Friday, November 26, 2010

HIROSHIMA, The Bomb and The Book

For some reason the notion that there was an itching sound inside the bomb as it rode along in the belly of the Enola Gay persists. It is mistaken of course. Who knows even where the notion came from? Perhaps the silence of the bomb in those moments before it was dropped on Hiroshima is just too immense to contemplate. The itching sound, then, is some sort of compensation for that end-of-the-world silence.
In 1939, before the United States entered what became World War II, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt explaining the efforts by the Nazis in Germany to purify uranium-235, which in theory could be used to build an ‘atomic’ bomb. An atom is comprised of the three sub-atomic particles – protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons and neutrons cluster together to form a center mass around which the electrons orbit like tiny planets around a sun. Uranium is a heavy metal with the largest atom of all natural elements and is the most highly ‘splitable’ atom there is. Given several hundreds of thousands of years this atom will disintegrate naturally into lead. If it is bombarded with neutrons, however, a chain reaction occurs releasing heat and gamma radiation. It is this effect, it was thought, that could be used to create a blast to destroy our enemies.
Thus began the Manhattan Project. Two billion dollars were spent over six years to develop the atom bomb. A huge uranium enrichment plant was built at the secret city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee and, under J. Robert Oppenheimer a laboratory was created at another secret city; Los Alamos, New Mexico. By 1944 most of the work was focused on an implosion type device made with plutonium using the cold name ‘The Gadget’, which need to be tested before it could be used in combat. (This was the type of bomb used on Nagasaki on August 9th.) Oppenheimer directed Project TR, for Trinity, to conduct this test.
Some believed this test might cause a cataclysmic reaction in the upper atmosphere bringing about the complete destruction of the world and the annihilation of humankind with it, but apparently this did not cause enough concern to bring the project to a halt. Instead people prayed for God’s protection while their hands went about the work of creating the atomic bomb.
On July 16th, 1945 the Gadget was suspended one hundred feet above the ground on a steel tower in the pre-dawn hours and was detonated. .034 seconds later a camera caught a black and white image of the dome-like ball that looked like the back of a jelly fish or a flapper’s hat, with a roiling fringe along the bottom edge. The burst of light was such that people in distant towns thought the sun rose twice that morning. A blind girl 120 miles away ‘saw’ the light. This intense white flash stretched from the basin of the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico across the Jornada del Muerto and then it became an orange fireball shooting upward at 360 feet per second turning reddish and pulsating, and finally blooming into the full mushroom cloud we have all become familiar with, pushing up to 30,000 feet in the atmosphere.
Oppenheimer, now at the very pinnacle of his achievement, grimly quoted from the Bhagavad Gita. “I am become Death,” he said, “the destroyer of worlds.” Several others circulated a petition to stop this monstrosity from ever being used again. Their efforts were, of course, like trying to put the genii back in the bottle. No one paid any attention to their protests.
In a diary entry dated July 25th, President Truman wrote, “We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark…
“This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children…
“The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives…”
Work commenced at once to produce the bomb – ‘Little Boy’ – that would be used in combat. Even though it was a cute little thing by today’s standards, the bomb was still ten feet long, over two feet in diameter and weighed four and a half tons. It would use TNT charges to force two masses of 235U together causing the chain reaction. Parts were delivered and assembled at the island of Tinian, in the Mariana Islands, an island that had been liberated form the Japanese. Fierce fighting was continuing on other likely island locations like Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
Hiroshima was chosen as the site of the drop because it was flat river delta country, with no hills or mountains in the immediate area to deflect the blast and so it had been bypassed as a target for conventional bombing, leaving it in pristine condition so that the effects of the blast could be more readily observed. The heart of the city covered about four square miles. Its normal population was 380,000 men women and children, but this had been reduced to 245,000 by wartime evacuations. There were factories and residential areas there, and other residential areas extended outward toward the hills in the distance.
At around six in the morning a minute-long sounding of the air-raid siren warned of approaching enemy planes but this got little response. People were used to weather planes coming over at about that time of day, so they paid little attention. Those who were going to evacuate had already done so. Besides, strangely, Hiroshima had been spared all bombing up to this time. People speculated that their city was not a critical target for Japan’s enemies. Perhaps, they thought, the area was so beautiful that the Americans could not bring themselves to spoil it with bombing. This in spite of the fact that 720,000 leaflets had been dropped two days earlier, warning them of the impending destruction of their city. Before eight another siren sounded, but then the all-clear was given. There was no breeze that morning. It was going to be a beautiful day, if a little too warm.
The Enola Gay was a B-29 Super Fortress under the command of Colonel Paul W. Tibbets. It had been flying practice missions out of North Field, Tinian, since early July and on August 5th LI1 – Little Boy – was loaded into the front bomb bay. The following morning at 2:00 a.m. it took off on Special Bombing Mission #13. Target: Hiroshima, with the bomb to be dropped from 30,000 feet at 8:15 local time. Ground Zero was a point 1,980 feet above the Aioi Bridge.
