Authors: John Hersey

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and journalist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

A Bell for Adano, 1944

The Wall, 1950

The Marmot Drive, 1953

A Single Pebble, 1956

The War Lover, 1959

The Child Buyer, 1960

White Lotus, 1965

Too Far to Walk, 1966

Under the Eye of the Storm, 1967

The Conspiracy, 1972

My Petition for More Space, 1974

The Walnut Door, 1977

The Call, 1985

Antonietta, 1991

Short Fiction:

Blues, 1987

Fling, and Other Stories, 1990

Key West Tales, 1994


Men on Bataan, 1942

Into the Valley: A Skirmish of the Marines, 1943

Hiroshima, 1946

Here to Stay: Studies in Human Tenacity, 1962

The Algiers Motel Incident, 1968

Letter to the Alumni, 1970

The President, 1975

Aspects of the Presidency: Truman and Ford in Office, 1980

Life Sketches, 1989

Edited Texts:

Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1974

The Writer’s Craft, 1974


John Richard Hersey is considered by some to be the most gifted American writer of the contemporary history novel, or “new journalism,” as it came to be called. He was born in Tianjin, China, to the American missionaries Roscoe Monroe and Grace Baird Hersey. In 1924 the family returned to the United States, where Hersey attended public schools and Hotchkiss preparatory high school before earning a B.A. from Yale University in 1936. During 1936 to 1937 he studied eighteenth century English literature at the University of Cambridge and spent the summer of 1937 as a private secretary, driver, and factotum for the novelist Sinclair Lewis.{$I[AN]9810001184}{$I[A]Hersey, John}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Hersey, John}{$I[tim]1914;Hersey, John}

In 1937 Hersey began a career as a journalist. He worked as a war correspondent for Time and Life magazines during World War II, reporting from both the Asian and European theaters. After 1945 Hersey employed his journalistic talents intermittently as a writer for Life, The New Yorker, and a variety of other magazines. Hersey maintained a lifelong interest in education. He not only served on the faculties of several major universities and as writer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome (1970-1971) but was also an active member of local school boards and several national committees or councils of education, including the National Citizens’ Council for the Public Schools (1956-1958) and the National Committee for the Support of the Public Schools (1962-1968). In 1940 Hersey married Frances Ann Cannon, with whom he had four children before they were divorced in 1958. Hersey had a fifth child with his second wife, Barbara Day Adams Kaufman, whom he married in 1958. After retiring from the faculty at Yale, Hersey spent summers at Martha’s Vineyard and the rest of the year at Key West, where he died in 1993.

John Hersey’s success as a writer lies in his ability to combine the skills of a journalist with those of a novelist to produce novels of contemporary history. By presenting history as fiction, Hersey enables the reader to experience those events. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly (November, 1949), Hersey observed that journalism “allows the reader to witness history; fiction gives its readers an opportunity to live it.” Readers of Hersey’s novels tend to become emotionally involved with the story and to cease being merely observers. Hersey successfully uses fiction to illuminate the lives of ordinary human beings caught up in the historical events of the twentieth century.

Hersey’s first two books, which were published during World War II and were highly popular, are examples of skillful war reporting. Men on Bataan, a record of the fall of Bataan in the Philippines in April, 1942, is a morale-building book about war heroes. Into the Valley records the life of a common soldier fighting on Guadalcanal; Hersey himself had been a war correspondent at the fighting on Guadalcanal on October 9, 1942. With Into the Valley he attempted to communicate to the people back home how war felt to those who must experience it.

Hersey was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, A Bell for Adano, which reveals both his faith in humanity and his fears for the future of democracies threatened by ambitious and egotistic leaders. A Bell for Adano tells the story of American military authorities who attempt to bring democracy to a small, liberated Italian village. Hersey examines the tension between traditional concepts of democracy and the benefits of a modern consumer-oriented society, which threatens to destroy individualism in the name of freedom.

Hersey’s most successful and influential work, Hiroshima, first appeared in the August 31, 1946, issue of The New Yorker. The work was immediately acclaimed and is still considered one of the most significant historical works of the twentieth century. A skillful combination of journalistic techniques and fictional character development allows the reader to experience the horrors of the atom bombing of Hiroshima as seen through the eyes of six survivors. In 1995 an additional chapter by Hersey titled “The Aftermath” was published, which detailed the lives of those survivors during the forty years following the explosion.

Hersey employed the device of a fictitious personal diary in The Wall to enable the reader to experience the horror of the Nazis’ murder of 500,000 Polish Jews in Warsaw. The Child Buyer is written in the form of a transcript of hearings before a Senate committee investigating an educational research project that purchases gifted children. Hersey explored further the subject of education in Too Far to Walk and The Walnut Door.

The Conspiracy uses an incident in ancient Roman history, a plot to assassinate the emperor Nero in 64 c.e., to explore such problems as political corruption and individual freedom. The story was inspired by recent American history; hence, it too is actually a novel of contemporary history, rather than a more traditional historical novel. In a collection of short stories published after his death, Key West Tales, Hersey continued his historical focus with stories centering on Jefferson Davis and Harry S. Truman.

BibliographyFiedler, Leslie. “No! in Thunder.” In The Novel: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by Robert Murray Davis. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. In discussing authors from his point of view that “art is essentially a moral activity,” the controversial Fiedler accuses Hersey of being the author of “The Sentimental Liberal Protest Novel” who fights for “slots on the lists of best sellers” with his “ersatz morality.” The essay makes for lively reading at best.Huse, Nancy L. The Survival Tales of John Hersey. New York: Whitston, 1983. An eminently readable and informed study on Hersey which is useful in understanding the scope and development of Hersey as a writer. Explores the relationship between art and moral or political intentions. Includes extensive notes and a bibliography.Sanders, David. “John Hersey.” In Contemporary Novelists, edited by James Vinson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Covers Hersey’s work from wartime journalist to novelist. Cites The Wall as his greatest novel and considers him the “least biographical of authors.” A rather dense study but helpful in quickly establishing themes in Hersey’s writings. A chronology and a bibliography are provided.Sanders, David. John Hersey Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Begins with Hersey’s career as reporter and novelist, while subsequent chapters discuss his major fiction and nonfiction, including his later stories. Includes chronology, notes, and bibliography.Sharp, Patrick B. “From Yellow Peril to Japanese Wasteland: John Hersey’s Hiroshima.” Twentieth Century Literature 46, no. 4 (2000): 434-453. Discusses the role of Hiroshima in changing American attitudes toward the Japanese and nuclear weapons.
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