Writing Lessons From John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”

hiroshima

“The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote.  Nowhere do we witness this eternal struggle more movingly than in Hiroshima, John Hersey’s unforgettable account of that fateful day on August 6th, 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped.  Hailed as the “most celebrated piece of journalism to come out of WWII,” Hiroshima follows six survivors as they navigate the devastating aftermath of nuclear war.  Obliterating 100,000 lives in an infernal blast that will reverberate through the centuries as human history’s “most unspeakable crime,” the atom bomb is an unsettling reminder that the human heart is neither wholly good nor evil.

Hiroshima stands as a masterpiece of reporting for its ability to humanize the Japanese people at a time when words were weaponized as instruments of war.  Rather than reduce them to a one-dimensional demonized “enemy,” Hersey revealed Dr. Masakazu Fujii, Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, Father Wilhem Kliensorge, Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, Toshiko Sasaki, and Hatsuyo Nakamura as ordinary people: people who were staring out windows and sitting at their desks just as they had hundreds of times when their lives were forever shattered by an unprecedented act of war.  While some reporters marveled at man’s ability to harness the cataclysmic power of atomic energy (New York Times staff member William Laurence, the only journalist to witness the terrible technology first hand, wrote with wonder, “It was no longer smoke, or dust, or even a cloud of fire.  It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes.”), others focused on calculating the staggering number of lives lost or capturing the wasteland left behind (New York Herald Tribune’s Homer Bigart observed when he visited Hiroshima in September 1945 that “across the river there was only flat, appalling desolation, the starkness accentuated by bare, blackened tree trunks and the occasional shell of a reinforced concrete building.”)  Hersey took a different approach.  Hiroshima, originally published as a 30,000 word feature in the August 1946 issue of the New Yorker, is now considered a landmark of new journalism, a style of reporting that blended the impartial facts of traditional journalism with the pacing and storytelling of a novel.  By funneling the harrowing events of that historic day through the soul-expanding subjectivity of stories instead of the heartless objectivity of mere numbers, Hersey was able to demolish the barricade between ally and enemy so often erected by war.  The result is a compassionate document that- as one critic put it- “stirs the conscience” of the soul.

Hiroshima’s first line is perhaps one of journalism’s best-known:

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, 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.”

In his instructive new book The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing, journalist and Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark seeks to break down this stellar first sentence so we can better understand how it works.  A curator of spellbinding sentences and lover of lively prose, Clark contends the secret to writing well is hidden in literature’s masterworks or- as Matthew Arnold might say- in “the best that’s been thought and said” in the world.  If we want to be compelling writers, we just have to crack the code.  “Cracking the code” means paying attention to how an author mesmerizes us with his words.  Like Hemingway, does he seduce us to turn the page by revealing less information than he withholds?  Or like Plath, does he create a sense of unity by repeating an overarching motif or symbol?  In much the same way authors of that endlessly edifying guide to close-reading How to Read a Book revere books as absent teachers, Clark believes literature has a wealth of writing wisdom to offer.

So how, Clark wonders, does Hersey manage to captivate us from Hiroshima’s very first line?  The sentence itself is rather simple: 63 words, 32 of which are only 1-syllable.  There is no flamboyant expression, no elaborate sentence structure, no theatrical melodrama.  Even the subject matter is mundane: other than the offhand reference to the bomb “flashing above Hiroshima,” the sentence focuses on the ordinary and everyday, particularly one Miss Toshiko Sasaki, who’s doing the most uninteresting thing you could possibly conceive: turning her head to chat with a co-worker.  So why is this one of the most riveting first lines in all of literature?  For Clark, the secret is pacing:

“This feels like a most unconventional way to begin a story.  In spite of the importance of time to the telling of all narratives, we rarely see this degree of temporal specificity in a first line.  The word exactly is not a modifier but an intensifier.  We then learn the minutes, the hour ante meridiem, the month, day, year, and time zone.  That’s seven discrete time metrics before a verb.  The rhetorical effect of such specificity is that of a historical marker.  Something world-changing is about to happen (a meteor struck the earth; a volcano exploded; a jet plane flew into the Pentagon).  Chaucer’s springtime at the beginning of The Canterbury Tales is generic and cyclical.  In Hiroshima we are about to meet a group of pilgrims who share an experience that is triggered at a specific moment in time.  

In a way, time is also about to stand still.  Clocks and watches, damaged by the atomic blast, stopped at the moment of destruction.  This symbol of the stopped watch in relation to Hiroshima is repeated as late as 2014 in the updated version of the movie Godzilla.  The original was made in Japan in 1954 and is widely recognized as a science-fiction, monster-movie allegory of the consequences of nuclear destruction.  In the updated version, Japanese actor Ken Watanabe carries around the talisman of a pocket watch owned by his grandfather, killed at Hiroshima.  The time is frozen at eight fifteen.”  

