The “Hiroshima” New Yorker

Cover of the August 31, 1946 New Yorker, whose entire editorial content was given over to Hersey's Hiroshima

 

TO OUR READERS The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use. The Editors

 

The notice with which The New Yorker prefaced the special issue containing “Hiroshima”

John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” was initially published in the August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker. In a number of respects, the publication was unprecedented for the magazine, and it created a local and national sensation.

In a step never before taken, the magazine’s editors, Harold Ross and William Shawn, decided that the long manuscript could not be broken up into separate installments to be run over several issues. After long deliberation, they decided to publish it as a single issue and to remove the cartoons, light humor, and brief essays which ran (and still run) in every issue and for which the magazine was especially known. This decision was kept secret from all staff and writers on the magazine–hence the fact that the issue ran with a preplanned cover not exactly appropriate to the subject–and from advertisers and the public. Ross and Shawn issued a brief press release to local newspapers on publication, but, apart from the comment reproduced above, that was the only notice the special issue got.

This lack of PR may have contributed to the sensation that this unprecedented, special issue of The New Yorker created. The magazine quickly sold out on newstands and soon became almost unfindable. Reportedly, Albert Einstein was frustrated when he sought to buy 1,000 copies.

John Hersey in 1958, by Carl van Vechten

In other words, in addition to its other achievements, Hersey’s narrative was a huge media event. You can see some reflection of that fact in the responses the issue evoked in Mary McCarthy and Norman Cousins, which we’ll discuss next week. But even as you think about the book while reading it, it’s helpful to keep those events in mind. What made Hersey’s narrative so successful? How might its success relate to and illuminate the changing role of The New Yorker and perhaps even the role of New York City itself as a cultural and intellectual center? Does the fact that the piece originally appeared in The New Yorker help us to understand any aspect of its style and methods or (as Mary McCarthy fervently believed) its limitations?

A good start to thinking about these questions can be had by reading this fine short account by Steve Rothman of “Hiroshima’s” publication in The New Yorker.

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