Here to Stay: Studies in Human Tenacity, by John Hersey
News and History
Here to Stay: Studies in Human Tenacity.
by John Hersey.
Knopf. 336 pp. $5.00.
When, in his introduction, John Hersey calls this a collection of “journalistic pieces,” he is claiming both too little and too much. The stories—three of which were originally published in Life, four in the New Yorker—are curious mixtures of historical fact, editorial comment, and imaginative recreation of events, in which the author appears simultaneously as a reporter, an essayist, and a writer of fiction. As a result, the articles (ranging in subject matter from the escape of an elderly lady during the flood at Winsted to the survival of a few Japanese after the attack on Hiroshima have in common, not a theme (“Human Tenacity”), but a form. They are examples of that subjective, sentimental class of fiction-essay journalism: the Human Interest Story. Despite the author’s attempts to make them essays in celebration of human courage, the articles present only a rather tabloid spectacle of human suffering.
Mr. Hersey claims to have posed himself the existential question: what keeps man in adversity alive? His book begins with the statement: “The great themes are love and death; their synthesis is the will to live, and that is what this book is about”—which perfectly illustrates the kind of folksy, meaningless rhetoric that characterizes almost the entire book. In drawing a universal conclusion from his stories, the author seems almost invariably to miss his own point. “Drink deeply therefore, dear reader,” Mr. Hersey writes (in an exhortation characteristic of his prose) “of the adrenal wine.” But he consistently fails to find in his characters either any operation of adrenalin or any sign of that nobility which often inspires man’s determination to live or to die. Most of these “heroes” simply, meekly, decline to expire—with the aid, perhaps, of sympathizers, or through the inefficiency of persecutors, or by some Providential oversight. None is conceded such motives as love, idealism, or a sense of human worth and dignity. Typical of Hersey’s survivors are the Feketes, Hungarian refugees who, admitting they were not freedom fighters (“This had been a young people’s fight”), risked their lives merely because the grass appeared greener on the other, Western, side of the Austrian border.
The problem of Mr. Hersey’s material is complicated by his difficulties of tone and style. His dialogue, for instance, consists largely in making each new sentence contain unintegrated fragments of the last; thus all his male characters speak what is a kind of Dragnet Hemingway:
Shots. I got enough shots in me since I come in the army. I got everything. I got typhoid, yellow fever, I don’t know what all I got. . . .
His ladies, on the other hand, can be heard to exclaim amid the ruins: “Oh dear! Aren’t people a puzzle?” and “Gracious, it is teeming out tonight, isn’t it, Yvonne?” When a one-armed soldier and his girl are reunited for the first time, they say:
Our first meeting wasn’t too personal together, Joey.
It couldn’t be. Didn’t you see all those people?
I’m so excited, I been biting my fingernail right off.
Incongruity of subject and sensibility occasionally verges upon the ludicrous: persecution of the Jews, for example, is referred to as “time honored”; a cripple who was carried back into Hiroshima shortly after the blast “noticed,” In Mr. Hersey’s words, “something in particular which gave her the creeps”; a woman whose breast was sheared off and a man whose face was burned beyond recognition are described as “unpleasant companions” ; the situation of Hiroshima’s wounded is identified as “cumulative distress.” “Best of all,” the author actually writes at one point, “the nurses and attendants started to carry away the corpses.” These examples do not reflect irony or understatement, but a grotesque failure of the imagination.
The failure is most obvious, not in “Hiroshima” (who can imagine it adequately?), but in “Tattoo Number 107,907,” a story in which a concentration camp is made to sound like a particularly arduous boarding school. The authorities, “bristling and snarling in the most astonishing manner,” cannot prevent the hero from endearing himself to all, and finally, from making good. The author observes regretfully that 107,907 achieved the familiar Du with only one of the Nazi warders, but later “. . . he began to widen his circle . . . he became a person of importance in the barracks. . . . Best of all [that phrase again], his boss undertook to tell him the daily news.” Mr. Hersey uses the words “fun” and “adjust” in connection with his Jewish inmates of the Nazi concentration camp, and he relates that when the smell from the crematoria became overpowering, 107,907 “made a business of going around among the German civilians holding his nose.” “Boys,” says the warder, in a passage which establishes the tone of the piece, “We’re going to give you an examination in welding. Do your best, because this is a big chance for you.” 107,907 does his best, and becomes successful and popular. One must, with some bewilderment, remind oneself that the camp in question is Auschwitz.
Mr. Hersey’s deficiencies of style and imagination are less apparent in any single piece than in the book as a whole. Each of these stories had, after all, at the time of its original publication, a certain timely journalistic interest. People wanted to know the facts about a recent event, and Hersey was proficient at getting the facts. But even good journalism has its inflections. At any given moment, one event may be as newsworthy as another, but for news to survive as history, the reporter must display a certain responsiveness to magnitude; as history’s recording instrument, he must be able to register both triviality and enormity and to distinguish between them. Well meaning and sympathetic as he is, Mr. Hersey’s sensibility is not equal to this. He lavishes about as much attention upon the Winsted lady’s amputated little toe as he devotes to the sufferings of humanity in the atomic holocaust. A case can be made, of course, for the idea that individual suffering shares in the significance of collective tragedy, but Hersey fails to heighten his accounts of personal misfortune to a universal point. His tale of an elderly lady in a New England flood is, after all, trivial; and his stories of maimed veterans, oppressed minorities, and annihilated cities become, through their uniform tone and their indiscriminate combination, unremittingly trivial also. In the end, all that Mr. Hersey’s historical seismograph has registered for us is that events, sad to a slightly varying degree, have happened to people everywhere. “Gracious,” one can imagine his elderly heroine saying if the bomb had dropped on Winsted, “it is burning out tonight, isn’t it, Yvonne?”