In an instant 70,000 people vanished from the face of the earth, evaporated by a 13 kiloton explosion that measured one mile in diameter. The super-heated x-ray heated air sent a shock wave and fireball in all directions at the speed of sound. Houses were reduced to kindling as this massive wave shot forward with 5psi (which amounts to about 720 pounds per square foot), and the kindling then burst into flame, further fueling the destruction. At the very center of the blast the temperature was 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Another 70,000 were injured with no one to care for them.
A noiseless sun-bright flash of light bounced across the sky toward the hills. Those who survived the initial blast were knocked off their feet and covered with splinters of wood and shards of glass and bits of concrete. Only those many miles away heard any kind of noise from the explosion. Most thought that the bombing had been a near-direct hit in their own neighborhood. Clouds of dust rose up into the air, causing a kind of eerie morning twilight. Flames and clots of smoke rose up from anything left to burn. Survivors staggered around with terrible burns on their faces and arms, and in many cases their clothes had been burned away, leaving the pattern of the fabrics imprinted in their skin. Some people’s faces had been melted away completely. A wind picked up now and peculiar grape-sized raindrops began to fall from the dirty sky. We know now that this rain was packed with extreme amounts of radioactive materials. Here and there children were calling out for help form the piles of rubble which moments before had been their homes. For the most part there was no one capable of digging them out, and after a time their cries died down.
Survivors tried to help each other out as much as they could, but in the face of such destruction there wasn’t much anyone could do. Many made their way to the Red Cross hospital, which was filling up so quickly most were left outside. The few doctors and nurses left alive were soon overwhelmed by the shear number of casualties.
The shadow of one anonymous man – all that remains of him – was found on some steps near a bank.
Over the next several days those who had not been killed in the initial blast began to experience headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and recurring fevers. Many died. In two weeks their hair fell out in clumps, diarrhea and cramps increased, and fevers shot up to 106 degrees. By the end of the month incidents of blood disorders increased, people’s gums began to bleeding, and they experienced a sharp drop in their blood cell counts. (White cell counts went below 4,000). Open wounds were slow to heal. They had sore throats and mouths.
If their burns healed at all, and many did not, these ‘kibakusha’ as they were called – ‘explosion-affected persons’ – healed with deep layers of pinkish, rubbery scar tissue called keloid tumors.
In his book ‘Hiroshima’ (1946), the finest and most horrifying book written about this event, John Hersey quoted a report sent to the Holy See in Rome by a German Jesuit priest, a Father Siemes, “It seems logical that he who supports total war in principle cannot complain of a war against civilians. The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?”
Everything following ‘Hiroshima’ can be read in a different light – the light of a nuclear explosion. Not that literature itself was shaken by this book’s words or style, but that life itself has been irreparably shifted from its foundations and that literature from then on likewise had shifted. There is no way it could not have. For that reason alone everyone who reads should read this book. It is horrible, intelligent and realistic. It begins, “At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima…” The author then proceeds to give a rundown on what each of his six ‘characters’ were doing at that moment. These are some of the real-life survivors of ‘the Bomb’.
Originally published in ‘The New Yorker’ in its entirety, it was recognized at once as a classic in American literature, standing witness to the tragic and earth-shaking (literally a global event as subsequent decades have proven) moment of a nuclear detonation over a largely civilian population. A hundred thousand people died in a single blast intended to prove to Japan the futility of its continue the fighting of World War II. Those who supported the use of the weapon justified it by pointing out the casualties that would be spared by abruptly putting an end to the war. Hersey’s journalistic masterpiece repudiates their claim by presenting the horrifying facts about how the blast affected the lives of real people.
Hersey wrote, “Hiroshima had been getting such warnings almost every night for weeks, for at that time the B-29s were using Lake Biwa, northeast of Hiroshima, as a rendezvous point, and no matter what city the Americans planned to hit, the Superfortresses streamed in over the coast near Hiroshima. The frequency of the warnings and the continued abstinence of Mr. B with respect to Hiroshima had made its citizens jittery; a rumor was going around that the Americans were saving something special for the city.”
Special indeed: “He heard no roar. (Almost no one in Hiroshima recalls hearing any noise of the bomb. But a fisherman in his sampan on the Inland Sea near Tsuzo… saw the flash and heard a tremendous explosion; he was nearly twenty miles from Hiroshima, but the thunder was greater than when the B-29s hit Iwakuni, only five miles away.)”
Nearly forty years after writing ‘Hiroshima’ John Hersey returned to Japan to follow up with the people who had lived through this horrendous event. He wrote an ‘Afterward’ to his original work, published by Alfred A. Knopf (1985). Most had gone on with their lives, as one might expect; and most believed that nuclear weapons would be used again one day. Their memory, “like the world’s, was getting spotty.”

