Legacy: John Hersey -- The author of ''Hiroshima'' and one of America's most beloved writers passes away at the age of 78

By Sharon Isaak
April 09, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Legacy: John Hersey

Talk to anyone who knew John Hersey, and the discussion will quickly turn to morality — for few writers are more clearly defined by matters of conscience than the man who died in Key West on March 24 at age 78. Upright and arrow- straight, Hersey was outspoken on a variety of issues, from the war in Vietnam to the rights and obligations of writers. ”All of his writing was infused with a consciousness of mankind,” says his longtime editor, Judith Jones. ”It wasn’t didactic — it was exploratory.”

Like other great reporters of his generation, from Eric Sevareid to Theodore White, John Richard Hersey was shaped by World War II. Born to missionaries in the Chinese city of Tientsin in 1914, Hersey traveled the elite school circuit, from Hotchkiss to Yale to Clare College, Cambridge, before he became a correspondent for Time in 1937 and was sent to the front. ”What distinguished John Hersey from other war correspondents was that he looked beyond the shooting and imagined the future role of the United States in an occupied Europe,” says Herbert Mitgang of The New York Times, who was with Hersey in Sicily during the war.

With the publication of Hiroshima, the story of six survivors of the first atomic bomb, in The New Yorker in 1946 and later as a book, Hersey took the lead in the postwar fight to reclaim humanity. His stand against the bombing may have cost him his friendship with Time editor-in-chief Henry Luce, who was incensed either because Hersey had undermined support for President Truman or because he had published Hiroshima in another magazine. Their feud lasted 19 years.

After leaving Time Hersey devoted himself to teaching at Yale and working for the Authors Guild. Although his later work never received the acclaim of such early books as Hiroshima and the novels A Bell for Adano (1944) and The Wall (1950), he was not discouraged. ”He was constantly exploring.” Jones says. ”That to me is part of the totality of a writer.”