John Hersey: Biography & Books

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

American author John Hersey was a war correspondent, journalist and novelist. This lesson will outline his life and works, giving you an inside look at his impact on literature.

Who was John Hersey?

Writer John Hersey is one of those people whose life covered so much ground it's hard to believe he had time to sleep. His career included journalistic writing, where he wrote in a style called new journalism, using stories and a lighter tone to report on facts. He is probably best known for his work outside of journalism, however, as a novelist of historical fiction on close-to-life issues. Amazingly, Hersey was also in four plane crashes in his life, and he survived them all. Let's take a closer look at Hersey's incredible life.

The Life of John Heresy

Born to Protestant missionaries in China on June 17, 1914, Hersey spent his early life immersed in the Chinese culture, not coming to the United States until 1915 when he was ten years old. He and his family settled in Briarcliff, NY, where he became an all-American kid, participating in scouting and football.

Hersey went to Yale and did his post-graduate work at the University of Cambridge. He was hired by Time Magazine, where his journalistic career began as a war correspondent in the Far East. Hersey covered events of World War II for Time and picked up freelance work from Life and The New Yorker, covering the invasion of US troops in Italy.

Author John Hersey

Hersey published his first book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Bell for Adano, in 1945. Also, while in Japan in 1945 reporting for The New Yorker, Hersey discovered a paper written by a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing. Hersey found the author, a Jesuit missionary, and eventually met and spoke to several other survivors of the bombing. This chance meeting became the inspiration for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Hiroshima.

Books by John Hersey

A Bell for Adano

As mentioned above, Hersey was a busy man. A war correspondent during WWII, he also managed to write a A Bell for Adano in 1945. The story, a work of historical fiction based on information Hersey learned while reporting in Italy, is of an American officer with an Italian background (he's from the Bronx), Major Victor Joppolo. The simple flow of the story follows how this American helps the town put itself back together after WWII. There are no huge plot twists, no overt drama, and no war-hero undertones. The book is thought to have reached the huge success it did - it won the Pulitzer, was made into a Broadway play and a movie - because of its enduring message that hard work and perseverance can accomplish anything. The bell mentioned in the title refers to a bell tower re-erected in the village.


The lead-in to this novel as described above is almost a story in itself; Hersey stumbles on information that gives a real-life picture of the effects of the Hiroshima bombing. The novel zooms in on six people and follows their lives in the days and months after the blast. Hersey uses his skills as a reporter to narrate the story as it happens to these victims and doesn't try to offer explanations or defend the decision to drop the atomic bomb on a heavily populated city. This technique lets readers step into the lives of these six people and almost feel a bond with them.

Image from Hiroshima

New York University called Hiroshima the finest piece of American journalism of the 20th century. The 31,000-word piece was first published on August 31, 1946 as a lengthy article in The New Yorker.

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