Copyright © James D. Sanderson 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


"The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." - Mark Twain.

Well that didn't take long. All one has to do is suggest that there might be a certain standard in literature for it to achieve greatness and the controversy begins. Perhaps it is time for some controversy. Readers keep being led to mediocre books (those written by the Greek master 'Mediocretes'), without ever being shown that there might be something better or (dare I say it?) more valuable. Oh sure, everyone is exposed to a good book or two in their High School lit class, but that is often considered a violation of the reader's 'free will'. To actually pick up a great work of literature and read it and to come to understand why it might be considered great... that seems to be a thing of the past. Or, perhaps it has always been so. Perhaps greatness is always reserved to an exclusive few while the masses always continue to lust after that which is worthless.

Let me be clear, here, so as not to upset any future readers. This is a blog that concerns itself with literary greatness. (Thus the name: 'Literary Greatness'). We will not, here, concern ourselves with literary mediocreness nor with literary trashiness, nor with literary okayness. No, greatness is our goal and we shall not deviate from it. If, in these pages, certain readers are made uneasy by our directness, we make no apologies for it. If readers of these pages become outraged that we do not accept the flat terrain of the internet, so be it. (The internet seems to make everyone believe they have something to say, and that it is important because they want to say it, and that it is worthwile reading because they have said it. I assure you, I don't have time left in my life to share with you what I had for breakfast (oatmeal), nor do you have the time to spend reading such hogwash). I see that anyone and everyone may 'vote' their preferences on certain book sites. In that way Harry Potter is 'great', while 'Great Expectations' might be considered too long and, you know, like, totally boring. If that is the site for you, please go there.

This is the last I am going to say on the matter. From here we will continue to wade into the deep waters of great literature - both the reading and writing of it - and we will not detour because certain writers or readers think we should lend our attention to more mundane affairs.

I agree with Robert Frost... "People who read me seem to be divided into four groups: twenty-five percent like me for the right reasons; twenty-five percent like me for the wrong reasons; twenty-five percent hate me for the wrong reasons; twenty-five percent hate me for the right reasons. It's the last twenty-five percent that worries me."

Well, No Soup For Them...


