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
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.
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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