A Noiseless Flash and its Aftermath

09 Sep 2017 4:30 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

Editor’s Note: University of Maine professor Josh Roiland presented his paper, “Hidden in Plain Style: The Anti-Bomb Politics of John Hersey’s Hiroshima,” at the recent International Association of Literary Journalism Studies conference held in Canada. The Intelligencer asked Dr. Roiland to tell us more about how and why he started researching this topic, and why this research is important and interesting for himself and our field.

By Josh Roiland, University of Maine

The lasting image from my first reading of John Hersey’s classic Hiroshima is his description of the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto reaching down to help a blast victim. Tanimoto grabs the woman “by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glovelike pieces.” The verb slipped. The adjective glovelike. Together they created an aqueous revulsion that still attends each reading.  

Hiroshima was part of Tom Connery’s “Literary Journalism in America” graduate course at the University of Saint Thomas. It was my first semester in the English master’s program, and I remember being repulsed, if not exactly moved, by the story. I was more interested in the fact that Hersey traveled back to Japan 40 years after the piece first ran in The New Yorker, to report on the fates of the six survivors he profiled in 1946.  

When I read the story again, several years later, it was in preparation for teaching my own version of “Literary Journalism in America.” This time I was struck by the story’s clinical and antiseptic feel. Yes, the gory details still stood out, but the text was, in many ways, boring. Hersey overwhelmed readers with precise measurements, exact times, and arcane details. Trapped within this barrage of facts, the characters seemed not so much heroic as fated. I wondered and worried how I was going to teach this landmark work or journalism. As far as pedagogy goes, standing in front of students pleading Isn’t this horrific? wasn’t much of a plan. 

That question, however, was canny. It led to two more questions that subsequently animated my teaching and, eventually, my research on the text.

Why is it terrible? 

How does it work? 

I’ve taught Hiroshima eight times. The first five as part of the SAGES writing program at Case Western Reserve University, then twice more as a visiting professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and finally once as an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Maine. In each class, we spent the first of our four days cataloging reactions to the text and the passages that produced them. Students are always shocked, disgusted, and riveted. They’re awed by the enormity of the catastrophe. They’re sickened by the graphic descriptions. They’re captivated by the stories of resilience. Each time I would ask them why they were so moved, and each time they exclaimed: “The story!” 

The unanimity and repetition of that answer increasingly left me unsatisfied. I understood being stirred by the ghastly content of Hersey’s text, but what about Hiroshima’s form? The story, they would often say, speaks for itself. This answer both made sense and was completely unsatisfying. Hersey’s narrative is so plainly drawn and utterly compelling that it feels as though it always existed just that way. But, of course, it didn’t. No story ever speaks for itself. In class I would push back: all stories—including Hiroshima—are constructions, and our job is to figure out how it is constructed, then determine the effect of that particular composition. In time, that became my job outside of the classroom as well. 

On the second day of class discussion, I start to push back. I ask: Does the text express a point of view? Does Hersey offer his thoughts, either explicitly or implicitly, on the usage of the bomb? I introduce secondary articles for historical and theoretical context. We discuss Hugh Kenner’s “The Politics of Plain Style” and an excerpt from Phyllis Frus’s The Politics and Poetics of Journalistic Narrative. Students are moved by Kenner’s refutation that “a man who doesn’t make his language ornate cannot be deceiving us.” Maybe there’s something more going on here, they think. They are less persuaded (and, in fact, often annoyed) by Frus’s theoryspeak when she adduces that due to a nonfiction writer’s lack of reflexivity, a reader’s “response is reduced to a narrow emotional range, and we do not experience the subjectivity of another, for the text (with its repetition of universal truths and reified, historical facts) confirms the naturalized view we already hold, the world we recognize as ‘actual.’” What?, they ask. The first couple times I taught that text I joined the students in their puzzlement, but every semester when I explained Frus’s argument I found myself more and more persuaded. 

