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John Hersey

On the American author and journalist.


Last year was the thirtieth anniversary of John Hersey’s death, and you’ll have a spot of trouble finding anyone who still reads him. One can thumb through stacks of recent issues of American cultural and literary magazines and find ample references to the usual illuminated names of the last century—Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Bellow, Cheever, Updike, Ellison, etc.—but not once come across a reference to Hersey, a writer of startling clear-headedness whose work once seemed certain to join the echelons of greatness. The authors of many otherwise complete treatments of the twentieth-century American novel don’t appear to be aware of his existence, yet they afford generous space to Sinclair Lewis (Hersey was once Lewis’s secretary) and Theodore Dreiser, to name two vital novelists whose names are now only sparsely uttered among devoted readers, if at all. I’m also still patiently waiting for the resuscitation of Willa Cather and Katherine Anne Porter and wish the zeitgeist would get a move on with that.

Perhaps the tremendous success of Hersey’s Hiroshima, about the earth-clanging conflagration and its aftermath—and the only text in the history of the New Yorker to take up an entire issue; it sold out in a matter of hours upon publication in 1946—relegated Hersey to the status of nonfiction writer, which in the House of Literature is a status several notches below that of novelist, poet, and dramatist. The lion’s share of Hersey’s books, though, are novels that deal in spiritual and socio-historical matters every bit as pressing as those of Lewis’s and Dreiser’s, and every bit as technically accomplished as those of Cather’s and Porter’s. These include The Wall, The Marmot Drive, The War Lover, The Child Buyer, and White Lotus. His first novel, A Bell For Adano, about the American occupation of a tiny Sicilian town, won the Pulitzer in 1945. The reason to read Hersey is the only reason to read anybody: his moral vision manifested in the elegant exactness of his prose, sentences that demonstrate a commitment to the dynamism and dimensions of language.

The jacket’s description of Under the Eye of the Storm (published in 1967) will not sound to you reminiscent of the epic sea stories of Melville and Conrad, but rather something like Sartre’s No Exit unfurling on a thirty-foot yawl in the bullseye of a murderous hurricane. Under the Eye of the Storm is a kind of Homeric return to the first story likely ever told: mankind fighting wildly against the aimless, maniacal rage of nature in a bid not only to survive but to validate our existence in a cosmos that could not possibly care any less about us.

The protagonist, Tom Medlar, maniacal in his own way, sums up the allure of sailing thus: “You got away from the world and faced the universe—your naked self in its relation to chaos.” But this chaos will prove almost deadly, and in addition to warring wildly against nature, the two tense couples on this yawl war wildly against each other. They are trapped in a fierce emotional maelstrom chock-full of acrimony, rivalry, and seeming adultery; near Block Island we sink to the murky depths both literally and existentially.

Medlar is a thirty-four-year-old liver doctor with a potent case of misanthropy: “humanity was tainted,” he says, his tepid consent to the doctrine of Original Sin. Medlar refers to the yawl’s “cargo of human beings who had made a mess of their lives” on land, and we’re never told or shown exactly what that mess is because we don’t need to be. Hersey’s readers know precisely what that mess is for the average adult in an anonymous modernity: the unavoidable grind of being alive, of being dragooned by an existence that insists on payment without the promise of pleasure, consciousness itself a disease.

In a fit of adolescent pique that might remind a high schooler of Holden Caulfield, Medlar wants his escape from the solid-land world of “cheaters, pseudo-experts, imposters,” and wishes to become “dead to the betrayals of this world,” though of course the only way to become dead to the betrayals of this world is to become dead. This trip, he says, is a “protest against ordinariness,” and what’s more ordinary than the self-serving agendas of individuals without moral ballast? Medlar has christened his yawl Harmony, which at first seems a bit of elbowed-in irony on Hersey’s part, until about halfway through the novel, during the climax of the storm, when one realizes that the yawl’s name is not a smug condition report but rather a desperate plea to Poseidon and to one another. Medlar might soon be clued in to the unignorable truth that when pitted against chaos, the naked self tends to come up short, if it comes up at all.

Still, he struggles unremittingly to navigate through the storm and save his yawl; to determine if his wife, Audrey, is sleeping with Flicker Hamden, a blowhard narcissist who embodies so much that is loathsome in civilization; to stave off his own lust for Flicker’s wife, Dot; and, ultimately, to identify the scarce redeeming qualities of humankind. Hersey’s postlapsarian world begs to be destroyed by flood or by fire, and the fraught mystery of this novel is whether Medlar will emerge as an unlikely Noah or as just another hapless victim of a Gomorrah he had no hand in destroying. And if he fails? Medlar thinks, “All men are in due time failures,” just as Hemingway once quipped that the true and inevitable end to any story is the grave.

