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A Life in Writing
John Hersey, 1914–1993
When John Hersey ’36 died on March 24, the nation lost one of its most admired writers. The author of 25 books, including A Bell for Adano, Hiroshima, and The Wall, and numerous articles for the New Yorker and other magazines, Hersey won the Pulitzer Prize and set a daunting standard for moral concern delivered with high literary grace.
But if Hersey was unique as a writer, he was also distinctly a product of Yale. Born the son of missionaries in Tientsin, China, he came to Yale in 1932. While at the College, he played on the varsity football team, wrote music criticism for the Yale Daily News, and served as class secretary. During the years following graduation, he maintained close links with the University, and from 1965 to 1970 was master of Pierson College, the first nonacademic to hold such a post. Hersey’s mastership coincided with some of Yale’s most turbulent years, and in 1970 he summed up his feelings about them in a brief but powerful book, Letter to the Alumni, which did much to explain what lay beneath the turmoil spawned by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War and their impact on the Yale campus.
Shortly before Hersey’s death, Howard Lamar, then Yale’s Acting President, decided that something should be done to recognize the writer’s many contributions to Yale, to journalism, and to literature. The result was the establishment of an annual John Hersey Lecture, the first of which was delivered March 22 by David McCullough ’55, author, most recently, of the best-selling biography of Harry Truman. In the course of that talk, entitled “The Year 1936,” McCullough saluted Hersey’s many distinguished classmates but reserved his warmest words for the man, who, he said, “has portrayed our time with a breadth and artistry matched by very few. He has given us the century in a great shelf of brilliant work, and we are all his beneficiaries.” When the author died, at age 78, the news made the front page of the New York Times.
Hersey was subsequently honored with a memorial service in Battell Chapel on the Yale campus, and a burial service on Martha’s Vineyard. What follows is a series of excerpts from the tributes read on those occasions, as well as one from a student’s reminiscence of his former teacher. The introductory appreciation of Hersey is by his classmate August Heckscher, director emeritus of the Twentieth Century Fund, former chief editorial writer for the New York Herald Tribune, and author of numerous books, including the recently published biography of Woodrow Wilson. The Yale Alumni Magazine is grateful to all concerned for permission to use their words.
Through a Classmate’s Eyes
Among those who gathered as freshmen at Yale in the autumn of 1932, John Hersey quickly became a marked character. He arrived with the aura of the Far East, where he had spent the first ten years of his life: a tall thin youth, meditative, firm of purpose; an aesthete but also an athlete. He became one of a firmly cemented small circle of friends, but his influence spread, until he was a member of almost every group in the class where judgment and good advice were sought. When our class had the effrontery to declare itself “Yale’s greatest,” it must have been in part because of our being conscious of his presence—and his promise.
Few could have imagined the turn his career would take. That he wrote well we knew. As vice chairman of the News he did little ordinary reporting, but as music critic he showed himself sensitive and learned. A few of us became possessors of a limited, elegantly designed edition of his poetry. Music played an important part throughout John’s life and was the subject of his last novel, but so far as I know he never wrote poetry after his undergraduate days. He had to find his particular path as a writer, and as a Mellon Fellow at Cambridge—and as personal secretary to Sinclair Lewis, ’07, then at the height of his fame&mdash John waited and watched.
World War II brought him his release and his great opportunity. As war correspondent for Time and Life he moved through the major theaters of combat: the Pacific in 1942; the Mediterranean, Russia, China, and Japan in the following years. His dispatches were noted for their quiet authority and underplayed emotion. At a deeper level he was shaping all the while a series of books which appeared in dazzling succession—Men on Bataan, Into the Valley, A Bell for Adano (which won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a popular Broadway play and film), and in 1946 the triumphant Hiroshima. By the war’s end, Hersey had found his place as a great reporter and, with the acclaim for The Bell, a successful novelist.
A unique relationship between reportage and fiction was to become his hallmark. A reporter, he could convey vividly the truth of a situation as he saw it. Marshaling an immense troop of facts, shaping them, giving prominence as he saw fit, he went beyond the surface narrative to reveal a further dimension. And that dimension almost invariably involved the individual person—the soldier on foot, the plain citizen, the ordinary and faintly bewildered member of a confused society. Yet he felt limits to what even he could do when restricted to facts alone. Most of his later books are novels. But the fiction is as spare in its reliance on realistic detail as had been the reporting; and sometimes (and indeed in his best work) the two forms become supplementary and almost indistinguishable.
Critics might complain that Hersey was a reporter at heart and should have stuck to that trade. But it is worth noting that of his two works most certain to endure—Hiroshima and The Wall—the former is fact, the latter fiction; each is alike in its outward effect and in mastery of its particular form.
Hersey went on to a long career as a highly respected author, his novels appearing year by year with a regularity indicative of his immense self-discipline and his capacity—demonstrated as an undergraduate
—for plain hard work. The books of his mature years were increasingly in the nature of fables, with a moral drawn from a simple depiction of facts—a sailboat in a hurricane; suburbanites fighting an infestation of pests; the individual searching for living space in an overcrowded world. The situation was invented, but out of it grew emotions and relationships as real as anything on a battlefield or in a ghetto.
