Hiroshima. To mark the occasion we are publishing the classic piece by John Hersey which was rated by a hundred US editors and journalists as the greatest work of 20th century journalism. [you’ll have to scroll down to p.5 to start reading].
At the close of the conflict, during the winter of 1945–46, Hersey was in Japan, reporting for The New Yorker on the reconstruction of the devastated country, when he stumbled across a document written by a Jesuit missionary who had survived the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The journalist paid a call on the missionary, who introduced him to other survivors.
Shortly afterwards John Hersey began discussions with William Shawn, an editor at The New Yorker, about a lengthy piece about the previous summer’s bombing. Hersey proposed a story that would convey the cataclysmic narrative through six individuals who survived: the Jesuit priest, a widowed seamstress, two doctors, a minister, and a young woman who worked in a factory. The following May, 1946, Hersey traveled to Japan, where he spent three weeks doing research and interviewing survivors. He returned to America in late June and began writing.
The result was his most notable work, the 31,000-word article “Hiroshima“, which appeared in the August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker. The story dealt with the atomic bomb dropped on that Japanese city on August 6, 1945, and its effects on the six Japanese citizens. The article took up the entire issue of the magazine – something The New Yorker had never done before, nor has it since.
The issue of August 31, 1946, arrived in subscribers’ mailboxes bearing a light-hearted cover of a summer picnic in a park. There was no hint what lay inside. Hersey’s article began where the magazine’s regular “Talk of the Town” column ran, immediately following the theater listings.
At the bottom of the page, the editors had appended a short note: “TO OUR READERS. The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use. The Editors.”
A searing portrait of the bomb and its effects, the article was a publishing sensation. In clear, stripped-down prose, Hersey limned the horrifying aftermath of the atomic device: soldiers’ melted eyeballs, citizens instantly vaporized, leaving only their shadows etched onto walls. The issue sold out on newsstands within hours. Requests for reprints poured in to the magazine’s offices. The ABC Radio Network preempted regular programming to broadcast the full text in four half-hour programs.Radio stations abroad followed suit. The Book of the Month Club rushed a copy of the article into book format, which it sent to members as a free selection.
Later published by Alfred A. Knopf as a book, Hersey’s work is often cited as one of the earliest examples of New Journalism in its melding of elements of non-fiction reportage with the pace and devices of the novel. Hersey’s spartan prose was praised by critics as a model of understated narrative. “If ever there was a subject calculated to make a writer overwrought and a piece overwritten, it was the bombing of Hiroshima”, wrote Hendrik Hertzberg, “yet Hersey’s reporting was so meticulous, his sentences and paragraphs were so clear, calm and restrained, that the horror of the story he had to tell came through all the more chillingly.”
The author said he adopted the lean style to suit the story he strove to tell. “The flat style was deliberate”, Hersey said 40 years later, “and I still think I was right to adopt it. A high literary manner, or a show of passion, would have brought me into the story as a mediator. I wanted to avoid such mediation, so the reader’s experience would be as direct as possible.”
Time magazine later called Hersey’s account of the bombing “the most celebrated piece of journalism to come out of World War II.” Founder of The New Yorker Harold Ross told his friend, author Irwin Shaw: “I don’t think I’ve ever got as much satisfaction out of anything else in my life.” But The New Yorker’s publication of Hersey’s article caused a rift in Hersey’s relationship with Henry Luce, the co-founder of Time-Life and Hersey’s first mentor, who felt Hersey should have reported the event for one of Luce’s magazines instead.