“He was a mender of suffering human beings . . . he wanted to be a decent man,” and yet the profoundest question Hersey poses in this novel is not whether man can clamor toward victory over an indifferent nature, but whether being decent even matters in a vacant and hostile cosmos. This is Dostoevsky’s well-trod purview, but Hersey makes it his own; Medlar becomes a twentieth-century American Odysseus whose estranged home is indeed harmony and whose world has become bereft of the difference between wrong and less wrong. While attempting to repair a damaged section of the yawl, he is “filled with a sense of horror and of blind superstitious dread: a malevolent, purposeful, vengeful force was at work against him.” This is the modern, malaise-filled dread that afflicts all who live apart from grace, those who know they are damned to live a life without substance or the possibility of deliverance.

At one point during the struggle, Medlar likens himself to Camus’s Sisyphus (more than once Hersey gives the game away, and lays it on a bit thick). But the epic, seemingly futile battle against nature Medlar engages in becomes secondary to the emotional exposé of these four people; the former without the latter would make for a diaphanous narrative, and Hersey knows it. His masterly craftsmanship allows readers to share intimately in Medlar’s paranoia as he tries to ascertain whether Audrey is sleeping with Flicker and in the desperation of watching two marriages plunge into the abyss.

On this terrain of marital antinomy, Hersey’s closest kin is probably Updike. Hersey’s novel Too Far to Walk and Updike’s peerless portrait in stories of Richard and Joan Maple’s doomed marriage, Too Far to Go, have more than their titles in common. Medlar’s many descriptions of Audrey remind us of Richard Maple’s assessments of Joan (Hersey also has an Updikean eye in his details of the yawl and sea). These lines come just before the hurricane hits, and before Medlar’s suspicion of adultery: “She had a beautiful homely countenance—a face which was a playground of unsymmetrical bumps, puffy places, pads, planes, widenings, sharp curves over errant bones, all of which fused together into a vision of a cheerful, courageous, and loving nature. So it seemed at this moment.”

Near the end of Too Far to Go, Richard, talking with his teenage son at bedtime, is asked tearfully by him to explain the reason for the imminent divorce, and Richard, in his grief, cannot remember the answer to the question. This moment has my vote for the saddest in twentieth-century American short fiction. Similarly, the saddest moment in Under the Eye of the Storm comes when Medlar, peering at Audrey from across the rain-swept deck, thinks of asking her why she doesn’t love him anymore, “what had gone wrong.” But he doesn’t ask because he knows that no answer will ever suffice or soften his hardened hurt: “His loss of Audrey was beyond belief.” Beyond belief might also go a long way toward describing Medlar himself, whose belief in Providence has been deflated and replaced by his necessary belief in his own determination, in the possibility of survival.

Medlar’s desperate retreat from society and his romantic avowal of nature’s deceptive purity and its invigorating violence are really a kind of self-denial, an unconscious urge to become unborn in the sea. And yet he struggles to survive despite that unconscious urge, and that struggle comes to define him anew. This novel was not the first time Hersey had explored such a psychological quandary in nature; his earlier novel A Single Pebble also concerns the rage of water as a young American engineer navigates his way down the Yangtze River in China, “an enormous sinew, a long strip of raw, naked, cruel power waiting to be tamed.” Raw, naked, and cruel, and, as Medlar himself will discover, not tamable, only survivable—maybe. If he lives, he will recalibrate his position to the cosmos and the citizens in it; and if he dies, it will be for a wasted, outdated ideal, one born of self-hatred and the inability to reconcile himself to civilization’s immortal malice. Medlar’s psycho-emotional heaving and spiritual mire parallel our own—all of us, and always, even when, especially when, we aren’t aware of it.

In his biography of Hersey, Mr. Straight Arrow, Jeremy Treglown underlines the extent to which Hersey was raised to believe that “spiritual zeal could bring human beings as close to perfection as was possible in a fallen world.” Newly unsure of what his own spirit entails, Medlar isn’t hunting perfection on the sea; he’s pointedly aware that Harmony is very much adrift in a strafed world trembling beneath a reticent heaven. Treglown comments that Hersey’s values “had always been Christian”; raised Congregationalist, Hersey in his schooldays was animated with what Treglown calls “muscular Christianity.” One critic saw in Hersey’s work “a disillusionment with the letter of Christianity,” but as Treglown remarks, “despite his doubts, he was at some level always a Christian: culturally so, of course, and more intimately than that because of the inherited ideas and, with them, the words that have expressed them, that permeated his mind; in his values, too.”