In addition to those two works of literary theory, we read three works of historiography: an 11-page excerpt from Ben Yagoda’s About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made that offers both a brief biography and a behind-the-scenes exploration of Hersey’s reporting and writing process; the corresponding chapter from Norman Sims’s seminal True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism; and Kathy Roberts Forde’s award-winning article, “Profit and Public Interest: A Publication History of John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima.’” Forde, a friend and mentor, chronicles in meticulous and captivating detail how “[n]o other publication in the American twentieth century was so widely circulated, republished, discussed, and venerated.” 

After a while, all these passages and the articles that contained them, looked like puzzle pieces.  

Forde’s article, however, was the kicker. It spurred me to put the puzzle together: “Hiroshima”’s recognition was immediate and its reach, vast. Aided by a press release announcing its publication and advanced reviews, when The New Yorker hit newsstands on August 29, 1946, the magazine sold its entire 300,000 non-subscription run in an hour. ABC radio staged a somber four-night reading of the text for a national audience. Alfred A. Knopf almost instantaneously published the article in book form. The Book-of-the-Month club selected Hersey’s story and sent a free copy to its more than half-a-million subscribers. 

The question that frustrated me over and over was: Why

As I later wrote:

“Hiroshima” was released less than five years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which killed 2,386 Americans. Upon entering World War II, the United States forcibly relocated and incarcerated more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans living along the Pacific Coast. The last internment camp, at Tule Lake, California did not close until March 21, 1946. A virulent anti-Japanese sentiment still coursed through American culture after the war ended. So then, how did a story rooted in empathy for the Japanese cause publishers to, as Forde put it, “largely disregard commercial imperatives to provide as many Americans as possible with vital information and a forum for debate about the unsettling moral, political, and social realities of atomic warfare and the new atomic age.”

The more I taught the text, the more I thought I figured out that very basic question.

The answer, I believed, was that Hersey’s lack of reporting transparency, absence of rhetorical reflexivity, and plain compositional style made his rendering of such a distasteful moral act palatable for large numbers of American readers. 

I was writing my dissertation while I taught most these classes. Moved by the work of James Carey, Barbie Zelizer, and Michael Schudson, I wanted to figure out the democratic significance of literary journalism in America. Hiroshima was not part of my study, but my scholarship informed my teaching, which, in turn, informed later scholarship. When I floated my ideas in the classroom, however, students were not swayed. In fact, some were offended. Hersey’s story was so meaningful to them that to suggest an alternative understanding was to impugn on their critical sensibilities. 

At the end of every semester, I ask students to rate all our primary texts on a scale of 0-10 based on how much they “liked” each piece. It’s a fun exercise that also offers me some unscientific data about what and how I’m teaching. In each of the eight semesters that I’ve taught “Literary Journalism in America,” Hiroshima’s average rating came in above 8.5, which always made it one of the three highest-rated stories out of the more than 35 that we read in class. The text’s popularity mirrored the honor bestowed by esteemed journalists and NYU professors who, in 1999, named the story the most important work of journalism of the twentieth century

The push back from the students proved to be good practice for when I eventually presented the paper at a conference. 

After a half-dozen courses, I felt I had my argument pretty-well mapped out. I had a hypothesis, some convincing examples, and an explanatory theoretical framework. These elements were enough to run several successful classes and prod students to consider Hiroshima in new and uncomfortable ways. But they were not enough for an article. So I spent last summer researching and re-reading. I went through the text page-by-page and created thematic taxonomies, then populated those categories with extensive examples. The puzzle grew larger and larger. And then I assembled it.

