LIFE SKETCHES by John Hersey
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Any reader who is not already a fan of Hersey's will be swayed by the richness of this collection of 18 occasional pieces dating from 1944 to 1988. Hersey's legions of admirers will merely be gratified and moved again and again. The pieces, profiles of figures famous and obscure, are arranged not in order of composition but in the order Hersey "happened to encounter" his subjects. Many are famous--Sinclair Lewis, Henry Luce, James Agee, Lillian Hellman, Bernard Baruch, Harry Truman --but Hersey makes each of his subjects seem equally unique, equally to be honored; John Ramey, a soldier who is learning to read and write; Walter Morse, an Episcopal priest healing the sick in China; Benjamin Weintraub, Prisoner 339, Klooga labor camp; Varsell Pleas, a black Mississippian who spends the summer of 1964 working with northern civil-rights volunteers to win the right to vote. Hersey's people are diverse, but a common thread unites them: their toughness, their gusto, the will to survive that makes each of them, as Hersey calls Hellman, "a life force." Only when that force is stymied, as in Hersey's account of a public-school system tragically unable to develop the gifts of Illinois schoolgirl Janet Train, does Hersey bend to outrage; elsewhere he is too caught up in wonder at the humanity of his subjects. Collections like this are usually uneven and disjointed, but except for a brief pro forma tribute to Erskine Caldwell, there isn't a weak piece here, and the cumulative force of the essays is amazing. Hersey's reverence for human indomitability is tonic and contagious.

Pub Date: April 20th, 1989
ISBN: 394-57784-1
Publisher: Knopf
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