Critics have generally agreed that John Hersey’s greatest strengths as a novelist derive from two sources: the observational skills he developed as a journalist and his belief in the importance of individual human beings in difficult situations. Reviewers throughout his career have praised his attention to realistic detail, which rivals that of William Dean Howells. Hersey gets very close to the realistic details of the lives of his characters, so that in his most successful works (both fiction and nonfiction), the reader gets a strong sense of “being there.”
When Hersey recaptured his memories of China in the novel A Single Pebble, in 1956, he was praised for his acute observations and simple handling of realistic detail, as he would be for nonfictional works such as Here to Stay, The Algiers Motel Incident, Letter to the Alumni, and The President. Throughout his career, however, Hersey insisted that he mentally separated and saw a clear difference between the way he wrote fiction and the way he wrote nonfiction. He saw the fiction as his chance to make more profound statements of lasting value—tending to push the works into the allegorical realm—although, ironically, most critics have seen his most profound themes in his more journalistic works, whether fiction or nonfiction, such as Hiroshima, The Wall, and A Single Pebble.
Sometimes, however, Hersey has been criticized for having insufficently explored his characters in the apparent belief that documentary evidence sufficiently explains them. He has also been charged with cluttering his narratives with excessive detail. Although A Single Pebble was generally positively received, one of the criticisms levelled at it was its heavy use of nautical terms that the main character would readily understand but that are confusing to most readers. A similar criticism was leveled at The War Lover by a reviewer who asked if Hersey’s accounts of twenty-three bombing raids, heavily laden with hour-by-hour details, were really necessary to develop his theme.
Ironically, in his 1949 essay for The Atlantic Monthly, “The Novel of Contemporary History,” Hersey presented an aesthetic that established the primacy of character over realistic detail. “Palpable facts,” he wrote, “are mortal. . . . The things we remember . . . are emotions and impressions and illusions and images and characters: the elements of fiction.” He went on to argue that the aim of the novelist of contemporary history was not to illuminate events, but to illuminate the human beings caught up in the events. This concern with the individual gives Hersey great sensitivity to suffering, a sympathy that, combined with his liberal political views, makes his thematic intentions manifest in nearly all of his works, leading to the accusation that Hersey is too allegorical, too moralistic, and too “meaningful” to be taken seriously as a creative artist. Although some critics hoped he would reverse the general trend of antimoralism and experimentalism in the postmodern fiction of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the more Hersey tried to escape the reportorial style, the less critically successful his novels became, though they continued to sell well.
A Bell for Adano
The genesis of Hersey’s first novel, A Bell for Adano, was a journalistic assignment in wartime Italy. During the Sicilian campaign, he visited the seaport of Licata, where he observed the workings of the American Military Government and filed a story for Life titled “AMGOT at Work,” which was printed on August 23, 1943, along with photographs. The article described a typical day in the life of an anonymous Italo-American major from New York as he tried to cope with the problems of governing the newly liberated town. Obviously impressed by the major’s common sense, fairness, and accessibility to the local people, Hersey wrote A Bell for Adano, based upon the article, within six weeks of the Life publication.
A comparison of the article with the book provides an interesting insight into Hersey’s work methods in those days. He retained every person in the article and expanded several of the problems. The major became Major Victor Joppolo; Licata became Adano. The central problem of the novel is Joppolo’s attempt to find a bell to replace the seven-hundred-year-old bell melted down for bullets by the Nazis. Introducing the unsympathetic character of General Marvin, Hersey was clearly making reference to General George Patton, who was known among reporters for his having slapped two shell-shocked soldiers. Because Joppolo disobeys Marvin’s orders, he is reassigned to North Africa after getting Adano its bell. Hersey also invented a romantic interest for Joppolo, an invention that later led to a lawsuit by the original major.
With the exception of Hiroshima, A Bell for Adano is Hersey’s most widely read book. Published by Alfred A. Knopf in early 1944, it was a huge success, mostly because of its representation of the ordinary American as good-hearted, sentimental, and rigorously fair. The book reminded the reader that the war was a struggle to preserve democracy, that government was only as good as the people who govern, and that Americans were better than fascists. Despite all the praise, Hersey understood the effect the political situation of the time was having on the evaluation of his work. In 1944, he was in the Soviet Union and wrote an article on the role of Soviet writers in the war effort, saying “Not a word is written which is not a weapon.” One sees, perhaps, in Hersey’s ambivalent feelings about his instantaneous success, a motivation for his continual effort to increase the literary merit of his fiction, an effort that, in the estimate of many readers, worked against his best qualities.
