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Guest Blog: Jeff Porter January 16, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs.
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On March 2, Anna will be joined by four other writers at “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age” at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. Panelist Kristen Iversen, author of the forthcoming Full Body Burden, has already contributed a guest post to Lofty Ambitions (click HERE). Today, we a post by another panelist, Jeff Porter.

We’ve not yet met Jeff Porter, though Anna read Oppenheimer Is Watching Me, one of the books that inspired the panel. The book draws from Porter’s past: his father worked for a defense contractor, and young Jeff, like many of us, was born into the Cold War. His essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Antioch Review, Shenandoah, The Missouri Review, and Isotope (a journal of literary writing about nature and science that we are sad to say is no longer publishing). Jeff Porter teaches at the University of Iowa and focuses on media studies as well as creative nonfiction.

ON JOHN HERSEY, ATOMIC WRITER

Jeff Porter

I’m an atomic writer, though I wish I had a t-shirt to prove it. Any real evidence of what I am is kept secret in my mitochondria, and I’d rather not go there. A t-shirt would be much cooler.

The very first atomic writer, John Hersey, did not receive a t-shirt either. He did, however, get a personal issue of The New Yorker, the only time the entire magazine was turned over to one story. William Shawn had sent Hersey to Japan nine months after the bombing of Hiroshima, suggesting that he look into the lives of the survivors. In the countless words thus far printed about the bomb, rarely had the human side of the story been put before readers. That changed with the August 31, 1946, edition of The New Yorker. For 15¢, you could read the stunning documentary tale of six people who lived through the nightmare of Hiroshima.

In all, Hersey had met with over fifty Japanese survivors. He narrowed that group down to six—a Jesuit priest, a clerk, a seamstress, a physician, a Methodist minister, and a surgeon—each of whom he interviewed for six weeks before returning to New York. A month later, Hersey turned in a 150-page manuscript. Initially, the editors planned to run the piece in four consecutive installments of the magazine, as they would later do with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but at the last moment Shawn decided to take the unprecedented step of devoting an entire issue to Hersey’s story.

The magazine’s editor in chief, Harold Ross, wasn’t sold on the idea of turning the genteel The New Yorker into a house of tragedy. Banishing the magazine’s signature cartoons in favor of gloom and doom seemed a bad idea. Nevertheless he signed on, but not before requesting hundreds of changes to the text. At 31,000 words, Hersey’s story took up all 68 pages of magazine space. Everything else was stripped away except for the cover art, which featured a lively park scene teeming with people at play that gave little indication as to what lay inside the magazine. For readers, this would be no picnic.

Here’s Mr. Tanimoto, the Methodist minister educated in the U.S., fleeing in confusion after the flash of the bomb:

Mr. Tanimoto, fearful for his family and church, at first ran toward them by the shortest route, along Koi Highway. He was the only person making his way into the city ; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be 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.

Though grim, a description like this is a far cry from later narratives of atomic disaster, such as The Day After (1983), television’s sensationalized account of American survivors of an imaginary nuclear war. In fact, Hersey’s text repeatedly understates the catastrophe, focusing instead on mundane details delivered in a deadpan voice. Hersey’s style is so flat as to be ironic, but the irony mostly serves to dignify the subjects of the piece at the expense of the spectacle.

By many accounts “the most famous magazine article every published,” Hersey’s story of Hiroshima found a way around the nuclear sublime (and the enchantment of a new technology) that would cast a spell over American writers for decades to come. He opened the door of atomic discourse to literature, and for that he deserved his very own magazine.

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