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Picture of John Hersey, author of books including Hiroshima, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Bell for Adano; twentieth century American Literature


 
August 31, 1946
John Hersey   (1914 - 1993)
 
Hersey's "Hiroshima" and Hibakusha
 
by Steve King

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On this day in 1946, John Hersey's "Hiroshima" was published in The New Yorker. The article took up all sixty-eight pages of text space (everything except for the "Goings On" calendar), an unprecedented and unannounced event for the magazine. Nor did the cover picture of a summery park scene give any indication, though there was a white band on the outside warning readers of the departure, and an editorial note on page one expressing the magazine's conviction that the nuclear explosion was an event "that everyone might well take time to consider." The magazine sold out almost immediately, with scalpers soon charging twenty dollars for the fifteen-cent issue. The story was reprinted, broadcast and published in book form throughout the world, and has never been out of print. Book of the Month Club members received a copy free, because of its "importance at this moment to the human race." When Hersey died in 1993, one obituary called "Hiroshima" the "most famous magazine article ever published."

Hersey chose to follow the event's impact on six survivors, and to tell their story in a detached, documentary style. This is Reverend Tanimoto describing the fleeing multitudes just after he realized that more than his area of the city was hit:
    The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Often, because of pain, they held their hands up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies the burns had made patterns -– of undershirt straps and suspenders and on the skin of some women... the shape of flowers they had had on their kimonos.
In 1985, just a year before Tanimoto's death, Hersey revisited the city and some of those whom he had first interviewed, this article becoming a postscript chapter to future editions of the book:
    Tanimoto was now seventy. The average age of all hibakusha was sixty-two. . . . Tanimoto read in the papers that the United States and Soviet Union were steadily climbing the steep steps of deterrence. He had a modest pension, lived in a snug little home with a radio and two television sets, a washing machine, and a compact Mazda automobile, manufactured in Hiroshima. He ate too much. He got up at six every morning and took an hour's walk with his small woolly dog, Chiko. He was slowing down a bit. His memory, like the world's, was getting spotty."

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