A lucid, thoughtfully told look at the life of the American journalist and novelist John Hersey (1914-1993), famed for the long New Yorker story that would become the 1946 book Hiroshima.
Former Times Literary Supplement editor Treglown (Franco's Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936, 2013, etc.), based in London, has written biographies of V.S. Pritchett, Henry Green, and Roald Dahl. In his latest, he focuses on the novelist and journalist of considerable skill and wide interests who would never attract the readership of his reputation-defining book Hiroshima, of which Treglown writes, “no other book by Hersey is as famous or as difficult to write about.” It is difficult to write about not only because it seemed natural and sometimes self-referential, but also because it had an odd context, officially approved by the American occupation government of Japan but written by “a war poet as much as a journalist.” Hersey’s literate and often lyrical approach to reporting had been tested at places like Guadalcanal; his reporting influenced Norman Mailer’s later novel The Naked and the Dead. After the war, he cast about widely for subjects, writing of Harry Truman, the internment of Japanese-American citizens, and other matters, all the while remaining committed to what one eulogist, poet James Merrill, called “the older, Platonic virtues—Prudence, Temperance, Justice.” Treglown’s title is fitting; there was no dissembling in this son of missionaries. He was brilliant yet outwardly modest—and, as Treglown writes of the much-liked Yale student, “walking humbly can’t have been the easiest response for so gifted and popular a young man.” By writing of the course of Hersey’s long career, Treglown helps broaden his reputation beyond Hiroshima while recognizing that that classic work is the one for which the writer will remain known.
Sympathetic and circumstantial—a readable literary biography that is likely to be the last word on the subject.