To wake people up

He changed The New Yorker from a smarty-pants parish tip sheet into a journal that altered our experience instead of just posturing in front of it.

—John Leonard about William Shawn, who was born on this day in 1907

After nineteen years under Harold Ross, Shawn took over as editor of The New Yorker in 1952. If he was “peerless as an idea man” (Ross), Shawn’s most famous idea appeared on this day in 1946, when the magazine published John Hersey’s sixty-eight-page article on the bombing of Hiroshima. The decision to devote the entire issue to Hersey’s article was an unprecedented gamble, one which Ross discussed with only a few insiders; this note is to E. B. White:

Hersey has written thirty thousand words on the bombing of Hiroshima (which I can now pronounce in a new and fancy way), one hell of a story, and we are wondering what to do about it…. [Shawn] wants to wake people up and says we are the people with a chance to do it, and probably the only people that will do it, if it is done.

The secrecy was maintained until the issue hit the newsstands. The cover picture of a summery park scene gave no hint, though there was a white band on the outside warning readers of the departure, and an editorial note on page one expressing the magazine’s conviction that the nuclear explosion was an event “that everyone might well take time to consider.” The magazine sold out almost immediately, with scalpers soon charging twenty dollars for the fifteen-cent issue. The story was reprinted, broadcast and published in book form throughout the world, and has never been out of print. Book of the Month Club members received a copy free, because of the article’s “importance at this moment to the human race.” When Hersey died in 1993, one obituary called “Hiroshima” the “most famous magazine article ever published.”

In 1985, to honor the fortieth anniversary of the bombing, Hersey revisited Hiroshima and some of the six survivors whom he had first interviewed. Near the end of his thirty-four years as New Yorker editor, Shawn published this too:

Tanimoto was now seventy. The average age of all hibakusha was sixty-two…. Tanimoto read in the papers that the United States and Soviet Union were steadily climbing the steep steps of deterrence. He had a modest pension, lived in a snug little home with a radio and two television sets, a washing machine, and a compact Mazda automobile, manufactured in Hiroshima. He ate too much. He got up at six every morning and took an hour’s walk with his small woolly dog, Chiko. He was slowing down a bit. His memory, like the world’s, was getting spotty.