As writers, what can we take away from this unforgettable first sentence?  Just as Hersey uses temporal specificity to stop time and signal that something history-making is about to happen, we can decelerate- or “freeze frame”- our narrative to amplify drama and build suspense:

Writing Lesson #1 

“Stories are about time in motion.  But there are moments when time seems to stop, at least in narrative terms: when the atom bomb drops, when Kennedy is shot, when the Challenger explodes.  As a writer, you can mark that moment when time stands still.  Freeze a movie into a still frame.”

stopped watch

Hiroshima is not only a paragon of pacing- it’s a matchless example of understatement.  “If ever there was a subject calculated to make a writer overwrought and a piece overwritten, it was the bombing of Hiroshima,” observed New Yorker journalist and political commentator Hendrik Hertzberg.  When a story is as momentous as Pearl Harbor or September 11th, it seems made for the newspapers.  There’s conflict, there’s catastrophe, there’s lives lost.  But though it’s tempting to hyperbolize, a good writer will restrain himself.  What makes Hiroshima so powerful is the way Hersey lets the material speak for itself.  Instead of indulging in melodrama- say, by sensationalizing the carnage or heavy-handedly accentuating the scene’s pathos- Hersey writes in a matter-of-fact style, employing only plain words all the while maintaining a dispassionate, journalistic tone.  As Clark explains, when a story is “big,” the key is to write “small”:

“In bringing us finally to the main part of the sentence, the author puts into practice two reliable rhetorical strategies, one from ancient Greece, the other from the American newsroom.  The name for the first is litotes, or understatement- the opposite of hyperbole.  While an unwise writer might overwhelm us with the visceral imagery of destruction, Hersey chooses to introduce a most common scene of daily life: one office worker turning to another, allowing the drama to unfold.  In the face of astonishing content, step back a bit.  Don’t call undue attention to the tricks of the writer.  

A related strategy comes from an old bit of newsroom wisdom: “The bigger the smaller.”  Nowhere was this strategy used more than in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York City on September 11th.  Faced with almost apocalyptic physical destruction and the loss of nearly three thousand lives, writers such as Jim Dwyer of the New York Times looked for ways to tell a story that seemed from its inception “too big.”  Dwyer chose to highlight physical objects with stories hiding inside of them: a window washer’s squeegee used to help a group break out of a stalled elevator in one of the Twin Towers; a family photo discovered in the rubble; a paper cup used by an escaping stranger to give water to another.  

The author of Hiroshima offers readers something akin to writing teacher Robert McKee’s “inciting incident.”  This is the moment that kicks off the energy of the story, the instant when normal life is transformed into story life.  All the characters described in the first paragraph are experiencing a version of normal, everyday life- given the context of an ongoing world war- but whatever their expectations, they were changed forever at the exact moment the atomic bomb flashed over Hiroshima.”  

Writing Lesson #2 

“Given the exact nature of the news and the death toll, the author’s narrative feels somehow underwritten, in a good way.  There are no elaborate metaphors.  The author keeps the focus on the cast of characters and not on his own feelings or emotions.  In general, this is a good rhetorical strategy.  The more powerful or consequential the content, the more the author should “get out of the way.”  This does not mean that craft must be set aside.  Instead, it means craft must be used to create a feeling of understatement.”

The Question of Responsibility: Morality in the Nuremberg Interviews

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In this chilling collection, The Nuremberg Interviews: An American Psychiatrist’s Conversations with the Defendants and WitnessesLeon Goldensohn shares his exhaustive notes and interviews from his time as the prison psychologist in charge of monitoring the two dozen Nazi officials on trial for genocide. 

Reading these interviews is unsettling, to say the least.

The majority of Nazi officials pled ignorance of Hitler’s plan to exterminate Jews, claiming the Nazi party was a haphazard, wildly disorganized bureaucracy with little communication between officers and higher ups.  No, no they didn’t know Hitler was massacring millions of Jews; they were only “doing their jobs.”  

My conscience is clear,” Karl Doenitz, grand admiral and commander in chief of the navy, told Goldensohn, “I did not participate in the brutalities or criminal actions.  My aiding Hitler in carrying on a war for my Fatherland does not make me subject to the criticism that I helped him annihilate Jews.  It is just not the case.”  

Karl Doenitz

What’s chilling about his testimony is that his logic is sound.  He didn’t directly commit a crime: he never shot a Jew, never sent a Jew to the gas chamber.  But what he (and the majority of Hitler’s henchman) failed to recognize is that-by doing nothing to stop these atrocities-they became willing, complicit parties.  To say “my conscience is clear”- knowing the extent of the horror and destruction the Third Reich (and, in effect, you) caused- is nothing short of disturbing.  When questioned, Doenitz, along with the other two dozen or so Nazis on trial, tended to either be evasive or shift blame.  When asked whether he believed the defendants were guilty of anything or if they could just transfer all blame to Himmler and Hitler, Doenitz responded:

Let me put it this way.  I assume responsibility for the German submarines from 1933, and of the German navy from 1943.  But to make me responsible for a conspiracy is false.  Each man must be responsible for his share.”