Friday, November 19, 2010


At dusk we set out by train from Barcelona. The compartment was jammed with merry-makers from many countries passing bottles of wine around. Empty bottles rolled and clinked together on the floor of the compartment. After a time many of us dozed off.

It was many years since I had first read Hemingway and by now I had read them all. Somehow I had gotten the notion that all great writers must attend the Running of the Bulls during the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona. I don't know why they call it the Running 'of' the Bulls, which makes it seem that the bulls run alone through the streets.

In the morning we stepped bleary-eyed from the train into the dusty dawn of Pamplona. Women were down at the river already washing clothes. We began to ask along the street about a place to stay. The town was packed with tourists, of course, but we eventually got a spare room in the house of a couple whose baby toddled around without benefit of diapers. The place smelled dusty and even the water from the tap tasted of dust.

The day was hot and dry. It was the first week in July. We spent our time wandering around, taking a meal at a little restaurant, and napping in the afternoon. That night the merry-making continued. Everyone had come to get drunk, it seems. Perhaps they were building up their levels of liquid courage. By morning people were staggering or already passed out in doorways and along the sidewalks. Those who were still upright began to line up along the street that would take the bulls through town to the bullring. The very bravest, the drunkest, or the most insane, formed a line nearest the place the bulls would come from. I will leave it to the reader to decide which I was.

We began to shake rolled-up newspapers and chant and call for the bulls. We didn't have long to wait. The loud retort of fireworks set them off. We waited and chanted and shook our rolled-up newspapers and then the bulls appeared around the corner below us. The first wave of bulls are relatively tame, and lead the next wave - the actually Spanish fighting bulls - through the streets. They were very close and still no one moved. Each of us seemed determined to wait for someone else to run first. It doesn't seem nearly so brave now.

At last someone moved and we all turned and ran. We took three steps before the first wave of bulls was upon us and we dodged as best we could those horns that could carry us away to the infirmary or worse. But the bulls were intent upon getting up the street and we came away undamaged. In fact they seemed little concerned with us at all.

Things became serious with the second wave. They also seemed little concerned with us except inasmuch as we got in their way. As they came up even - we were running with all our might, indeed, with all our might - a black bull stumbled on the cobblestones and fell heavily in the street beside me. I stopped, not knowing what to do. The bull regained its footing and now, cut off from the others, became dangerous. He swung away from me. A man on that side caught hold of the awning over the doorway and pulled himself bodily up and out of the way of the horns. I don't know what superhuman strength he called upon to accomplish it.

The bull swung his head back toward me. A man just in front of me caught his eye. He charged. His right horn caught the man in the midsection, in the stomach, and slammed him mightily against the wooden beam barricade that blocked that side of the street. An astonishing fan of blood splayed out into the dust. The man dropped where he had stood and people on the other side of the barricade pulled him under. I turned and ran back down the street the way we had come. The bull proceeded up toward the bull ring, attacking any and all who got in his way.

I found Nancy in the crowd. She hadn't been able to see, but heard someone shouting a man was gored. It wasn't me, I informed her.

Somewhere in the thick of the crowd someone got the notion that the bulls were coming again. A moment of panic seized them all. The crowd surged with a mind of its own. Nancy was knocked to her knees.

The bulls, apparently, are not the only thing to be feared in Pamplona early in July.

Copyright 2010 by James D. Sanderson. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 15, 2010


I first read ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ by kerosene lantern light in a cabin in the wilds of northern Michigan. The lantern sat in the middle of the kitchen table and my brothers read ‘Sports Afield’ and ‘Outdoor’ magazines and as we read shadows played upon the dark walls. The cabin itself was made from sections of an old army barracks that my father and I had hauled up one weekend on a flat trailer pulled behind a borrowed truck. Outside in the dark as we read the wind blew acorns down onto the roof with a nobly sound and it was then, somehow drawing a connection between the tall dark forest of the north and the infinite deep waters of the Gulf Stream, that I knew I would be a writer.

