Old Customs, New Traditions, and a Good Man in John Hersey’s A Bell For Adano

“Invasion had come to the town of Adano.”

John Hersey’s third book, A Bell For Adano, is a true delight. It is an episodic story about the Allied occupation of a Sicilian town at the end of World War II (“Operation HUSKY”) after the American troops invaded the country and Mussolini’s forces were pushed back. Published in 1944, A Bell For Adano won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945, and was adapted into a movie in 1945 directed by Henry King featuring John Hodiak and Gene Tierney.

In the forward to the novel, our anonymous narrator announces the whole purpose of the story: to offer an example of a good man named Major Victor Joppolo, an Italian-American from New York, who is sent to Italy during World War II. What makes him such a good man? This is a central question in the novel. He is an Amgot (Allied Military Government Occupied Territory) officer sent to a small Sicilian coastal town called Adano (the fictional town of Adano is based on the true Sicilian port town of Licata). Adano has been recently shelled in the crossfire following the Allied invasion and the ensuing battle has sent the fascists packing. By the time Major Joppolo arrives, he becomes the de factor Mayor of Adano. While some of the townsfolk profess joy at this change of leadership, many in Adano are understandably skeptical of the Americans –will they rule dictatorially like the fascists?

Major Joppolo quickly reveals himself to be a different kind of leader. He praises democracy and endeavors to lead as a model of servant-leadership. He listens to the people, and keeps his word with them. He asks them about their needs. Rather than demanding food or money. The chief concern among the people of Adano is a 700 year-old bell which once sat in the old baroque clock tower over the Palazzo in the town square. The bell rang beautifully every quarter hour, announcing daily life, a cycle which continued for centuries until the bell was tragically confiscated by the fascists and melted down for “rifle barrels or something” (12). The bell once represented the town spirit, it was a metaphor for the constancy of a people –past, present, and future. Centuries ago, it was placed in the clock tower by Pietro Aragona and designed by a notable Renaissance sculptor Lucio de Anj of Modica. The bell once warned of the invasion of Roberto King of Naples in the 14th century, and about 100 years later later it warned of Admial Targout and his invading French and Turkish forces. Now, the absence of the bell in Adano has left the people adrift. Its deafening silence serves as a small reminder of all that has been lost in the war.

In the words of the priest Father Pensovecchio of the Church of Sant’Angelo: “The bell was the center of the town. All life revolved around it. The farmers in the country were wakened by it in the morning, the drivers of the carts knew when to start by it, the bakers baked by it, even we in the churches depended on that bell more than our own bells. At noon on the Sabbath, when all the bells in town rang at once, this bell rose above the others and that was the one you listened to” (22).

After learning the details of the situation, Major Joppolo makes it his quest to acquire a new bell for Adano, though he must do so while struggling to balance order and justice in the city. There are lingering fascist sympathizers among the people –who can be truly trusted? Where do Adano’s alliances lie? Around town, we meet a colorful swath of Adanoans: Mercutio Salvatore, the town crier; Father Pensovecchio of Sant’Angelo; Giuseppe the interpreter; Tomasino, the calloused fisherman with two beautiful daughters; Lojacono the town painter who creates a striking portrait of Major Joppolo, and Mayor Nasta, a traitorous fascist and former mayor of Adano who spreads pernicious lies about the Major until he is eventually imprisoned and shipped off to Africa (despite one failed escape attempt). On the flip-side, Major Joppolo faces endless internal roadblocks within the American military. The institution is burdened by byzantine bureaucracy and arrogant personalities, many of whom sneer at the simple-minded, one-dimensional Italian peasants. Some of these military personnel include 35 year-old Hungarian-American M.P. Leonard Borth, a cynical man who handles security in Adano; Captain Purvis, a sexually aggressive captain who is often drunk, and the most notorious among the military personalities is perhaps General Marvin, a military bureaucrat whose arrogance and hubris frequently sends him flying into a blinding rage while frivolously shouting wild, erratic commands. He is the fictional embodiment of General Patton: “Probably you think of him as one of the heroes of the invasion; the genial, pipe-smoking history-quoting, snappy-looking, map-carrying, adjective-defying divisional commander; the man who still wears spurs even though he rides everywhere in an armored car; the man who fires twelve rounds from his captured Luger pistol every morning before breakfast; the man who can name you the hero and date of every invasion of Italy from the beginning of time; the father of division and the beloved deliverer of Italian soil” (47-48). However, this is quickly revealed to be a false image and General Marvin is revealed to be a very “bad man.” We get a sense of the work cut out for Major Joppolo. It is also worth noting that a variety of present-day senior American military leaders often list A Bell For Adano among their required reading courses (as in the case of General James Mattis who placed A Bell For Adano as one of the few novels among a batch of seventy or so books required for his officers to read).