If research papers have nut grafs, this would be mine:

Hersey establishes his authority through an unrelenting presentation of precise times and measurements. He employs an unadorned style of writing that garners readers’ trust by abandoning rhetorical flourishes. He pulls readers along through a looping, nonlinear narrative with constant temporal transitions that seemingly link the stories together. Hersey further enhances the narrative by hiding his reporting via conventional attribution. A result of taking the marks off his reporting is a presentation of characters that appear representative of Hiroshima’s victims, when, in fact, they display religious and occupational characteristics familiar to most western audiences. Hersey uses a limited-omniscient point of view for much of the story, which removes direct agency from the events and replaces it with a more dramatic emphasis on fate. He plays down the political and militaristic context rendering the events in a cultural vacuum. Finally, there are several key moments in “Hiroshima” where Hersey betrays his plain style by deploying figurative language that directly editorializes his disdain for the bomb. 

I presented the paper at the twelfth annual meeting of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies (IALJS) in Halifax, Nova Scotia in May 2017. Relative to AJHA, this association and its attendant conferences are small. Approximately 75 presented at IALJS-12. It felt like half of them came to our panel, “Content, Form, and Time: Style as Argument,” which also featured Christopher Wilson (Boston College) discussing Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker murder stories and David Dowling (University of Iowa) presenting his award-winning paper on Marilynne Robinson’s radical environmental journalism. 

I expected there to be some opposition in the audience. I was taking on a canonical writer, after all, as well as some canonical takes. If my students were bothered by my reading of Hiroshima, surely scholars who had vested interests in the text would also disagree with me. 

They did. 

(Readers can watch the panel and the feisty question and answer session here.) 

Some believed I was unfairly critical of Hersey and his journalistic decision-making process. I explained that I was not—in the paper, anyway—offering a value judgment on Hersey’s reporting and writing choices, but rather noting that all choices have an effect; therefore, it was important to understand how Hersey’s choices positioned readers, then and now, to encounter the text in particular ways. (That said, I didn’t help my case by adding that I personally felt Hersey’s lack of transparency and reflexivity was compositionally manipulative.)

Other scholars questioned my use of the term “political,” wondering if I was suggesting that Hersey was either partisan or agenda-driven. I explained that I was using John J. Pauly’s conception of “politics” as “the realm of symbolic confrontation in which groups of citizens organize, enact, and negotiate their relationships with one another.” Moreover, I was not making any claims, nor am I interested in Hersey’s intention or agenda. Rather, I wanted to explore the effects of the choices that he made in his text. 

An ancillary question attended these points: So what? Several scholars pointed out that Hersey’s text had been effective because the world had not experienced any atomic warfare after the publication of this influential account. I believe it is reductive to make such a correlation. Global politics are a volatile and complicated crucible, and to suggest that any one text—no matter how profound—ever has such direct influence is, I believe, simplistic. Moreover, the fact that civilization has thus far staved off nuclear annihilation really has nothing to do with my argument. 

As the Q+A concluded I tried to emphasize this point: all styles are political—even (or, especially) a plain style. Such a statement, however, is not analogous to saying that Hersey had a political agenda or intended to smuggle a message into his text. Intention has nothing to do with it. Rather, saying the style is political acknowledges that all reporting and writing decisions have consequences for readers; our job as scholars is remove our value judgment about those decisions and instead highlight and understand those consequences.

I titled my essay “Hidden in Plain Style” to draw attention to the style’s subtlety. Although the approach is unadorned, direct, and simple, Hugh Kenner called it “the most disorienting form of discourse yet invented by man.” And once one notices it, the style is impossible to unsee. Yet for more than 70 years, most of the popular and scholarly criticism of Hiroshima has focused not on the story’s form, but rather on its content. There is good reason for this attention: the subject matter is literally (and thankfully) unparalleled. But that focus has also prevented us from understanding precisely how the story works. It’s not enough to note that Hersey travelled to Japan and bore witness to the effects of the first ever detonation of an atomic bomb on civilization. Scholars must account for the fact that he constructed a story based on what he saw and whom he talked to, and then chose to tell that story in a very particular way. The hope is that my article creates a space to start that discussion.


Josh Roiland is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Maine. His article, “Hidden in Plain Style: The Anti-Bomb Politics of John Hersey’s Hiroshima,” has been accepted by Journalism History pending minor revisions. His essays and criticism are available at www.joshroiland.com

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