The literary work given this extraordinary treatment was John Hersey's Hiroshima, a piece of writing that has become a modern classic. There had been other articles on the devastation in Japan, but these had focused on the damage on the ground, the obliterated buildings and flattened city blocks. Hersey's was the first to explore the human cost. Soon after its publication, the Book of the Month Club printed Hiroshima as a book that was distributed free of charge to all club members. This was one of at least nineteen editions in English and other languages that have appeared since 1947. In 1999, a panel appointed by the Journalism Department at New York University named Hiroshima the finest piece of reporting of the twentieth century. It remains a moving and powerful book, and it is beautifully written.
In fact, Hiroshima is of such consistent quality that in any one piece of it, no matter how small, a reader can see what makes it great. Take the opening sentence:
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.
We know what happens next, of course, but we can't help reading on. By recording small, seemingly mundane details in the lives of ordinary people, and by employing a journalistic style so plain that it all but disappears, Hersey eloquently communicated the enormous horror of what it was like to live through the atomic-bomb attacks that ended World War II.
The approach was intentional. Hersey sought to remove himself from the narrative, so that no one stood between the reader and the text, to make the reading feel immediate and unedited. "My choice was to be deliberately quiet in the piece," Hersey said in a rare interview, "because I thought that if the horror could be presented as directly as possible, it would allow the reader to identify with the characters in a direct way."
Characters. It's not a word we usually associate with journalism, yet it seems right. Hersey focused on six people who survived the bombing of Hiroshima and recounted what they saw, felt, and thought in the days and weeks that followed. In addition to Miss Sasaki, he wrote about Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Methodist minister who had been educated at Emory University; Hatsuyo Nakamura, a seamstress and mother of three who had lost her husband in the war; Masakazu Fuji, a well-established physician who owned a private hospital; Terufumi Sasaki, a younger doctor working for the Red Cross; and Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a Catholic priest and native of Germany.
For these six, as for all Hiroshima's survivors, life changed forever in a silent flash of light. After the blast, news of this desolating, humbling new weapon reached people everywhere--except those coping with life at ground zero, who struggled to understand what had happened to them. Word got around that enemy planes had poured gasoline on the city. If another rumor could be believed, a huge bundle of incendiaries had been dropped. Only after a week had passed, and survivors were falling ill from radiation sickness--and a second bomb had been dropped, on Nagasaki--did people in Hiroshima have access to newspapers explaining how the "sheet of sun" that leveled their city had been the energy released when an atom was split. They stretched their minds to grasp this concept, but "already, Japanese physicists had entered the city with Lauritsen electroscopes and Neher electrometers," Hersey wrote; "they understood the idea all too well."
I am reminded of a deceptively simple poem by the haiku master Buson, as translated by the scholar Mark Morris, which seems appropriate here:
Now each and every night will end
Dawning in white plum blossoms.