Each new chapter in the novel paints a brief picture of life in Adano: mule carts need to be transported in and out of the city (despite military orders blocking mule carts from the roads), fishermen who desire to go out fishing again (amidst the risk of exploding mines in the harbor), and children who hunger for “caramelle” candies. Major Joppolo makes great efforts to cut through regulations devised by the American military and, in doing so, he unilaterally allows Adano to go about its daily business, however Major Joppolo’s actions do not sit well with military superiors. With the passing of time, he grows beloved and respected in Adano, and despite being married, he falls in love with Tina, the blonde-haired daughter of Tomasino the fisherman (Tina’s own paramour died in the war). And in the end, Major Joppolo manages to secure a huge bronze bell for Adano courtesy of the U.S. Naval vessel, the U.S.S. Corelli, but before it can be rung out for the first time in the village square, Major Joppolo is punished by the military establishment for his intransigence, and he is sent away to Algiers. The general feeling of exhilaration and jubilance that comes with the arrival of the bell is contrasted with a quietly sorrowful scene of Major Joppolo being whisked away from Adano, the small town he helped rebuild. While driving away, he hears the sound of the new bell ringing out for the first time:

“About four miles outside the town the Major said to the driver: ‘Stop a minute, would you, please?’
It was a fine sound on the summer air. The tone was good and it must have been loud to hear it as far as this.
‘Just a bell,’ the driver said. ‘Must be eleven o’clock.’
‘Yes,’ the Major said. He looked over the hills across the sea, and the day was as clear as the sound of the bell itself, but the Major could not see or think very clearly.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘eleven o’clock'” (269).

A Bell For Adano is a splendid tale in my view. It is simple, yet it carries immense depth. It ranks among the best of the Pulitzer Prize winners I have encountered thus far in this project. A Bell For Adano offers an optimistic reminder: in spite of overwhelming obstacles, good people like Major Joppolo can still accomplish great things. The image of the bell serves as both a metaphor for reclaiming old traditions while also embracing a new era of peace and hope. It is sentimental yet serious in tone, while offering a compelling examination of good leadership, especially in exploring the traits of a leader who wishes to earn the trust and respect of ordinary people (notably, the people of Adano do not necessarily require mere material economic concerns, but rather they desire something deeper, a connection to their history, people, and place in the form of the town bell). Not unlike the bridge in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the bell in A Bell For Adano points us toward something much deeper within the human spirit.

I will conclude my reflections here with a brief digression –one of my favorite aspects of reading through the Pulitzer Prize winners has been getting my hands on early copies of these novels. I was pleased once again to read a first edition copy of A Bell For Adano, a successful gleaning from my local library. Inside the book there was an old flap (as is often the case) tracing past library due dates back to the mid 1940s. Sometimes I wonder who else may have read this book and embarked on the same journey that I did back to an old Sicilian port town at the end of the war. Much like Adano’s bell in the novel, libraries still arouse a sense of wonder and a unique connection to the past. In both cases –books and bells– their beauty still rings true for people with open ears for listening.


