John Hersey has brought together a number of his journalistic pieces in a volume called Here to Stay and a baffling collection it is. To give Mr. Hersey his due—and who is so hard as not to give it him?—he is good-hearted, right-minded and, as they used to say of newspaper reporters, “tireless.” He is also, as Mr. Orville Prescott would say, “dull, dull, dull.” Mr. Hersey’s dullness is not easily accounted for. His pieces deal with interesting subjects: Connecticut floods, concentration camp survivors, returning veterans, battle fatigue cases, and his famous Hiroshima study. He is fascinated by death, holocaust and man’s monotonous inhumanity to man. He can describe a disaster chastely and attentively. He has an eye for minutiae (here begins his failure for he has not much gift for selection). He is willing to take on great themes (Hiroshima), but despite his efforts, something always goes wrong. Why?
Mr. Hersey declares in his preface the hope “that this volume will give its readers a draught of adrenalin, that bitter elixer, sufficient sips of which may help put us on our guard against blunderers, tyrants, madmen and ourselves…. Drink deeply, therefore, dear reader, of the adrenal wine.” Aside from the fact that adrenalin is a stimulant, not a “bitter elixir,” taken by injection, not by cup, Mr. Hersey does not really invite us to do more than watch passively his newsreels of horror. He certainly does not stimulate us to right action, and there I suggest is the flaw in his method.
The Hersey technique is now a famous one. The journalist collects an immense amount of data, and then uses most of it. In one ten-line paragraph, we learn that the town of Winsted has 11,000 people, that the Mad River, swollen by water from Highland Lake, has several times washed out bridges and houses, that in ’36 and ’38 Main Street was flooded, and that after a flash-flood on New Year’s Eve (’47-’48), P. Francis Hicks, the mayor, got the Army to dredge the river at the cost of $250,000. That’s a lot of fact; some is relevant, some not; none of interest in itself. Then we are told what happened at 6:10 and 7:48—Mr. Hersey has a passion for the right time and in almost every piece the time of day is given at least once… often oftener. Again why? To what end does Mr. Hersey in his level, fact-choked style insist that we attend these various disasters human and natural? So deliberately is he a camera that it is often hard to determine what he means us to feel by what is shown. The simple declarative sentences are excellent at conveying action; they are less good at suggesting atmosphere; they are hopeless at expressing a moral point of view, even by indirection.
Mr. Hersey in his prefatory note tries to provide a certain moral basis for his journalism (e.g., “love can be a mortal enemy of death, especially of living death”…But is this true? Maybe. Does he prove it? In context, no.). The result is usually sententious. Yet once in a while the simple—even simple-minded—style pays off. Referring to certain Hungarian youths at the time of the uprising: “A political system is nothing more, in the end, than a system of human relationships, and what these boys understood of politics was simply that they—and all the Hungarians they knew—were being treated badly as individuals by other individuals who had taken charge of things, and they had come to believe that freedom is the sense of being treated well and that life without that sense is not worth living.” Good stuff, suitable for any high-school book on “civics.”
It is in Mr. Hersey’s celebrated Hiroshima that all his virtues and faults are most revealed. He employs a familiar device of popular fiction: a number of characters are carefully described just before, during, and after a disaster, in this case the atomic bomb we dropped on a Japanese city. The material is certainly interesting, but it should be fascinating. The simple clear descriptive sentence march and march, taking the myriad facts along the way like an obstacle course. Just as one is close to pity and awe, there is a sudden injection of details: “… and ten nurses came in from the city of Yamaguchi with extra bandages and antiseptic, and the third day though another physician and a dozen more nurses arrived from Matuseyet, there were still only eight doctors for ten thousand patients. In the afternoon of the third day…” At crucial moments this numbers game is infuriating.
Of course Mr. Hersey is to be praised for avoiding emotional journalism and overt editorializing (though a week of reading Emile Zola might do him good); yet despite his properly nervous preface, he does not seem to realize that the only point to writing serious journalism is to awaken in the reader not only the sense of how something was, but the apprehension of why it was, and to what moral end the recorder is leading us, protesting or not. Mr. Hersey is content to give us mere facts. A good man, he finds war hell and human suffering terrible, but that is nowhere near enough. At no point in the deadpan monotonous chronicle of Hiroshima is there any sense of what the Bomb meant and means. He does not even touch on the public debate as to whether or not there was any need to use such a weapon when Japan was already making overtures of surrender. To Mr. Hersey it just fell, that’s all, and it was terrible, and he would like to tell us about it. If he has any attitude about the moral position of the United States before and after this extraordinary human happening, he keeps it safely hidden beneath the little sentences and the small facts.
To use Mr. Hersey’s own unhappy image, in reading him one does not drink the bitter elixir of adrenalin, one merely sips a familiar cup of something anodyne, something not stimulant but barbiturate, and the moral sense sleeps on.
February 1, 1963