Today is the birthday of American journalist John Hersey, who’s best known for his stunning piece of work “Hiroshima”. I first stumbled across this in a little book department above a stationers in Grantham, Lincs, where I was visiting with family. It was a slim, ‘silver cover’ Penguin Modern Classic, and I knew nothing about it but as I also knew little really about the horrors of Hiroshima I bought it and read it.

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Hersey’s book is an amazing journalistic exercise, bringing home the horrors of the atomic bomb in an unsensational way which is all the more effective because it’s unhysterical. As the consequences and effects of the bomb become clear, it’s hard not to despair of the mentality of the people who dropped it, with no real knowledge of what the long-term effects would be.

Wikipedia describes Hersey thus: John Richard Hersey (June 17, 1914 – March 24, 1993) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer and journalist considered one of the earliest practitioners of the so-called New Journalism, in which storytelling techniques of fiction are adapted to non-fiction reportage. Hersey’s account of the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, was adjudged the finest piece of American journalism of the 20th century by a 36-member panel associated with New York University’s journalism department.

I can’t disagree with that assessment – Hersey’s account is definitely one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve come across and should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of the 20th century.

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Rather chillingly, I also discovered at the same time a book by Japanese author Masuji Ibuse, “Black Rain”, which covers the same ground as Hersey’s. And I found as I read it incredible parallels between the two works, in structure and in the sequence of telling the story. Ibuse’s book was longer but in many ways they were telling the same story in the same way, but simply from very different perspectives – Hersey’s journalistic outsider viewpoint and Ibuse’s insider view, as a Japanese citizen. Interestingly, I believe Ibuse used historical records of the devastation as source material, and I can’t help but wonder if Hersey’s book was one of those.

Both books are essential reading in my view for any understanding of our world and what human beings are capable of.  “Hiroshima” in partircular must have had a huge impact at the time. As the Writer’s Almanac comments:

“He wrote more than a dozen books, but he’s best known for his 31,000-word nonfiction piece “Hiroshima,” which appeared in The New Yorker on August 31, 1946. The cover of the late-summer magazine issue featured a cheerful picnic with people sunbathing, strumming mandolins, dancing, playing croquet and tennis. Then, readers opened to the “Talk of the Town” page to find the beginning of Hersey’s voluminous essay and this note from The Editors:

“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 […]”

John Hersey’s Hiroshima begins:

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”

Hersey did the world a great service by recording the aftermath of the atomic strike and deserves all the accolades heaped on him.

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Happy birthday Mr. Hersey.

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