Santiago, the old man of the story, had gone eighty four days without taking a fish. Many years have passed for me since first reading that opening line. And, like the old man, I have had little luck. A couple of minor works were published, but that was long ago, and the two good things I have written now go begging for a publisher. But, also like the old man, I would rather hone my skills than depend upon luck. In that way when the big one comes along, I will be in the place to hook it.

It has come along and I have hooked it and now, like old Santiago, I know I will suffer for it and pay my life into it and struggle with it until the greatness has been landed. Nothing else, now, is of any significance. Even to write here, now, would be a waste of time if I was not also thinking through what I will do with the greatest story I have ever been given; and the greatest story I ever will be given.

In college my professor predicted I would be a great writer and I have spent much time since then trying to live up to the promise, with little material success. But now that I too am growing old I know that material success has little meaning in itself and that once his fish was landed and he had paid the price for it, it would all be stripped away and he would be left with nothing but a bare backbone that would lie awash in the water along the beach, and the tourists would identify it with a very different fish. It would be tempting to shrug and say fatalistically, “such is life,” and give up on the whole mess.

And I would give up, too, if it were not for the greatness that is calling from the deep waters too far out from land. I, like Santiago, know that I will go there and bring in the big fish, no matter what the cost.

Friday, November 12, 2010


In the world of publishing any long novel is considered to be an epic. ‘Lonesome Dove’ is an ‘epic’ of the old west. Or it might be called a ‘sweeping epic’, or a ‘grand epic’. And of course it is prose, so it might also be considered a ‘prose epic’. But is this correct?

The only true prose epic I know of is ‘The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda’ by Miquel Cervantes, the Spanish author who also brought us ‘Don Quiote’. It was his final work, published posthumously. It is the story of a prince and his wife who travel as ordinary people and who are met with many dangers along the way. The remarkable thing about his epic is that Persiles is a hero who employs not a sword, but his words against those who would harm them. It is a kind of nonviolent epic, the only one of its kind that I am aware of.

I bring this up because I have been working this month on the structure and plan for a prose epic. It will be one volume of a novel in four parts. The first, which I planned out in September, is a tragedy. That led me to read and study Shakespeare, of course, and other tragic works. Last month I planned out my apocalyptic novel, the second in the series. I, like so many others, really thought of post-apocalyptic when I thought of such work. But no, apocalyptic is before the event. It predicts the coming events. Not in the way of fortune telling, I found, but more in the sense that if we don’t change the way we do things, this is how it will turn out for us. So that will be the second. Now, the third is an epic novel. There are certain characteristics that make an epic an epic:

True epics are found in verse form. The verse builds a kind of separation between the events, and the story of the events, and the reader. ‘The Illiad’ and ‘The Odyssey’, are epics. The ‘Modern Sequel’ by Nikos Kazantzakis (also the author of ‘Zorba, The Greek’, one of my favorites), is also an epic. Dante’s ‘Inferno’ and Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ are epics. They begin in the middle of things, (in medias res). The hero is in the thick of it, perhaps at his lowest point. The setting of an epic is vast, and may even represent the world or the universe. It begins with an invocation to a muse and with a statement of theme. Epic simile is used.

There are many more ‘restrictions’ to epics that I’m sure you can find if you take up the subject search on the internet. The main point I am making, and am learning for myself, is that modern literature does not lend itself to the creation of true epic, especially in the prose form. Our sense of what a novel is rejects many traditions and rules. We tend to shy away from a high moral tone and long lists of people or objects, which seem to typify the epic. We think of our heroes, and ourselves, as individuals doing single battle in the world, whereas the epic hero embodies the values of civilization and community. Many modern novels reject the idea of an orderly and purposeful universe, while the epic assumes there is meaning in life, and that it is directed toward some purposeful goal.

So, have I painted myself into a corner by planning a prose epic? We shall see. It will be a challenge, to say the least. But isn’t that what we authors love most?

