Monday, September 05, 2011

Life Sketches by John Hersey

There are so many authors that I sometimes mix them up. When I discovered Life Sketches by John Hersey during our massive book shift, I set it aside to read, thinking at the time, "I enjoyed A Separate Peace." I persisted in this thinking as I read the initial essay about George Van Santvoord, the headmaster of Hotchkiss School. I thought that I could see where Hersey got some of his ideas for the novel about boarding school boys. Then I was surprised to notice A Separate Peace was not in Hersey's credits. A quick catalog search showed me that John Knowles was the author.

They shouldn't have both been named John! And they did confuse things by both going to boarding schools.

Whatever. I did enjoy most of Life Sketches, which is a collection of essays about people John Hersey knew, much like Six Men by Alistair Cooke. As a journalist and novelist working between the 1930s and 1980s, Hersey knew some interesting and important people, including Sinclair Lewis, Alfred A. Knopf, Henry R. Luce, James Agee, and Erskine Caldwell. He was assigned to meet others, including Harry S. Truman. He went on a morning hike and swim with Truman in 1950 while the Missourian was still living in the White House. The Secret Service did make the president vary his morning walk location and suggest isolated spots, but Truman was out and about with little protection. He was also in great shape and wished he could open the White House pool to the public.

Hersey also wrote about people involved in the events of his times. The best was about Varsell Pleas, a Mississippi black who tried to register to vote in 1964, the year many Ivy League college students went south to march for civil rights. Pleas was an astute man who had built a successful farm and taught his children the importance of effort in work. He knew the importance of voting and was not going to be denied for long. I also enjoyed the account of seventy-five year old Jessica Kelley being rescued during the hurricane that hit Connecticut in 1955.

Hersey is now dead and mostly forgotten, but his book of biographical essays is still a good look back at the twentieth century.

Hersey, John. Life Sketches. Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. ISBN 0394577841.

No comments: