If you know the name John Hersey, it is most likely because of his 1946 conversation-changer “Hiroshima,” said by many to be one of the most important works of journalism of the 20th century. Yet little else is known of Hersey, who died in 1993 at the age of 78. In “Mr. Straight Arrow,” Hersey’s life is given long overdue focus by literary biographer Jeremy Treglown, who has also written books about authors Roald Dahl and V.S. Pritchett.
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX, Biography.
Treglown wisely decides to focus on Hersey’s successful but now-forgotten career, since Hersey was largely a private man who gave only two interviews in his life. Still, “Mr. Straight Arrow” offers just enough of a balance between the personal and professional. Treglown starts in Tianjin, China, where Hersey was born to missionary parents, an experience he would return to throughout his career. Moving to New York in 1924, Hersey, at 10, had the look of a typical white American, but, as Treglown describes, he and his brothers “felt like immigrants.”
After Hersey’s “Hiroshima” took off, he used his newfound fame to write “The Wall,” one of the first English-language novels released about the Holocaust, a borderline miraculous “achievement,” Treglown states, and “around the same time Anne Frank’s ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ was rejected by 10 English-language publishers.”
“Mr. Straight Arrow” is a refreshingly thoughtful read. In an age where fame and respect seem forcibly tangled, rarely does a biography appear that offers as its subject a modest, well-rounded human being who did the best he could within his profession, never once asking for applause.