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A Bell for Adano
1944, Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf
DESCRIPTION: Written in the middle of World War Two and the winner of the 1945 Pulitzer Prize, this was just one of the many high points of the fascinating John Hersey's life, over the course of a long and eventful career. A missionary brat who learned to speak Chinese before he could speak English, he was eventually a Yale football star and once a private secretary to Sinclair Lewis, experiences which made him almost perfect to be a TIME magazine correspondent in Asia as well as Europe during the war, where among other heroics he survived four plane crashes and was commended by the Navy for evacuating freaking soldiers in Guadalcanal. He was most known in his own lifetime for the groundbreaking, hauntingly poetic reporting he did from the aftermath of Hiroshima, eventually assembled into an entire standalone issue of The New Yorker that officially kicked off both the term and era of "New Journalism," a public sensation (once read out loud by ABC Radio over two hours because the printers literally couldn't keep up with demand) that led directly to the first successes of other storytelling journalists like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson a decade later. (Interestingly, New Yorker founder Harold Ross once called the publication of the Hiroshima issue the happiest moment of his professional life, while the event ruined Hersey's relationship with TIME co-founder Henry Luce, who felt that he should've offered it to sister publication Life magazine first*.)
But before all that, though, was his first novel, 1944's A Bell for Adano, a thin fictionalization of an actual situation he stumbled across as a war correspondent during America's liberation of Italy. Set in one of the tiny Medieval fishing villages that dot the southern Italian coast, crucial as launching and resupply posts for the inward-bound Americans during the invasion, the book largely follows the fate of one Major Victor Joppolo, back home an Italian-American sanitation-department clerk in the Bronx but here the "temporary mayor" of Adano, essentially the mid-level officer in charge of such medium-term goals as rounding up all the remaining fugitive Fascists, replacing draconian local officials, getting the local judges and police working again, re-establishing infrastructure, food distribution, open commerce, etc. And that's essentially what the story is -- a charmingly slow-paced look at Joppolo's work in this chick-lit-worthy, impossibly magical little Mediterranean town, Hersey's point being to show people back home how the natural "get 'er done" resourcefulness of the average American, combined with the democratic freedoms that so many of us were dying for at that point in the war, repeated over and over in thousands of little situations like this one, was the key to the slow turn in tide that was happening in the war right around this time period.
Although certainly "rah-rah U-S-A" in tone throughout, the obvious explanation for its Pulitzer win a year later, popular Broadway adaptation a year after that, and popular Hollywood movie a year after that, the book definitely has its fair share of darkness as well, moral ambiguity over how the town should even start approaching the job of punishing next-door-neighbors for being on the losing side of the war, and plenty of self-critical comments about the lousiness of some Americans over there; see for example the blustery "General Marvin," plainly modeled after real war hero General Patton but here presented as the story's main villain. An amazing start to an amazing career, and a war novel admired by both troops and citizens of the time, its low price here makes it a perfect acquisition for Hersey fans, WW2 buffs, and those compiling a collection of Pulitzer-winning first editions.
CONDITION: TEXT: Very Good Minus (VG-). Although generally still in tight, good shape, nearly all edges are slightly discolored, spines are crinkled, and a small water stain appears on the inside back cover. DUST JACKET: Poor. Although the individual flat panels of the dust jacket are still in fairly good shape (except for a gouge-style hole in the middle of the frontispiece), the creases between them are nearly completely torn at this point, the entire thing now protected by a Demco archival sheet (not pictured). Please note that this is often the case with American books published between 1942 and 1946, when severe quality restrictions were placed on publishers as part of the war effort.
PROVENANCE: Purchased by Jason Pettus at Ravenswood Books, Chicago, October 15th 2011.
*Oh, and yet more fascinating trivia about Hersey, a man who's been sadly forgotten by the culture at large and deserves to be re-discovered: he once won the National Jewish Book Award despite not being Jewish; a critical essay on the dullness of grammar school literary samplers directly inspired Dr. Seuss to write The Cat in the Hat; and in the late '60s Hersey became a passionate champion of anti-war protestors, the Black Panthers and other countercultural movements, all while serving as a Yale dean, owner of the school's bulldog mascot, and overseer of the campus's antique letterpress program. Wow!