Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Writer's Almanac by Garrison Keillor

August 8, 2009

It was on this day in 1946 that Harold Ross wrote a memo about John Hersey's Hiroshima story that began "A very fine piece beyond any question; got practically everything. This will be … the classic piece on what follows a bomb dropping for a long time to come."

It was exactly one year and two days after the U.S. had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (the bomb was dropped August 6th, 1945) and The New Yorker was devoting an entire August issue to John Hersey's reporting. Hersey had been one of the first Western reporters to arrive in Hiroshima. To document the aftermath, he decided to write about how individual persons were affected, and he focused his stories on the lives of six people in Hiroshima at the time of the explosion.

The memo that Harold Ross wrote on this day was addressed to Joseph Wigglesworth, The New Yorker staff member whose job it was to compile the query sheets from various editors at the magazine on any given piece. Harold Ross had a reputation for turning in funny, quirky query sheets — and lengthy ones, too. For Hersey's Hiroshima article, Ross had written several hundred questions and observations. In the memo, he admitted, "I probably read it over-zealously."

Ross wrote: "There is, I think, one grave lack in this piece. It may be Hersey's intention that there be. If so, ask consideration for what I say anyhow. All the way through I wondered about what killed these people, the burns, falling debris, the concussion — what? For a year I've been wondering about this and I eagerly hoped this piece would tell me. It doesn't. Nearly a hundred thousand dead people are around but Hersey doesn't tell how they died. Would it be possible — if so, would be wise — to tell on Galley 7 where he gives the one hundred thousand people, how many were killed by being hit by hard objects, how many by burns, how many by concussion, or shock, or whatever it was?"

In the final version that was published, Hersey wrote: "Many people who did not die right away came down with nausea, headache, diarrhea, malaise, and fever, which lasted several days. Doctors could not be certain whether some of these symptoms were the result of radiation or nervous shock. … The doctors realized in retrospect that even though most of these dead had also suffered from burns and blast effects, they had absorbed enough radiation to kill them. The rays simply destroyed body cells — caused their nuclei to degenerate and broke their walls."

Harold Ross suggested mentioning the vomiting earlier and describing it more thoroughly. Ross also wrote "I would suggest that Hersey might do well to tuck up on the time — give the hour and minute, exactly or roughly, from time to time. The reader loses all sense of the passing of time in the episodes and never knows what time of day it is, whether ten a.m. or four p.m."

John Hersey's piece appeared a few weeks later, in The New Yorker's last issue of August. Hersey would later say, "What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, so much as it's been memory. The memory of what happened at Hiroshima."

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