From Yellow Peril to Japanese Wasteland: John Hersey's "Hiroshima"
Sharp, Patrick B., Twentieth Century Literature
John Hersey's "Hiroshima" was first published in the August 31, 1946, issue of The New Yorker. A relatively liberal and sophisticated magazine, The New Yorker devoted its entire contents to Hersey's story that week, deleting its usual light-hearted cartoons and humorous editorials. The response was sensational: the text was republished in full by several newspapers, ABC radio broadcast a reading of the entire text over four nights, and the book version of the text became an immediate bestseller (Boyer, 203-05; Lifton and Mitchell 86-88; Weart 107-09). "Hiroshima" has remained in print continuously since its initial publication and has been required reading for generations of American high school and college students (Huse 35-36; Yavenditti 24-25). It is difficult to overstate the importance of Hersey's text in the history of the Atomic Age: as one reader of The New Yorker put it, Hersey showed the world "what one [atomic] bomb did to people as distinct from a city, the Japanese people or the enemy" (qtd. in Luft and Wheeler 137). The atomic bombing of Hiroshima provides a definitive example of a technology that radically alters history and challenges the prevailing view of the world. As a response to this technology, Hersey's "Hiroshima" struck a chord with a huge number of Americans, providing us with a unique and powerful example of how narrative structures arise to make sense out of new technologies. Using the "wasteland" imagery of literary modernism, Hersey encapsulated for his American audience the horror of the atomic bomb within a familiar framework. At the same time, Hersey criticized the widely held view that the atomic bomb was a justified, science-fiction-style attack against an evil and militaristic Yellow Peril.
In the year between the attack on Hiroshima and the publication of Hersey's story, American culture was engulfed in debates about the meaning of the atomic bomb. American newspapers, magazines, films, and radio programs were littered with representations of this new ultimate weapon, as Americans tried to make sense out of what this new technology really meant. So what was it about Hersey's text that made it so influential and that distinguished it from the scores of other representations that permeated American culture? Part of the answer to this question becomes evident when we look at the half-century before the atomic bomb was realized. As recent theories of genre have shown us, new discourses do not emerge out of thin air; rather, they draw on preexisting discursive structures to make sense of some new situation. A genre, which Todorov describes as a "historically attested codification of discursive properties" (19), functions as a discursive frame that arises to solve recurring communication problems fa ced by members of a community (Bazerman). The problem of representing the atomic bomb after the Hiroshima attack was vexing: the United States government used its monopoly on information about the new technology to greatly limit the possibilities for representing the attack. Yet both the government and the public had access to one preexisting genre that had in fact predicted the atomic bomb and given it a name. The genre was known as science fiction.
Science-fiction representations of the atomic bomb developed Out of the future-war-story genre that became popular in the late nineteenth century. The popularity of future-war stories can be traced to May 1871, when an English military officer published a short story entitled "The Battle of Dorking" in the middle-class English monthly Blackwood's Magazine. As I.F. Clarke has shown, this short story caused an immediate sensation around the world and led to numerous imitations and controversies for years to come. More importantly, it established the future-war story (or what Clarke calls "the tale of the next great war" Tale 1) as a recognizable genre that still thrives in American culture today. The best-known example of the futurewar story from this period is H. …