Though I’m somewhat chagrined to write this, the first time I recall learning about John Hersey’s classic book Hiroshima (1946) occurred while reading David Griffith’s essay collection A Good War Is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (2006) earlier this year. A Good War includes an essay on the 60th anniversary of the US atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, and Griffith describes his reactions to Hiroshima upon first reading it in the fifth grade:
“Never before had I read a book that described the ravages of war so explicitly…It was not the complete flattening of the city that unhinged me, but the way the survivors’ bodies—the elderly, young mothers and young children—all bore the burns of invisible radiation and tremendous heat.
Never had I read a book shot through with so much guilt…I couldn’t get my mind around the idea of feeling such deep guilt simply for having lived” (47-48).
When I recently came across the “The Top 100 Works of Journalism” that New York University’s journalism department organized in 1999, I saw that Hiroshima headed the list. Remembering Griffith’s commentary, I recently read the book, and began to understand why he regards it as life-changing. It’s difficult to imagine the impact Hersey’s writing would have made upon me in the fifth grade, but his physical descriptions of the survivors are horrifying in detail: burned-off eyebrows and skin that “hung from their face and hands”; vomiting; nakedness; burns that had “made patterns” from clothing onto the skin (39-40). Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, one of the survivors whom Hersey follows throughout the book, comes across twenty men soon after the blast whose “fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks” (68). In the 1985 expanded version of the book (which is what I read), Father Kleinsorge and the other central figures of the narrative suffer as hibakusha (literally translated as “explosion-affected persons”) from radiation exposure, with random ailments—some nagging, some potentially fatal—occurring decades after the blast. Griffith is right in that Hersey describes this human damage so evocatively that, for me, it supersedes his still-remarkable descriptions of the environmental and structural damage.
Two other elements of Hiroshima stand out. The first is the difficulty that Hiroshima’s survivors experience in attempting to comprehend a bomb that at the time was radically other in nature. He uses approximations and similes to convey what the central figures saw upon explosion: to Kiyoshi Tanimoto, it “seemed a sheet of sun” (8) while Dr. Terufumi Sasaki found it to be “like a giant photographic flash” (20)—all without sound, for none of those close to the blast actually heard an accompanying roar. Later, survivors speculate on what could have caused such large-scale destruction—was it a cluster of Molotov firebombs? Gasoline? Magnesium powder that reacted with the live wires throughout the city? When they begin to hear a rumor that the cause was from an “original child bomb” that “somehow split atoms in two,” Hersey reports, “No one [initially] understood the idea or put any more credence in it than in the powdered magnesium and such things” (82). Even after Japanese scientists had precisely determined the bomb’s properties, force, and radioactive effects, relatively few citizens “even bothered to find out much about what it was like,” instead remaining in “awe” of its power (116).
Finally, as the expanded version of Hiroshima recounts the lives of Kleinsorge, Tanimoto, Sasaki, and the other central figures four decades after the blast, it is striking to read about not only the unpredictability of their radiation sickness, but also the uncertainty of living from day to day. Prejudice against hibakusha in the postwar-Hiroshima workplace grew due to concern about their potential physical limitations; an example was Hatsuyo Nakamura, a widow and mother of three, who resorted to physically taxing odd jobs to support her family although she felt consistently drained of energy. Yet even as she and other survivors were attempting to reconstruct their lives, Hersey writes that “the government made no special provision for their relief” until 1954, when the fishing boat Lucky Dragon No. 5 was exposed to radiation from American nuclear tests at Bikini Island (121). Therefore, it is compelling to follow the survivors’ attempts to simply be in a world that has become irrevocably more difficult for them, like the rest of Hiroshima, Hersey makes the most of his research in this section, and the result is remarkable.