Hersey Writes from the Human View Point on Bombs and War

Author: John Hersey
Article: “Joe is Back Now”
Publisher: Life Magazine, July 3, 1944
Article: “Hiroshima”
Publisher: The New Yorker, August 31, 1946

John Hersey was an American journalist who wrote for The New Yorker and was considered one of the earliest practitioners of “New Journalism” (See Fig. 1). New Journalism adapts the storytelling techniques of fiction to non-fiction reporting. In our class discussion, we focused on how Hersey’s writing style changes from when he wrote, “Joe is Back Now” in 1944 to when he wrote  “Hiroshima” in 1946.  We discussed how Hersey uses emotion in his writing as well as the use of dialogue and imagery he uses to set the scene in each of these pieces.

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Fig. 1: John Hersey was born in 1914 and was an American writer and journalist who wrote for both The New Yorker and Life magazine.

One difference we talked about was the way in which Hersey collected information for these pieces. Hersey first wrote “Joe is Back Now” as a compilation of 43 soldiers’ stories after the Second World War. Hersey uses Joe’s missing arm as an example of loss in the war as not all 43 soldiers had the same injuries.  Although he is trying to be as truthful and accurate as possible, by compiling 43 different stories, Joe is not a fictional character.

Hersey uses a lot of dialogue in “Joe is Back Now” but the dialogue he uses is very cut and dry with little emotion or description to make the story less boring. All attributions are in the form of “Joe said” of “he said.” For example, at the start of this piece, Joe takes with a middle-aged man who also served in the first war and is now an FBI man.  The dialogue between the two is very straightforward but boring to read as it lacks any true human emotion.

The end of this piece is inconclusive which showcases the uncertainty that men experience when the come home from war. Prior to this moment, we do not see any real emotion from Joe. We talked about how this can be very similar to the current problem of PTSD after the Iraq War. At the end of this piece, Joe now has a bakery business and is engaged but still feels like he is a wreck. Mary then says “’You can’t do it overnight, Joe, you can’t do everything all at once. It takes a little time to get happy’” (80).

Hersey traveled to Japan in May of 1946 and spent 3 weeks interviewing survivors for his piece “Hiroshima” (See Fig. 2). He interviewed six survivors: a German Jesuit priest, a widowed seamstress, 2 doctors, a minister and a young factory worker. By interviewing and getting first hand accounts about Hiroshima, he is able to set the scene in a different way than he did in “Joe is Back Now”.

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Fig 2. The Atomic Bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and devastated the city and it’s population.

 

The survivors are able to re count more details and description that Hersey is then able to convey in his piece. For example, when describing the scene just after the bomb drops, one survivor recounts seeing soldiers that “were coming out of the hole, where they should have been safe, and blood was running from their heads, chests and backs. They were silent and dazed. Under what seemed to be a local dust cloud, the say grew darker and darker” (16).

In writing “Hiroshima”, Hersey uses much less dialogue than that in “Joe is Back Now” but what little dialogue he does use is very powerful. For example, one of the six survivors travels to Tokyo for treatment from a doctor who assures him to not worry that he will be okay in two weeks. But he then says to the mother superior in the hall “’ He’ll die. All these bomb people die—you’ll see. They go along for a few weeks and then they die.” (46). This simple exchange captures the emotion and intensity of the situation at hand.

Overall, Hersey brings strong elements such as dialogue, description and imagery to each of these pieces and individually, we thought each piece could have used more dialogue or more description but when read together, we could appreciate John Hersey’s style of writing.

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