John Hersey

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Hiroshima Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Hersey's Hiroshima. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Hersey

John Hersey was born to a family of missionaries living in China; he grew up speaking Chinese before he spoke English. When he was ten, he moved to New York to attend school, and he later went to the elite Hotchkiss boarding school, followed by Yale. Hersey attended graduate school at Cambridge, and then began writing for Time magazine. He was a war correspondent during World War Two, and he wrote for some of America’s most popular papers and magazines, including The New York Times and Life. Shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima, Hersey began writing a lengthy magazine article on the subject; it was later published in The New Yorker, and it became Hersey’s defining work. Following Hiroshima, Hersey penned many other novels and nonfiction books. During the 1960s, he was a residential college master at Yale, where he was noted for his support of radical student movements. Hersey continued writing prolifically in the final three years of his life, and he was almost universally respected—an elder statesman of American journalism.
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Historical Context of Hiroshima

The overarching historical event of Hiroshima is, of course, America’s decision to drop an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, followed by another on the city of Nagasaki. The bombings were followed almost immediately by the unconditional surrender of the Japanese state, effectively ending World War Two in the Pacific Theater with a victory for the Allies. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, President Harry Truman claimed that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “military bases”—an untrue, or, at the very least, intentionally misleading statement (as one journalist said, “If Hiroshima was a military base, then so is Seattle”). Later, Truman changed course and claimed that the bombing of Hiroshima was a morally justifiable response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the event that sparked America’s involvement in World War Two. The bombing of Hiroshima remains highly controversial, with some historians insisting that it was an appropriate way for America to save countless soldiers’ lives, and other historians claiming it was an appalling war crime intended to assert America’s new supremacy on the world stage.

Other Books Related to Hiroshima

The bombing of Hiroshima inspired many great works of fiction and nonfiction. Arguably the greatest was the 1959 film Hiroshima mon amour, directed by the French New Way auteur Alain Resnais, with a screenplay by the novelist Marguerite Duras. Readers looking for an authoritative account of the history and politics of the Hiroshima bombing should consult Ronald Takaki’s Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb, or, for a more partisan take, the World War Two chapters of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
Key Facts about Hiroshima
  • Full Title: Hiroshima
  • When Written: The first chapters were written in the first half of 1946; Hersey later added additional chapters, including one written forty years after the bombing
  • Where Written: New York City and the Solomon Islands (in the Pacific)
  • When Published: The first portion of the book first appeared as the entirety of the August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker, and it later appeared as a full-length book in November 1946. In 1985, The New Yorker published another full-length Hersey piece on the aftermath of the bombing, which was later included in editions of Hiroshima.
  • Literary Period: The book has been considered one of the founding texts of New Journalism, the journalistic technique of depicting nonfiction events with a narrative literary style. However, Hersey later said that he despised New Journalism, so he probably wouldn’t appreciate being remembered as its godfather!
  • Genre: nonfiction
  • Setting: Hiroshima, Japan, and surrounding towns
  • Climax: None—the book follows characters through many stages in their lives, so that action never really “rises” or “falls”
  • Antagonist: The United States, nuclear technology, or the indifferent Japanese state could all be considered antagonists
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient (moving back and forth between the six main characters)

Extra Credit for Hiroshima

How to get a job by being a jerk. John Hersey was famous, and notorious, for his blunt, outspoken manner. As a young man, he wrote a long article on how horrible Time magazine’s journalism had become. Time’s editors read the article—and promptly hired Hersey to make the magazine better!

The sincerest form of flattery. John Hersey was a highly-respected journalist, but he had his share of detractors. In 1988, he gained some new enemies after he was found to have plagiarized large chunks of Laurence Bergreen’s biography of the writer James Agee for his own article on Agee in The New Yorker. Hersey was reportedly humiliated by the discovery, and he publicly apologized to Bergreen. But later, a reader discovered that Hersey had plagiarized other articles, too!