These books reflect John’s constant concern for the society in which he lived and his sense of responsibility toward it. Though the most reticent of men, he was prepared to stand, by word and by act, against public offenses of the day—against war, against curtailments of freedom, and for the individual’s right to speak his mind. Spokesman for the profession of letters, he became recognized as a man of obdurate courage, though always genial and humane.
In 1965 John returned to Yale as master of Pierson College. It was a happy time for him, his influence spreading through a new generation of undergraduates as it once reached out to his own classmates. For five years he taught writing, advised admiring students, and continued publishing his own books. Not least, he revivified the Pierson College press. He had always been interested in fine printing—undoubtedly his long association with Alfred Knopf was in part due to the publisher’s insistence on high typographical standards.
Yale had been an important part of John’s life—and particularly the Yale class of 1936, whose class book he edited meticulously for several years and whose reunions he attended faithfully. I last saw John at our 55th reunion, and I remember thinking: “Now, there is a man whose conversation has never lost its savor. I would like to go on talking with him for a very long while.” Alas, that was not to be.
As Others Saw Him
Howard R. Lamar
President of the University, 1992–93
All of his life John was an unmistakable figure wherever he went, immediately recognizable (and usually causing heads to turn) on the wide boulevards of New York, crossing the greens and plazas of Yale, and strolling along the small streets of Martha’s Vineyard and Key West. In accomplishment, achievement, physical presence, and character, and in the nature and excellence of his work, John was unusually and remarkably all of a piece.
columnist, the New York Times
The passions he described as the essence of the arts burned in him, but he contained them with a restraint that was almost unearthly. To be in his presence was to be in an oasis of gentleness, good humor, kindness, quiet pleasure in others. And yet one sensed underneath, in John, a pain suffered: perhaps personal, or perhaps the pain of knowing so much about man’s inhumanity to man.
vice president, Alfred A. Knopf
John Hersey was not one to feel that his job was to sell himself. He didn’t have an agent. He almost never gave interviews, and he shunned the idea of going out on the road to peddle his wares. He even made his own deals, and he bargained shrewdly. And I always felt that he was speaking not just for himself but out of a sense of fairness for all writers who might not have had the leverage to fight for
their own rights.
Chester Kerr ’36
Loyalty was a quality John Hersey practiced all his life and so he never became one of those authors whose fashion it is today to pick up and move along, usually in pursuit of greater royalties or at the behest of a new literary agent, to another house every so often. He found what he wanted with his first book at Knopf and
treasured the relationship for half a century.
Not only was he a superb talker like most good writers, he was also a superb listener, like few good writers. And his way of listening, the expression of his eyes, the turn of the mouth added immeasurably to the dialogue. I don’t know whether it was his ministerial past or his Chinese past or what, but John’s silences resonated. And he was a gent. He was courtly, he could be sweet, he could be tough as nails also, but never abrasive. It’s hard to imagine a situation in which John would be abrasive. Impatient. Pissed off. Fed up. He could be all of those and it was a wonder to behold. Because you knew when John showed his irritability, something or someone was truly at fault, and you’d better pay attention. But mostly, he was civil. He brought a value to civility. A kind of decent, thoughtful calm. He may have been the last of our civil
author, Martha’s Vineyard neighbor
A few years ago, four people I knew all died within a few months of each other, and I walked around for a while feeling abandoned and sorry for myself. I went to the Herseys’ for dinner that week, down in the mouth and limp, and John noticed it, as he noticed everything, and sat down next to me and asked what the trouble was. I told him about my four friends dying, about how bereft and sad I felt. And John said, “Would
you rather go with them, Peter?” It was what I needed to hear.
Norman Oder ’83
It was 1983, and for me and some other budding campus journalists, our final semester promised a much-anticipated class: John Hersey’s ten-student seminar, “Form and Style in Non-Fiction Writing.” Nearly giddy with our good fortune, several of us referred to Hersey as “The Man,” as in “See you at The Man’s class.” Surely, the author of Hiroshima needed no introduction.
But he surprised us that first day. Speaking in turn, we students each started to bare our souls and goals. Then Hersey—his snow-white hair adding gravity to his long, lean face—looked up. I thought he would merely thank us and commence class. “My name is John Hersey,” he began simply, “and I was born in China of
missionary parents.” The Man, it seemed, had not lost his humility.
In addition to teaching his classes, each week he met individually with every student to review the previous week’s papers. Every student, every week. He critiqued your paper in pencil, and in conference would file through his comments patiently, making sure you understood them, and then would neatly erase the marks he’d made, as if to say, “I’m gone now, it’s up to you, get back to work.”
poet, Martha’s Vineyard neighbor
In word play, another interest John and I shared, his approach was wonderfully deft. A fine example came up in his delicious book about bluefish. When I murmured something about the appropriateness of an old Yale Blue writing about the blues and how it brought to mind his Never-To-Be-Mentioned undergraduate club, John chuckled and suggested that I take off the book’s paper jacket and examine its hard cover. There, incised in the cloth, was a video-verbal
pun, a bluefish stripped down to its skull and bones.