Medlar finds seafaring “majestic,” and the religious flavor of the term is inescapable in this context, because he means “awe” in the way that the awesome (literally understood) can lead to the awful; at one point he thinks that awe is “worse than fear,” a notion that I suspect Hersey picked up in Kierkegaard. Considering Medlar’s romanticism, his attitude toward mythology, and his belief in the redemptive possibilities of anguish, one wouldn’t have too difficult a time pegging him as a Catholic. But Medlar, Hersey insists, is a Protestant. “With a Protestant anger he forced down the food. If there could be Protestant anger there could also be Protestant self-reproach.” By “Protestant anger” I take Hersey to mean the Protestant’s required acquiescence to an unalterable fate—which has its origins in Hellenic myth—and the Protestant’s burden of having to be holy enough to commune with Christ directly, as if they’d been school chums.

As for Protestant self-reproach, I think Hersey’s off the mark with that, since one of the cushy benefits of being a Protestant is sola gratia, which, with sola fide, is a flirtation with indolence. How can you reproach yourself for something you’ve had no hand in? Medlar is nothing if not committed to will, or work, his way through the levels of the storm. In this, the novel becomes a kind of miniature Pilgrim’s Progress in its allegorical unfolding (and let’s pause to remember that not all allegories are, as R.V. Cassill puts it in his Sunday Times review of this novel, “stiff, thin, and mechanical”). The actual self-reproach Medlar feels isn’t connected to the storm or to Protestantism but to his own humdrum failures as a husband to Audrey, and in his moral failure to behold humankind as anything other than a hive whose honey is ever bitterness and bile.

In his fitful paranoia over Audrey’s infidelity, Medlar feels “the old Calvinist juices flowing strong.” Mention Calvin, as you mention Freud, and you summon sex; but Medlar isn’t, in the end, battered by the possibility of Audrey’s physical disloyalty. He is battered by the realization that loyalty—all loyalty and its resultant safety—has lost its currency beneath the ghost town of heaven. But the storm: the storm knows loyalty; the storm is loyal to the ecstasies of its own appetite for destruction. It’s almost as if Medlar believes that the storm can teach something to the four human wrecks on that boat, but not something about survival—something about being. He sees “a plan, a deliberate malice, in the unpatterned turbulence of this water,” but he means God there. Protestants know that God’s “plan” for them is fixed, and that the plan contains the malice of the planner and the turbulence of the ordeal. There is a pattern to be detected in any individual’s life, but the pattern is recognized and digested only afterward, only in the looking back and not in the living through.

At one point Medlar declares that “a malevolent, purposeful, vengeful force was at work against him,” and though he means the storm, he just might come to comprehend that the fiercest force at work against him is the force within his own dispossessed self. He knows “that he must turn and face the gale,” and he turns inward at his own gale while turning outward toward the storm, though Hersey says too much when he refers to Medlar’s “eye of his own personal storm.” When does a novelist say too much? When he says what he’s already shown. Because Medlar’s real danger dwells within, he becomes his own reluctant Virgil guiding his Dantean self through the fires and floods of a soul he is no longer sure of. “At the outer limits of despair,” Medlar says to himself, “Jesu, let her go down! Let her sink!” For despair, read doctrinal despair, the sin of refusing God’s grace at the lip of self-destruction (the very sin for which Faustus is damned). And messiahs, I need not add, are for saving, not sinking. The problem is that Medlar, batted around by both the rage of nature and the absurdities and civilization, has lost “the proportion of things”: he can no longer distinguish between saving and sinking. He “recognized now the final humiliation: not to be sure of anything.”

Paradox, contradiction, Keatsian negative capability: these pulse in the complexities of our selfhoods more than our delicately curated control likes to admit. When Whitman asks, “Do I contradict myself?” he answers with “Very well then I contradict myself.” And why? “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Wilde didn’t trust anyone who didn’t contradict himself. So not being sure of anything might be deliberate hyperbole on Hersey’s part—it is assuredly anathema to our current national smugness among those who have all the easy answers already and won’t be swayed by better answers, incontrovertible or not—but not being sure of the grand abstractions that hound and hex us, and admitting that we aren’t sure, is a step toward scarce humility. We are not capable of being sure about death and love beyond the fact that they happen. Each of us preaches against the Seven Deadlies while being hypocritically hitched to them at various points and places in our lives, while Love will visit most and Death will visit all. Every work of literary art is ultimately concerned only with death and love, no matter what else it purports to be about, and you can put Hersey’s Under the Eye of the Storm on the shelf with the other literary art that illustrates all the right struggles and floats all the right queries without pretending to have all the right answers.

William Giraldi is author of the novels Busy Monsters, Hold the Dark (a Netflix feature film), and About Face, the memoir The Hero's Body, and a collection of literary criticism, American Audacity.