John Richard Hersey was born in Tientsin, China, on June 17, 1914, to American missionaries Roscoe M. and Grace (Baird) Hersey. Growing up in China, Hersey was out of the mainstream when it came to American attitudes and culture. He spoke Chinese fluently. Hersey exercised his imagination with reading and writing. He attended the British Grammar School and the American School. Later in life, he reported that his memories of growing up in China included a pretty "normal" childhood.
A major change occurred when Hersey was ten: His father became ill with encephalitis, and the family returned to America and settled in Briarcliff Manor, New York. Hersey became thoroughly "Americanized" during his adolescence. He attended Hotchkiss Preparatory School, where he worked as a waiter and janitor. His undergraduate years were spent at Yale University from 1932 to 1936. Graduating from Yale, Hersey continued his education on a Mellon Scholarship at Clare College, Cambridge University, where he studied eighteenth century English literature. At both Yale and Cambridge, he worked in various jobs as a waiter, librarian, lifeguard, and tutor. Hersey never experienced a life of privilege, and it is possible that the jobs he held while attending college gave him a sympathy for the "common man" that would later show up in his writings.
During the summer of 1937, Hersey was a secretary and gofer for Sinclair Lewis. He left that employment in the fall to apprentice at Time magazine, a business relationship that would extend through 1945. In 1939, he returned to China as a war correspondent at the Chungking bureau of Time. In this capacity, he traveled throughout China and Japan, sending dispatches of military action and interviewing important leaders. During his career, Hersey's writings appeared in Time, Life, and the New Yorker.
Hersey married twice during his lifetime and had four children. In 1940, he married Frances Ann Cannon, the daughter of a cotton goods manufacturer in Charlotte, North Carolina. They had three children: Martin Cannon, John Richard, Jr., and Baird. This marriage ended in divorce in 1958. He later married Barbara Day Addams Kaufman. They had a daughter, Brook.
Hersey published two books in 1942 and 1943: Men on Bataan and Into the Valley. Men on Bataan is an account of the fighting in the Philippines. It contains fifty stories of enlisted men, as well as chapters about General MacArthur. The book, which received positive reviews, reveals Hersey's concerns with how democracy could function in a time of war. Hersey's experience in the South Pacific and at the Battle of the Solomons led to his month-long stay on Guadalcanal. He experienced war firsthand and saw the terrible hardships that were placed on the fighting men. For helping evacuate the wounded, Hersey later received a letter of commendation from Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. Into the Valley, published in 1943, is about the experiences of the fighting men in the Pacific Theater. Here, Hersey studied the combat soldier's reaction to danger, the war, and the enemies. He began a theme that would continue throughout his career: his study of why and how men survived under terrible conditions. Survival became a key idea in his thinking and writing.
From 1943 to 1945, Hersey worked out of Sicily and Russia. During this time, many of his writings for Life magazine were about returning veterans, the victims of war, and the occupation troops. He also wrote about John F. Kennedy's heroic experience with the PT 109, continuing his interest in survival under harsh conditions.
A Bell for Adano was published in 1944 and won Hersey the Pulitzer Prize on May 8, 1945. It is the story of a small, occupied village in Italy that is temporarily run by Major Victor Joppolo, the military governor and a man of Italian descent, who tries to teach democratic ideals to the villagers. Joppolo attempts to retrieve the town's missing bell, which had rung in the steeple for 700 years. Various town characters appear, and General Marvin, the antagonist of the story, thwarts Joppolo in his efforts. While some see Marvin as a thinly veiled George S. Patton, others interpret him as an example of the dangers of modern corporate society or the nation state, running operations with expediency at a cost to individual freedoms. Hersey developed his story after studying the work of a military governor for an article for Life. His novel is a hymn to the common man who steps up to a position where he can help people. An example of democracy in action, Hersey's story was turned into both a Broadway play and a motion picture. Then, from 1944 to 1945, he was on assignment in China and Japan for Life and the New Yorker.