Not all reviewers joined the chorus of praise for Hersey’s first novel. Malcolm Cowley said that A Bell for Adano should be read as a tract and should not be expected to meet the criteria for a novel as well. Diana Trilling ascribed the book’s success to its “folk-idealisms and popular assumptions” that surfaced because of the speed of its composition; she saw “very little writing talent” in the novel. These criticisms, though not entirely without justification, did not diminish Hersey’s instant reputation as an important novelist.
Shortly after his assignment to Moscow by Time-Life in 1945, Hersey and several other reporters were given a tour of the Eastern Front by the Red Army. He saw the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, interviewed the survivors of the Lodz Ghetto, and saw signs of the atrocities at Tallinn and Rodogoscz. He knew immediately that he would have to write a novel on what he had seen, though his interviews with survivors of Auschwitz convinced him he could never write about the death camps themselves. Later, he wrote, his time spent in Hiroshima “lent urgency to what had been a vague idea.” Another possible source of inspiration for The Wall may have come from Hersey’s childhood friendship with Israel Epstein, who first interested Hersey in the history of the Jews and later became a staunch supporter of the Chinese revolution, editing the English-language magazine China Reconstructs.
Hersey went to the survivors in Eastern Europe and discovered a wealth of diaries, medical records, and other documentary evidence, most of which was untranslated from the original Polish and Yiddish. He hired Mendel Norbermann and L. Danziger to translate directly from the text onto a wire recorder and did further research himself, reading The Black Book of Polish Jewry (1943), the works of Sholom Aleichem, the Old Testament, and the Orthodox prayer book, among other sources. Immersed in the moving experience of listening to the tapes, he began writing and soon found the number of characters, themes, and action had grown far too complicated. Four-fifths of his way through the novel, he scrapped what he had written to retell the story through the point of view of Noach Levinson, chronicler of life in the ghetto from November, 1939, to May, 1943, when the last of the buildings was leveled.
Hersey has observed that “Fiction is not afraid of complexity as journalism is. Fiction can deal with confusion.” In The Wall, Hersey confronted a multiplicity of emotions, attitudes, customs, and events beyond a journalist’s interest. The novel derives its power from this confrontation with the ragged edges of reality, and a number of critics consider it to be Hersey’s greatest work. Although many reviewers expressed reservations about the length of the book and its numerous characters, most praised Hersey’s compassion and argued that the strong feelings that emerged from the sustained reading of it more than made up for the technical faults of the book. Leslie Fiedler, however, said that The Wall lacked the strength of inner truth, depending too heavily on statistical, objective material, and he particularly criticized Hersey’s themes as unconvincing.
Although Hersey argued in The Atlantic Monthly that fiction allowed the writer to deal with confusion and complexity, most of his novels after The Wall were criticized for their overly simplistic, message-bearing, allegorical intent. Hersey’s works continued to sell very well, but he never earned the esteem of literary critics. Most critics consider Hersey’s work to be without sufficient technical expertise. Some defenders of his work, however, compare it to that of John Dos Passos and argue that his humanistic themes are too valuable to ignore.
Long fiction • A Bell for Adano, 1944; The Wall, 1950; The Marmot Drive, 1953; A Single Pebble, 1956; The War Lover, 1959; The Child Buyer, 1960; White Lotus, 1965; Too Far to Walk, 1966; Under the Eye of the Storm, 1967; The Conspiracy, 1972; My Petition for More Space, 1974; The Walnut Door, 1977; The Call, 1985; Antonietta, 1991.
Short fiction: Blues, 1987; Fling, and Other Stories, 1990; Key West Tales, 1994.
Nonfiction: Men on Bataan, 1942; Into the Valley: A Skirmish of the Marines, 1943; Hiroshima, 1946; Here to Stay: Studies in Human Tenacity, 1962; The Algiers Motel Incident, 1968; Letter to the Alumni, 1970; The President, 1975; Aspects of the Presidency: Truman and Ford in Office, 1980; Life Sketches, 1989.
Edited texts: Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1974; The Writer’s Craft, 1974.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.