Writers and The Bomb: Novel Takes on the Nuclear Age

Television and cinema have slighted the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but fiction has virtually ignored them -- at least explicitly. There are reasons for this, of course, including moral ambivalence. "Evil has no place, it seems, in our national mythology," asserts Tim O'Brien, author of the novel The Nuclear Age.

Another factor is the technological nature of the atomic attacks. The bombing of Japan may have been efficient but it was hardly stirring; it involved only a small group of airmen, not vast armies; and it was uncomfortably one-sided.

Still, it can be said that Hiroshima is veverywhere in postwar and contemporary fiction -- in its themes of futurelessness and absurdity, and its predilection for violent orengeful behavior by heroes and anti-heroes alike. The critic Peter Schwenger has observed that the "usual place" for Hiroshima in Western literature is "the unconscious."

What happened to Hiroshima may be impossible to even imagine, let alone render. (One recalls Whitman's comment on the Civil War: "The real war will never get into the books.") Of the few published novels, most focus on guilt-torn scientists at Los Alamos: Pearl Buck's Command the Morning, for example, or Dexter Masters's The Secret and Bradford Morrow's Trinity Fields. They do not portray the decision-makers, the bomber pilots or the Japanese victims. Michael Knight's recent novel The Typist focuses on a clerk for Gen. MacArthur in postwar Tokyo who winds up in Hiroshima at a football game arranged for U.S. soldiers and dubbed The Atom Bowl (this actually happened, but in Nagasaki).

In fact, most novels related to the bombing rest comfortably in the niche of science-fiction. Then there are loosely connected classics such as On the Beach, Fiskadoro, Riddley Walker and more.

If there are any serious novels exploring the decision to drop the bomb, or the Enola Gay's mission to Hiroshima, no bibliographer has yet uncovered them. As early as 1946, Mary McCarthy was calling Hiroshima "a hole in human history." It all fit in with the official suppression of images and evidence from the atomic cities (as I probe in my new book, Atomic Cover-up).

William Faulkner famously observed in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech that novelists now labored "under a curse," distracted by the question of, "When will I be blown up?"

Among those who called for writers to address the issue, Alfred Kazin wrote: "I don't care for novelists who ignore what H.G. Wells himself called the 'queerness' that has come into contemporary life since the bomb." Kazin scored the "imness," "flatness" and "paltriness" of many reputable novelists, calling them "ways of escape" from the nuclear reality.

The work of fiction most directly related to, and inspired by, Hiroshima is an obscure short story written by James Agee. As an American, Agee felt personally implicated in the killing of thousands of civilians; he wrote the first Time magazine essay on Hiroshima, which brilliantly rendered the splitting of the American conscience no less than the atom. Agee considered Hiroshima "the only thing much worth writing or thinking about."

His story, a bizarre fantasy called "Dedication Day," was published in Dwight Macdonald's Politics magazine in 1946. (Macdonald was a leading critic of the decision to use the bomb.) The story depicts a postwar celebration of the bomb in the U.S. during which one of the scientists who worked on the bomb, who has gone "a little queer in the head," insists on joining a group of badly injured Japanese survivors, thereby marring "the intended dignity, charm and decorum" of the event. Any attempt to atone for Hiroshima will be viewed as evidence of madness, Agee warned.

Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, published in 1963 shortly after the Cuban missile crisis, is probably the only widely read novel overtly relating to Hiroshima. It opens with narrator interviewing Americans about what they were doing on August 6, 1945 (he's writing a book on the subject). This leads him to the children of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the inventors of the A-bomb who, as it turns out, later created ice-nine, a substance capable of freezing the entire world. "I want scientists to be more moral," Vonnegut once told an interviewer. The end of the world, or of distant planets, would figure prominently in many of his novels.

A survivor of the fire-bombing of Dresden, Vonnegut said he was "sickened" by the Hiroshima attack and called the bombing of Nagasaki a war crime and the most evil act carried out by America since slavery. In his classic Slaughter-House Five he quotes, in their entirety, the first six paragraphs of Truman's announcement of the bombing of Japan, in which he labeled Hiroshima simply a "military base."

If the great Hiroshima novel remains unwritten, a number of major poets have written brilliantly on nuclear concerns, and they have invoked Hiroshima far more often than the novelists. I'll be returning to this subject in Part II tomorrow.