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John Hersey

When he was born in Tientsin, China, on June 17, 1914, John Hersey was little more than a curiosity to the local peasants.  His parents were missionaries, and he spent the first few years of his life learning Chinese.  His travels when he was a youngster and later in the military helped prepare him to become a foreign correspondent.  They also gave him a rich tableau of material from which to draw for his impeccably realistic war stories.

When Hersey turned ten, his family moved back to the United States and enrolled him in school.  When he was of age, he entered Yale and Cambridge.  While he was still a student, he decided that someday he would work as a foreign correspondent for Time magazine.

In 1937, Hersey took a position as the private secretary and driver for Sinclair Lewis, but he hated it.  Later that year, a job opened up for a Far Eastern correspondent at Time, and Hersey jumped at the opportunity.  He immediately left for China and Japan, where he covered World War II in the Far East and the Mediterranean.  He also freelanced for Life magazine and The New Yorker while accompanying U.S. troops on their invasion of Sicily. 

While overseas, Hersey survived four airplane crashes.  On one occasion, the plane he was in crashed into the ocean, capsized, and sank.  Hersey somehow managed to free himself from the plane, swim to the surface, and immediately start looking around for all of the war-time notes he'd been taking.  He later said that he felt in both his hip pockets.  But the books were nowhere to be found.  "Then something bumped my head, and there they were floating in the water within easy reach...I never could figure out how they got there.  By rights they should have sunk straight off."

Hersey's first literary success was the war-time novel, A Bell for Adano (1945), which told the story of an Italian-American officer put in charge of a Sicilian town liberated by the Allies in World War II.  The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1945 and was made into a play and a movie starring Gene Tierney, John Hodiak, William Bendex, and Harry Morgan that same year.

In 1945 and '46, Hersey found himself in Japan covering the postwar reconstruction for The New Yorker when he discovered a document written by a Jesuit missionary who had survived the atom bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima.  Hersey tracked down the priest, who introduced him to many more survivors.  Hersey chose six of them to write about for the magazine, and their stories were included in a single issue in 1946.  They were later serialized in newspapers across the country before being published as the book, Hiroshima.

In 1950, Hersey produced the novel, The Wall , which is today far less well known than Leon Uris' Mila 18, but is in many ways the better work.  Written in the form of a rediscovered journal, it gives a remarkably convincing impression of life in the Warsaw Ghetto for a work of fiction written relatively shortly after the events it describes by someone who was never there.  The Wall offers a far more downbeat view of the Ghetto Uprising than the better known Uris' book.

In 1960, following a decade of interest and involvement in the American public educational system, he published The Child Buyer which presents a case for individuality, freedom of thought, integrity, faith in the young, and, above all, a better understanding of human needs in a darkening world.  From 1965 to 1970, he was Master at Pierson College at Yale, and he spent the following year as Writer-in-Residence at the American Academy in Rome.  He is a past president of the Authors League of America and was elected by the membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters to be their chancellor.

Hersey wrote the highly charged The Algiers Motel Incident (1968) on the heels of the Detroit riots and Letter to the Alumni (1970) in the wake of the New Haven Black Panther trial.  Collections of his short stories include Fling and Other Stories (1990) and his last book, Key West Tales, published in 1994.

John Hersey never got to see it.  He died in Key West, Florida, on March, 24, 1993.


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