My teacher, Mrs. Simms, herself looked like a victim of Hiroshima. A mysterious condition made her right foot resemble the Elephant Man's forehead, and she wore frosted eyeglasses that only pretended to hide a sagging eye-patch of flesh. The grotesque Mrs. Simms was the kind of teacher conservatives want exorcised from our schools. She told us about acid rain, the Ozone hole, the Contras. And, like thousands of other teachers before her and since, she gave us Hiroshima.
For anyone raised on '80s nuclear films like The Day After or Threads, Hiroshima rates low on the terror-meter. The Bomb used, nicknamed Little Boy, was a firecracker compared to the megaton monsters now sitting so patiently in our silos; and we all know that the story has a relatively happy ending, with Japan going on to create Toyota and Pokemon. The world continued to turn.
In telling the tales of six survivors, Hersey employed a flat style, lacking the trademark flair of then New Yorker writers like E.B. White and Eudora Welty, both of whom had their columns bumped by Hersey's massive four-part piece. Laconic almost to a fault, Hersey rarely flexes the muscle of language. When he does, he makes it burn. There is no forgetting that the skin of a woman's hand slipped off like a glove.
Hersey's restraint was dictated by the subject, which could have overpowered even Norman Mailer's ego. He understood that writerly touches or political digressions would have been like adding a musical soundtrack to the first footage out of Auschwitz. Hersey, who was 31 when William Shawn gave him the assignment, took out a reporter's pad and listened to people. Then he wrote what he heard, humbly.
His collected notes told the stories of a city on fire with thousands of dazed and dying making their way to hospitals with almost no medical staff; of one doctor working days on end wearing a dead man's eyeglasses; of wounded Japanese gathering, bleeding and dying in silence in the city's few green spaces; of women clasping their dead infants to their chests, refusing burial until their husbands were found; of scavenged hot potatoes, pre-cooked by the bomb's heat while in the ground.
In a representative passage, a survivor wanders into the city searching for his family. He met hundreds who were fleeing, writes Hersey. Every one of them seemed hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing.
When Hersey's essay was published in the August 31 issue of The New Yorker, sucking up every inch of editorial space as an atom bomb consumes oxygen, it was the first time the details of nuclear devastation had been made human in the hands of a skilled writer. The result was an Old Media earthquake, the likes of which the world had never seen and will never see again.
The issue sold out in a day. The New York Times wrote an editorial about it that week; other newspapers followed. Before Knopf had bound its first copy, the Book-of-the-Month club bought reprint rights and sent its own edition to members free of charge. There were major radio broadcasts of the complete text in the U.S. and around the world. It was translated into dozens of languages (but not officially in Japan, where Occupation authorities kept Hiroshima from print until 1948). Albert Einstein special ordered 1,000 copies of the issue, a request that could not be met due to empty stock.
Today, no non-celebrity porn document could have an equivalent impact. There will never be another Hiroshima, even after another Hiroshima.