Recently my Humanities 11/12 class read the book Hiroshima by John Hersey. This was the first insight Americans were given about the effects the atomic bomb had on Japanese citizens. Originally published in the New Yorker in 1946, it tells the stories of six survivors of the nuclear bombing of the city of Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. The story avoids commentary on the ethics of the bombing and instead focuses purely on the direct impacts on this group of survivors. Prior to this article, Americans had been fed nothing but propaganda about the wonders of the bomb and its role in ending the war. Reports of ongoing sickness in survivors as a result of the radiation were strongly denied by the Americans.
Since the American public knew so little about the negative impacts, Hersey decided to use a calm and affectless formal tone in his writing that he later referred to as “deliberately quiet”. His omniscient narrative approach in this text is demonstrated in the opening sentence, “At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.” There was no need to use expressive language for shock value since the previously unknown horrors were enough to be immediately compelling for his audience. The fact that the New Yorker magazine abandoned their regular publishing format, and instead devoted an entire edition solely to this article also added tremendous impact.
One key theme highlighted in this text is how humans do not dwell on their emotions when facing extreme danger or hardship. We typically choose to ignore negative feelings and instead focus on what needs to be done to move forward. Hersey shows how each character avoided spending time feeling sorry for themselves. This can be seen on page 98 when he tells us, “For the next four decades, he [Dr Sasaki] also never spoke to anyone about the hours and days after the bombing”. This theme of pragmatism during peril matches perfectly with Hersey’s diction and chosen writing style. This piece allows the factual story to be the engaging factor and doesn’t rely on emotional interview quotes or the authors opinion to make the reader care.
Personally, I had a difficult time engaging with this book and absorbing its details. This surprised me, as I was excited to read it and expected to find it deeply moving. I am fascinated by political history and have strong opinions of the flaws of humanity, so the ethics of the atomic bomb interests me. I recognize this book is extremely significant and its style choices were made for important reasons. This article was absolutely the right format for its time. However, I believe for an audience in my generation this style now feels too cold. We have grown up in the 24 hour news age with constant online coverage of tragic events and as a result I believe we have become somewhat desensitized to tragedy.
Most people now have at least a basic understanding of the atomic bomb in WWII dropped on Hiroshima. People know it was highly destructive and resulted in radiation sickness. It is critical that the full horrors of an atomic bomb are understood by future generations, but I feel Hersey’s book is not as well suited to the modern reader. A contemporary audience is much more likely to develop a deep connection from less formal diction and more emphasis on the characters’ feelings. Docu-dramas, such as United 93, are a strong example of how emotion and tension can engage modern audiences. This movie tells the story of the plane hijacked during 911 that failed to crash into its target building because the passengers fought back. The events happen in almost real time, and despite the audience already knowing the final outcome, the movie creates a huge amount of tension. This allows the viewer to imagine themselves in that scenario and feel a real sense of fear.
The book Hiroshima is intentionally written with stylistic choices and themes that resonated strongly with its audience in the late 1940s. While it remains a deeply important historical text, it does not hold the same effectiveness that it once did.
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