In 1946, he published Hiroshima first in its entirety in the New Yorker on August 31, and later as a novel in October. Based on the explosion of the first nuclear bomb in 1945, the novel attempts to take the extraordinary and inexplicable event and show how it impacts ordinary human lives. It personalized the event so that Americans, as well as a worldwide audience, could begin to understand the repercussions of the bombing.
The 1950s saw four more books from Hersey, beginning with The Wall in 1950. Hersey had seen the German concentration camps in Estonia and the Warsaw ruins where 500,000 Jews had died. His book confronted the ability of man to deal with totalitarian governments and posed the question, "Can man be morally responsible for himself?" Again he personalized an event of unimaginable horror. In 1953, he published The Marmot Drive, a novel about New England that studied modern lives cut off from the traditions of the past. It received poor reviews. A Single Pebble, published in 1956, was about the journey of a young American engineer up the Yangtze River during the 1920s. It allowed Hersey to consider his relationship as a modern American with the Orient. In 1959, Hersey published The War Lover, continuing a theme of the paradox of those who love war and fight an enemy within.
The dilemma is how can a man so love to make war and kill but also learn a natural reverence for life? Admiration for a man's will to survive instead of a love of killing is what finally comes through in Hiroshima.
By 1960, Hersey turned his efforts to education, racism, and the disenchantment of 1960's students. He wrote The Child Buyer in 1960, a novel that reflected some of the educational thinking of that time. Hersey was keenly aware of the movement to produce more scientists, technicians, mathematicians, and engineers at the expense of schools that foster individual fulfillment. Returning to his theme of survival, Hersey wrote Here to Stay in 1963, a series of articles about people who survived in the face of natural disasters. A history of the African American in the U.S. titled White Lotus, written in 1965, is an ambitious book that tells the story of racial history in America by paralleling the enslavement of Caucasians by the Chinese. The disenchantment of the mid-1960s is the subject of Too Far to Walk, published in 1966.
During the period from 1965 to 1970, Hersey returned to Yale as Master of Pierson College. There he taught, mentored, and wrote books that dramatized and personalized issues such as fascism, racism, and the Holocaust. He spent 1970 to 1971 on leave from Yale at the American Academy in Rome. His relationship with Yale continued as an adjunct professor of English until his retirement in 1984.
In his august years, Hersey continued to write on issues of modern society. He wrote two nonfiction books about education and racism called The Algiers Motel Incident (1968) and Letter to the Alumni (1970). The Conspiracy (1972) used Roman history to explore issues of modern society. Hersey edited The Writer's Craft in 1974, a book of essays about writing. In this particular edition, Hersey included an interview with Ralph Ellison.
During the 1980s, Hersey continued to write and also visit sites from his past. In June 1980, he published Aspects of the Presidency. The following year, he visited Tientsin and a number of Chinese sites that he had not seen since 1946. The highly personal novel The Call and a new edition of Hiroshima with an epilogue on the fortieth anniversary of the bombing were published in 1985. In addition to these writings and trips were two novels called Blues in 1987 and Life Sketches in 1989. His last publication was in 1990 — a book of stories called Fling and Other Stories.
John Hersey preferred to call his books "novels of contemporary history" instead of the more widely used "nonfiction novels." No matter how Hersey's novels are classified, they delve into issues of any society — issues such as racism, education, democracy, and personal freedom. Hersey had an amazing ability to take extreme disasters of epic proportion such as the Holocaust or the detonating of a nuclear bomb and personalize them so that the average reader could feel their impact on the individual. His faith in democracy and his belief in the ability of the common person to take on heroic tasks were continuing themes in his career as an author and journalist.
Throughout his career, John Hersey was active in organizations as a writer and involved in public issues as a private citizen. He joined the Authors League of America in 1948, becoming an officer and an active member. In 1953, he was the youngest writer ever asked to join the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1954, he became a member of the National Citizens Committee for the Public Schools and pursued his interest in writing and speaking about education. At the White House Arts Festival in 1965, he did a public reading from Hiroshima.
Before his death in 1993, Hersey was recognized by Yale University for his contributions to journalism and literature. Yale established the annual John Hersey Lecture, an avenue for bringing writers to the campus to talk about their work. Hersey died on March 24, 1993, at the age of 78.