Doenitz’s telling response opens the Holocaust up to some interesting moral and philosophical questions: when, in fact, are we responsible?  Like Doenitz, are we only responsible for our assigned tasks, for carrying out the orders of those above us?  Or do each of us possess a weightier responsibility, a responsibility to speak out against all villainy and evil?

An Infinitely Large Number of Infinitesimally Small Actions: How Ordinary People Impact History in “The Zookeeper’s Wife”

jan and antonia

Ackerman brings her lyrical virtuoso and keen naturalist’s eye to this tale of bravery, compassion and beauty amidst the most horrifying of circumstances.  Set against the backdrop of WWII, The Zookeeper’s Wife opens in Warsaw during the summer of 1935.  War has yet to erupt across the continent and Jan and Antonina Zabinski are the blissful caretakers of the world renowned Warsaw Zoo.  As daylight first streams through the glass windows of the villa, Antonina rises to a gaggle of exotic animal calls: a starling gushing a “medley of stolen songs,” distant wrens “cranking up a few arpeggios,” and cuckoos calling “monotonously like clocks struck on the hour.”  These rambunctious melodies form the soundtrack of her life until, in the fall of 1939, Antonina hears the foreboding hum of “tens, maybe even hundreds” of planes over head.  In an evocative passage that testifies to her poetic powers, Ackerman imagines the day German bombers destroy the zoo:

“On that clear day, the sky broke open and whistling fire hurtled down, cages exploded, moats rained upward, iron bars squealed as they wrenched apart.  Wooden buildings collapsed, sucked down by heat.  Glass and metal shards mutilated the skin, feathers, hooves, and scales indiscriminately as wounded zebras ran, ribboned with blood, terrified howler monkeys and orangutans dashed caterwauling into the trees and bushes, snakes slithered loose, and crocodiles pushed onto their toes and trotted at speed…The clotted air hurt to breathe and stank of burning wood, straw and flesh.  The monkeys and birds, screeching infernally, created an otherworldly chorus backed by a crackling timpani of bullets and bomb blasts.  Echoing around the zoo, the tumult surely sounded like ten thousand Furies scratching up from hell to unhinge the world.”

After the attack, a terrible silence descended on Warsaw Zoo.  When Poland surrendered to Germany a month later, Hitler swiftly began his campaign of terror, squashing all opposition to Nazi rule and ordering Jews into overcrowded, disease-ridden ghettos before implementing his plans for mass murder.

The Zookeeper’s Wife traces the true life story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, an ordinary couple who, despite the constant threat of exposure and death, risked their lives to save over 300 Jews.  Known as the “house under the crazy star,” Warsaw Zoo became a frequent rest stop along the route to freedom for those fleeing Hitler’s death camps.  Closets.  Cabinets.  Lion’s cages.  These were just a few places where the Zabinskis would stow away Jews.

Throughout the book, the Zabinskis’ profound adoration for nature, in all its chaotic idiosyncrasy and stunning messiness, starkly contrasts the Nazi obsession with sterility, perfection and order.  In a horrifying scene, Lutz Heck, a German zoologist and high-ranking SS official, hosts a New Year’s shooting party at the zoo.  “Drunk and full of hilarity,” Heck and his fellow rowdy SS officers kill the caged, helpless animals for no other reason but their own fun.  Antonina and her young son, Rys, could hear the blasts of gun shots through the shutters. “This is beyond politics or war,” Antonina wrote in her diary, “this is sheer gratuitous slaughter.”  While the Nazis demonstrated a disturbing willingness to systematically massacre millions, Jan and Antonina safeguarded life at all costs, even when it meant capture or death for themselves.

Ackerman beautifully juxtaposes the brutality and senselessness of WWII with the daring and valor of those brave enough to revolt against Nazi power.  Jan, in many ways, led a more adventurous life than his wife: he taught biology classes at secret universities, smuggled Jews across the ghetto to the Aryan side of the city, belonged to the Underground Army, and took part in elaborate, top secret conspiracies to sabotage the German war effort (including bombing trains and even poisoning pork sandwiches headed for the SS dining hall) .  

But The Zookeeper’s Wife really belongs to the namesake of its title.  By focusing her attention on Antonina rather than her risk-loving, activist husband, Ackerman invites us to consider the myriad ways in which normal people can impact history.  Though we often imagine history as the grand narrative of a few great men, Leo Tolstoy believed history could more accurately be described as the combined effect of the many small actions of ordinary people: “an infinitely large number of infinitesimally small actions.”  Though the Zabinskis’ remarkable story has-until now-largely fallen through the cracks of the WWII chronicle, The Zookeeper’s Wife reminds us that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary kindness, even in the face of terror.