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John Hersey: Author and Advocate


No writer ever evoked the horror of nuclear warfare more convincingly or with greater humanity than John Hersey, author of "Hiroshima," who died last week at 78. Mr. Hersey's graphic 1946 account of the lives of Japanese survivors of the world's first atomic bomb attack influenced the way Americans viewed the nuclear threat for more than four decades. For many, it was the first great document of the nuclear disarmament movement.

"Hiroshima" occupied a place in American letters as one of the few books -- like Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" and Michael Harrington's "The Other America" -- that actually inspired people to act. That's what made writing worthwhile for Mr. Hersey. During his life he was deeply involved in many causes. When he wrote about such subjects as the Holocaust, the civil rights movement or the Vietnam war it was with the passionate moral fervor of the commited reformer.

Mr. Hersey began his career as a correspondent for Time magazine, which sent him to the Far East in 1939 where he covered the outbreak of World War II. His first three novels, "Men on Bataan" (1942), "Into the Valley" (1943) and "A Bell for Adano" (1944) -- for which he won a Pulitzer Prize that year -- were based on his war experiences.

He wrote "Hiroshima" for the New Yorker magazine and it was quickly turned into a book. Mr. Hersey wrote nearly two dozen more titles, including "The Wall" (1950), about the Nazi destruction of the Warsaw ghetto; "The Algiers Motel Incident" (1968), about the murder of three black youths during the 1967 Detroit riots, and "Antonietta" (1991), the tale of a Stradivarius violin and its effect on the lives of famous composers.

"Among all the means of communication now available, imaginative literature comes closer than any other to being able to give an impression of the truth," Mr. Hersey once wrote. As journalist, author and tireless advocate for a more humane world, he was still seeking that elusive ideal when he finally laid down his pen this week.

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