In the year after the atomic bombs were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945, the events were rarely considered or discussed in the West beyond their strategic or scientific relevance. The experience of individuals on the ground and the confusion that arose at the appearance of radiation sickness were little known.
This was to change on August 31 1946, when the New Yorker devoted an entire issue to an extraordinary feature piece by John Hersey, simply titled Hiroshima. It sold out within hours and was subsequently published in book form.
Hiroshima was not the most devastating air raid of World War II, but the extreme vulnerability of cities to a single device was a new horror. As such it challenged established ways of thinking and demanded that writers find forms adequate to this new nuclear consciousness. Writing so early in the atomic age and with few precedents on which to draw, Hersey’s achievement is all the more remarkable.
Hersey was a war correspondent, but his prose is notable for its novelistic qualities. Drawing on extensive interviews, his telling of the stories of six survivors is seminal in both historical and literary terms.
Perhaps Hersey’s greatest achievement is to render the Japanese bomb victims human to his American audience. After years of war, after the brutality of the Pacific campaigns, this is an aspect of the attack that had been neglected. By revealing the experience of some of World War II’s final victims Hersey stressed the devastating personal effects of this new and horrifying weapon.
His article does this by coolly confronting us with the physical and psychological traumas of war. When Mr Tanimoto grasps a woman’s hand her skin “slips off in huge, glove-like pieces”. The grotesque results of the bomb become clear; the human body revealed as meat. When Dr Sasaki, overwhelmed in his hospital, becomes “an automaton, mechanically wiping, daubing, winding, wiping, daubing, winding”, we see how the mind’s capacity to empathise closes down in the face of trauma.
As one of the earliest examples of nuclear writing, Hersey’s Hiroshima also pioneers several motifs that shape literary responses to the bomb and through which we still talk about and understand nuclear threat.
Miss Toshiko Sasaki, “a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works”, experiences the explosion as a “blinding flash”. This idea of the atomic flash was itself to become a staple of nuclear literature. The flash is the image with which Hersey begins Hiroshima and it is what connects his protagonists as they look up from different locations in the city and simultaneously become hibakusha, explosion-affected people. The flash is what fixes 8:15am on August 6 1945 as the instant the city turns into an atomic city.
8.15am: a wrist watch found in the ruins. Everett Historical / Shutterstock.com
The bomb’s capacity to transfix, to illuminate but simultaneously to blind is a preoccupation of nuclear literature. Hersey’s achievement is to find a neutral, unemotional prose that lessens the glare so we see the human stories.
That fear of sudden transformation of the world into something entirely new later came to haunt the Cold War. Douglas Coupland’s retrospective, seemingly autobiographical short story, The Wrong Sun (1994) astutely captures this acute nuclear consciousness. The narrator’s everyday life stutters in constant expectation of “The Flash”. He carries on with the mundane routines of life, but sirens or sudden noises induce traumatic moments when briefly, incongruously, he thinks nuclear war imminent.
One titanic instant
Hersey mentions tales of blast shadows, imprints on walls or roofs thrown by the bomb’s heat in which people’s final moments are preserved. He notes that fanciful stories accumulate around them. They have continued to, becoming important nuclear motifs.
In Ray Bradbury’s short story There Will Come Soft Rains (1950), all that remains of a family are their silhouettes, thrown onto a wall in “one titanic instant”. Most poignantly, the shadow of a young boy, “hands flung into the air”, is cast upon the wall. Higher up is a tossed ball and opposite the boy is a girl, “hands raised to catch a ball which never came down”. More recently, Kamila Shamsie’s beautiful novel Burnt Shadows (2009) takes as its central image the birds, cranes, seared into the flesh of her protagonist Hiroko as her patterned kimono is incinerated by the atomic flash at Nagasaki.
The sense of time being frozen is a repeated nuclear motif. Hersey describes Father Kleinsorge returning to Hiroshima and finding “bicycles, shells of streetcars and automobiles, all halted in mid-motion”. The cusp at which the city “becomes” atomic is briefly preserved and for a few days after the bombing Father Kleinsorge can traverse both its pre-nuclear and nuclear states. Hiroshima is, in this description, the symbolic gateway through which humans enter the nuclear age.
The ruined city. Everett Historical/Shutterstock.com
The nuclear uncanny
Perhaps most interestingly Hersey also broaches the unsettling radioactive legacy of the bombing in his piece. When Miss Sasaki returns to the city just three weeks after the attack she finds an extraordinary profusion of plant life growing in the ruins. It seems so unlikely, so overly abundant, that it “gave her the creeps”. With dubious scientific legitimacy Hersey writes that the bomb “had stimulated” the roots of plants.
The unspoken implication is that some “unnatural” quality of the bomb – radiation presumably – has induced this unsettling abundance. Miss Sasaki’s uneasiness and Hersey’s ambiguous phrasing introduce an important cultural trope through which nuclear technology and materials are experienced and perhaps misunderstood. It is an example of what the anthropologist Joseph Masco calls the “nuclear uncanny”: a psychological phenomenon by which the world is experienced as unsettlingly different when thought of as “nuclear”.
In the moving additional chapter to Hiroshima, published on the 40th anniversary of the bombing in 1985, Hersey wrote that the world’s memory was getting “spotty”. Perhaps our cultural memory of atomic attack is spottier still, another 30 years on. So if you haven’t read it before, take some time to read Hiroshima this anniversary weekend. It remains one of the rawest, but most humane, accounts of this world-changing event.
By giving us a glimpse of the human consequences of atomic attack, Hiroshima warns us of our capacity for inhumanity. It remains largely silent on the military and political decisions behind the attack, but is perhaps all the more powerful for that. It asks of us only one terrible thing: that we bear witness to the event; that we remember.