The following are some notable quotations I found while reading:

“America is the international country” (vi).

“And he told about Adano’s seven-hundred-year-old bell. He told how it had been taken away, and about what he had done to try to get another… He made the town’s need for a new bell seem a thing really important, and he made the bell seem a symbol of freedom in Adano. He made it seem as if the people of Adano would not feel truly free until they heard a bell ringing from the clock tower of the Palazzo” (207).

“War is awful for men but it is not too good for women” (216).


On the 1945 Pulitzer Prize Decision

In 1945, Orville Prescott joined the Pulitzer Prize Jury, replacing Lewis Gannett from the prior year. Mr. Prescott was the lead book reviewer for The New York Times and he remained a Pulitzer Juror for several more years to come.

Apparently, there was almost no consensus within the Jury in 1945. Orville Prescott supported A Bell for Adano, Maxwell Geismar argued for Joseph Pennell’s The History of Rome Hanks and Kindred Matters, and John Chamberlain (returning chairman) supported Edith Pope’s Colcorton. Thus the split decision came before the Pulitzer Advisory Board where, despite one objection from a particularly loud and disgruntled Board member who was upset at the portrayal of General Patton, the Board nevertheless awarded the Pulitzer Prize to A Bell For Adano.


Who Is John Hersey?

Born in China, John Hersey (1914-1993) was the child of American missionaries in Asia. His family descended from early 17th century settlers of Massachusetts. After spending his early years in China (where he learned to speak Chinese before English), Mr. Hersey returned to the United States at age 10 and he grew up in New York before attending Yale University and later Cambridge University. During this period, he amusingly worked for a spell as Sinclair Lewis’s personal secretary and chauffeur before becoming a war correspondent for Time and Life magazines.

An intrepid journalist, Mr. Hersey accompanied Allied troops on their invasion of Sicily (which later inspired A Bell For Adano), survived no less than four airplane crashes, and was commended by the Secretary of the Navy for his role in helping evacuate wounded soldiers from Guadalcanal. After the war, during the winter of 1945–46, Mr. Hersey was stationed in Japan, reporting for The New Yorker on the reconstruction of the devastated country, when he found a document written by a Jesuit missionary, a survivor of the atomic bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima. This led to several other introductions and when he returned to America, he began writing his most famous book, Hiroshima, focusing on six stories of ordinary people who survived the Hiroshima bombing.

He lectured at Yale and at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was also active in Democratic politics. In 1950, during the Red Scare, Hersey was investigated by the FBI for possible Communist sympathies. He published some twenty books, most of them fictional and bestsellers like The Wall (1950) which was about the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. His work was widely praised: Mr. Hersey became the first non-academic named master of a Yale residential college. He served as past president of the Authors League of America, and he was elected chancellor by the membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Hersey was an honorary fellow of Clare College, Cambridge University. He was awarded honorary degrees by Yale University, the New School for Social Research, Syracuse University, Washington and Jefferson College, Wesleyan University, The College of William and Mary and others

Hersey married twice. He had three sons and one daughter with his first wife, Frances Ann Cannon, whom he married in 1940 and divorced in 1958. He married his second wife, Barbara Kaufman, in 1958 and they had one daughter together.

In his later years, Mr. Hersey lived in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. He died at the age of 78 at his winter home in Key West, Florida, on March 24, 1993 at the compound he and his wife shared with his friend and fellow writer Ralph Ellison. Mr. Hersey’s body was transported and buried at Martha’s Vineyard. His legacy, however continues to live on. In 2007, Mr. Hersey was honored as one of six 20th century journalists honored by the U.S. Post Office with a personalized stamp. He was also honored with a memorial lecture and scholarship in his name at Yale. The inaugural lecture was delivered in 1993 by the brilliant American historian David McCullough.


Hersey, John. A Bell For Adano. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1945.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

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