Hiroshima: The Subversion of the American Worldview

Hiroshima by John Hersey is a unique literary masterpiece that single-handedly subverted the American public opinion on the godlike power of the atom. Hersey’s book documents six people’s tales on their survival of the atomic bomb and their life after. Due to Hersey’s approach of telling the reader the raw accounts of Japanese people who came out unscathed, this novel was unforgettable and controversial. 

Upon the release of the work in the New Yorker magazine in 1946 the American public was still celebrating their victory over japan and the near mythical power of the atomic bomb. When initially released the New Yorker its popularity skyrocketed because it was easy and cheap to purchase. For the first time since the war started the American people were given a humanizing account of Japanese people and their experiences with a uniquely horrifying weapon. Through John Hersey’s masterful use of diction and syntax the American readers were given a sense of the true horrors felt by the Japanese people that were directly caused by the atomic bomb. John Hersey uses selective and extremely powerful diction to give readers a glimpse of the horrors experienced by the people of Hiroshima. This diction is noticeably powerful in chapters two through three with the example below coming from Mr. Tanimoto in chapter three.

“He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glovelike pieces. He was so sickened by this that he had to sit down for a moment. ”

For the first time since its use on Hiroshima the American public was forced to deeply question the morality of the atomic bomb. The Americans could not could let go of some of the guilt knowing that the Japanese did not blame them for the horrors of the atomic bomb. John Hersey is able to evoke this sense of guilt through his masterful prose. 

 ““It was impossible to think of the destruction as the work of resentable human beings, such as the pilot of the Enola Gay, or President Truman, or the scientists who had made the bomb—or even, nearer at hand, the Japanese militarists who had helped to bring on the war.”

John Hersey’s understandable yet sophisticated diction keeps the reader enthralled while making the reader feel something, whether that be guilt, sadness or something else. Even with near perfect storytelling and sophisticated prose, like everything there are imperfections. One major issue I have with the book is the way it was written. While sentence structure is easy to comprehend and there is no scarcity of detail I find the overall style of writing to be inconsistent and it doesn’t fit the story well. Hiroshima is one of the first books written with the new journalism style. New journalism is essentially the combination of journalism and fictional storytelling elements. The way the stories in the book are written with a fictional style made me constantly doubt the accuracy of the text. I kept finding myself wanting to fact check parts of the book even though I knew they were real or at least real for the time it was written. 

While the book is not perfect the addition of the final chapter 40 years later was a extraordinarily good decision that in my opinion completely brought the book to a close. Being able to see the affect had on our six main characters lives even forty years after the bomb reminds me of philosopher, Ernest Beckett and his book Denial of Death. Denial of Death is the about Beckett’s ideas on the meaning of life. In his book he came to the conclusion that every human tries to find meaning in the inherent meaningless through their “causa sui” or immortality project in. This project is the striving for a the human that is undergoing it to be immortalized in history. If a human doesn’t find their “causa sui” they dedicated their life to human pleasures to fill the void of inherent nothingness. This is portrayed perfectly through our characters. While five out of our six find some sort of meaning eventually (religion, activism or medical pursuits), one person out of the six does not and he goes through his life relying on humanly pleasures to fill the inherent nothingness. 

“He enjoyed himself. He was compassionate toward his patients, but he did not believe in working too hard.”

The way John Hersey wrote the last chapter was slightly different from the previous ones but it added a sense of closure for the book. When finishing the book you were left with several questions but none of them were nagging or annoying but simply something to be pondered and I think that is what the author Intended.

Now in the end it is undeniable that this book is a extremely influential piece of literature on multiple levels. The effects that it had on the western worldview, perception of nuclear power and literature were massive. While its influence is undeniable this is still about my opinion and my opinion is mixed. The literary talent of John Hersey is undeniable and his diction is this book is extremely powerful. The overall tone of the book is also very interesting as it was very profoundly anti nuclear but it had very subtle tones about human resilience and morality. What really doesn’t feel good to me is the new journalism style of writing. I felt it hard to make necessary distinctions when reading and it affected my overall opinion. To end the review I would highly recommend this book to more mature readers who can handle graphic content but also want an extremely important and controversial book.

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