I wrote this review for the Wall Street Journal‘s April 27 edition. Since non-subscribers can’t read Journal articles, I’m posting it here.
Mr. Straight Arrow: The Career of John Hersey, Author of Hiroshima, by Jeremy Treglown.
It’s barely a quarter century since John Hersey died, at the age of 78, but already his life and his career as a writer feel so old-fashioned as to be antique. Hersey is of course best known as the author of Hiroshima—published as an issue-length article in The New Yorker in 1946 and as a book a year later, and never out of print since then—but he was an old-fashioned man of letters, whose body of work was as capacious and varied as that of an Emerson or a Disraeli. He wrote many other distinguished works of journalism in addition to his profile of six Hiroshima survivors; for example, The Algiers Motel Incident (1968), published when he was deep into his 50s, was a rigorously reported, deeply engaged and structurally inventive account of racial violence in Detroit. And he spoke out in essays, reports and speeches on the pressing issues of his day. Nonfiction was his strong suit, but his third book, the novel A Bell for Adano, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1945, and he always maintained the very 20th-century belief that novels were the gold standard of a writer’s output.
Hersey (1914-93) was also old-fashioned in what might best be described with the old-fashioned word “decency.” The late Gardner Botsford, an editor at The New Yorker, gently mocked him by dubbing him “Mr. Straight Arrow,” a designation borrowed by Jeremy Treglown for the title of his new book. (Botsford was comparing him to the cartoonist Charles Addams, who was a very curved arrow and to whom Hersey’s second wife was previously married.) Hersey came by his rectitude honestly. His parents were Protestant missionaries in China (he lived there till he was ten), and he inherited a reflexive urge to do good works and see the other fellow’s point of view. His civic engagement and high seriousness bore on his fiction, which took up weighty themes—sometimes weighing it down, critics often charged—and even on his reporting methodology. Treglown writes that interview subjects trusted Hersey because they picked up on his “imaginative sympathy . . . He was someone whose decency was recognized by other decent people, so they let him in.”
That Hersey belonged to a different era is also evident in the paper records, notes, and correspondence he accumulated and eventually donated to the library of his alma mater, Yale University. At one point, Treglown tells us, the Hersey archives took up 71 feet of shelving, and they have only grown since then. Even if one could imagine a current-day John Hersey, his collected papers would fit on an 8-gig flash drive.
Researchers fantasize about such a paper trail, but Mr. Straight Arrow frequently calls to mind the bromide “be careful what you wish for.” Biographers have always to be mindful of both big-picture forest and individuated trees; captivated by all this material, Treglown spends too much time examining bark. The book slows to a halt with extended discussions about the author’s photo and jacket copy for one of Hersey’s books; about whether Hersey did or didn’t name plants correctly in certain passages of Hiroshima; about negotiations with David Selznick about a never-to-be-realized movie version of the novel The Wall; and about the minutiae of the Yale English Department, of which Hersey was a product and to which he returned to teach from the late 1960s through the mid-’80s.
I’ve just referred to “biographers,” but the designation doesn’t apply to Treglown, at least not in this book. (A former editor of The Times Literary Supplement, he has published proper lives of V.S. Pritchett, Roald Dahl and Henry Green.) It is, he writes, “a study of John Hersey’s career, not a full biography.” I imagine all the manuscripts, royalty statements and editorial back-and-forths on offer at Yale led him to that decision, but it generated a torque that seems to have directed him to library stalls and away from the wider world, to the detriment of the book. Judging by the text, end notes and acknowledgments, Treglown appears to have conducted no more than a dozen on-the-record interviews in preparing Mr. Straight Arrow. Talking to Hersey’s children, to a good sample of his scores of former students (instead of just one), to his surviving friends and colleagues at Yale, The New Yorker and the publisher Alfred A. Knopf not only would have provided anecdotes but also would have helped the author with perspective, sometimes a problem for the book.
Broader reading beyond just the Hersey papers would have helped, too. This was most clear to me in the material relating to The New Yorker: Treglown, who is English, doesn’t have a strong sense of magazine’s unique editorial culture, conventions and procedures and how they shaped Hersey’s work for it, which included not only Hiroshima but dozens of contributions from 1944 till 1988. The founding editor, Harold Ross, had an idiosyncratic approach to journalism and writing more generally, which showed up in the lengthy “query sheets” he attached to drafts of articles. Ross wrote a voluminous query sheet for Hiroshima, bringing up many minor points and some major ones. An example of the latter was prompted by Hersey’s reference, in his first draft, to a fact his characters probably wouldn’t have been aware of. Ross wrote:
Touchy technical point here, and an important one. This is a story throughout of what people see first hand and (except for a few parenthetical remarks) only that. Did this woman see her dead husband and know it that way. If so should be told that way. If not, should be out, as getting ahead of the story.
Hersey cut the line out. And Treglown makes no reference to the query sheet.
The book could also use a fuller and more nuanced sense of Hersey’s place in and ambivalent attitude toward the so-called New Journalism. Hiroshima is often named as pioneering some of the techniques associated with the movement, like dialogue and omniscient narration, yet in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Hersey spoke out what he saw as insufficient regard for facts and excessive self-promotion in some New Journalists. Treglown doesn’t mention an important 1980 essay where he laid out his criticisms, “The Legend on the License.” (“There is one sacred rule of journalism,” Hersey said. “The writer must not invent. The legend on the license must read: NONE OF THIS WAS MADE UP.”) More seriously, he doesn’t seem to be aware that in a 1944 Hersey article about a damaged returning soldier, “Joe Is Home Now,” written in the style of a short story and cited by Tom Wolfe as a New Journalism precursor, “Joe” is a composite character, based on interviews with more than 40 veterans.
It’s annoying when reviewers say authors should have written a different book from the one they produced. But I can’t resist saying that if Treglown wasn’t going to do a full-scale biography he might have been better off writing a critical study of Hersey. His close readings of the author’s work are credible and smart, and he’s especially insightful on the way they reflect the author’s character. He writes of Hersey’s late novels, “Whatever parts of himself he was drawing on in these books, his puritanism encumbers them as fictional elements, and his reticence—surely part of the same apparatus—keeps them largely beyond biographical reach.”
That reticence, that rock-ribbed uprightness and uptightness, was an essential characteristic for John Hersey. It was part of what made him a great journalist, an ambitious and earnest but not first-rank novelist, and someone who, as the subject of this book, has proved frustratingly hard to pin down.