An All-American Foreigner

After 47 years, it's as powerful as ever: an opening sentence with a reporter's precision, a novelist's dramatic sense. "At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning," John Hersey began his masterpiece, "on August 6,1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, 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." Hersey, who died of cancer last week at 78, produced 23 books in 50 years; "Hiroshima" is the one that will live as long as there are books. It offers no screed against the bomb: just unforgettable details (potatoes baked in the ground, soldiers with melted eyes) and six ordinary people. That first sentence, focused on a single individual, a single gesture, contains the essential Hersey, who wrote best about the impact of great events on everyday lives.

"I was born a foreigner," he once said, to account for why he was "an outsider in America." Born in Tientsin of missionary parents, he spoke Chinese before English. Yet his prose was all-American-like his contrarian impulses. His Pulitzer Prizewinning first novel, "A Bell for Adano" (1944), with its megalomaniac American general, was startlingly subversive for a wartime work; "Hiroshima"'s account of innocent civilians in a nuclear firestorm undercut postwar moral complacency. Hersey got into scrap after scrap: the model for the good officer in "Adano" sued him (he dropped it after dining with Hersey); Hersey was an early opponent of the Vietnam War; in 1976, The Saturday Review (perhaps with an eye on advertisers) balked at running his attack on big business,- in 1988 he was attacked for a New Yorker piece that borrowed without credit from a James Agee biography. In fact, he got his first steady job, as a Time reporter (in 1937), with an essay "on how rotten the magazine was."

Like many American writers, Hersey peaked early: he wrote "Adano," " Hiroshima" and "The Wall," a novel of the Warsaw ghetto, before he was 37. But he accepted this with rare equanimity. Some books, he said in 1985, "have had a life of their own, and some haven't, and that's the way things go." Reviewers found his novels less satisfactory than his reporting; naturally, he preferred them. Above all, he kept writing. Once every few books his work again took on that independent life that no writer can will into being. "The Algiers Motel Incident" (1968) gave the meticulous "Hiroshima" treatment to a racially motivated shooting in Detroit; "Blues" (1987) was a quirkily original meditation on bluefishing off Martha's Vineyard. Forty years ago he said writers most needed "dedication to the craft of writing, and bedrock character." He must have known he'd have to live up to these words. And he did.