Copyright 2010 by James D. Sanderson. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010



At an agent's site this week I read with interest that our (we writers) best bet would be to churn out a couple of trashy (my words) novels a year and forget about the literary stuff. After all, who is going to pay any attention to literature? Do you want to make a comfortable living or get a good review?

I'm not even sure I'm capable of saying what is wrong with all that. Is it any wonder we don't have any Leo Tolstoys around any more? "Hey, Mr. Tolstoy, that 'Anna Karenina' is great but what we really need for you to do it to crank out a couple of romance novels first. You've got to keep the rubles rolling in, you know."

This comes at a bad time for me. I have been trying to find a publisher for a literary nonfiction book 'American Masters' and for my novel 'The Struggle' and have not been having much success. I have also picked up working on a novel in four volumes - very literary - that I began clear back in 1996. Each volume is going to have a different literary approach to the story. The first is tragedy. The second apocalyptic (not post-apocalyptic, but true apocalyptic). The third is prose epic. (About which I will write more on Friday's post). And the final volume will be allegorical. If I can't even get anyone to pay attention to my more modest works, who is going to go for such a grand work of literature?

Then it dawned on me: A publisher is not going to take a risk on anything any more. The author is going to have to do all the leg work to get people interested and to get the word out. To 'build a platform' as they call it. But, if the author has done all that, what need do we have of a publisher? I have seen some of my work through the printing and distribution process before. So why not again?


Does that make sense? There seems to be no standard in literature except that it be exciting and that it make money. Is anyone attempting anything more than that? I'm sure some are, but I'm not sure their voices are being heard.

Having said that, then, I have begun trying to get the word out via this blog and on Facebook and so on. This is not a viral effort, which suggests an overnight 'Flash' success. No, there will be nothing flashy about any of this. What there will be, here, is a genuine effort to discover what is missing, and perhaps to explore ways to put it back into our literature. Content is supreme here.

I can't do this alone, however. I'd like to link up with other authors and groups that have similar interests. I will be looking to those of you who read classics and who write literary novels , short stories, and nonfiction. Then, as we build a network together, I believe we will experience a cascade as friends tell friends that something real is happening among us. Once we have set this in motion, in short, it will be difficult to stop.

Won't you join with me in this effort? Spread the word that literature is not (yet) dead. We won't let it die.


Friday, November 5, 2010


Our eleven year old granddaughter has begun reading some 'classic' literature. She started with Ernest Hemingway's 'The Old Man and the Sea'. (The author claimed to have written the ending 26 times. When asked by a reporter what the problem with the ending was, Mr. Hemingway replied, "I couldn't get the words right"). She has just finished 'Call of the Wild' by Jack London and is now reading 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens. She has found these books 'real' and 'fascinating'. Even her vocabulary has increased. I don't ever remember hearing 'fascinating' before. Her reading has caused some lively discussion around here and she has been asking some pointed and sometimes uncomfortable questions. New worlds are opening up to her, in short, and her experience reminds us that Great Literature 'is' fascinating. These are words and sentences and stories that have lasted - some for thousands of years.


We can turn to them when we want a real experience of the world, and of our struggles in it. Their pages are filled with laughter, tears, and questions like: "Why am I here?" And "What is it all for?" Sometimes we are disturbed by the author's answers.

Here, at 'Literary Greatness', we take a look at what makes such work great. We struggle with the questions. We look at the stories of what it took to create these works - what it cost their authors or at what they did with their lives. These, also, are sometimes fascinating. In her childhood, for instance, one famous American author taught a chicken to walk backward. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Russian novelist, was next in line for the firing squad before his sentence was commuted and he was shipped off to a prison camp.

Here you will find these 'portraits' of famous authors, essays on things literary, book reports, reviews, short stories (as I struggle with the questions in my own work), sample chapters, and more.

I hope you will join 'Literary Greatness' now to receive weekly updates and to post your own comments. Let me know what you think. Let me know what you're reading and what you think of it. Let me know how you are struggling with the questions and what greatness is required of us all to prevail.

Sign up now and let's get to it...