How Good Was James Jones?

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Jill Krementz
James Jones, Paris, October 1972
Well, anyway, here is Pearl. And I, personally, believe it will stack up with Stendhal’s Waterloo or Tolstoy’s Austerlitz. That was what I was aiming at, and wanted it to do, and I think it does it. If you dont [sic] think it does, send it back and I’ll re-rewrite it. Good isnt [sic] enough, not for me, anyway; good is only middling fair. We must remember people will be reading this book a couple hundred years after I’m dead, and that the Scribner’s first edition will be worth its weight in gold by then. We mustnt [sic] ever forget that.

This is James Jones on October 30, 1949, a week before he turned twenty-eight, sending off to his editor, Burroughs Mitchell of Scribner’s, the climactic section of From Here to Eternity—his account of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that brought America into World War II. It’s also an announcement to the world, as it were, of his bold ambitions and his extravagant estimation of his talents. And it’s also a fair reflection of his state of mind at this turning point in his life. He knows he’s special; he’s excited about his achievement; his goals are daringly elevated; he’s prepared to work on and on to get where he feels he can go—where he must go. And he’s touchingly naive, at least he seems so to us now: Could any young, absolutely unknown writer make such assertions today? Would anyone take him seriously if he did?

But this was a different world, and young writers were still alive to the myth of the Great American Novel, to the recent histories of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and in Jones’s case, Thomas Wolfe—his favorite of all novelists. When he was nineteen, in Hawaii, he wrote about Wolfe to his brother, “In my opinion, little as it’s worth, he is the greatest writer that has lived, Shakespeare included. He is a genius. That is the only way to describe him.” (A lot of adolescent boys and young men in the 1930s and 1940s felt that way about Wolfe—I remember my own rush of awe and recognition when I came upon Look Homeward Angel at the age of thirteen or fourteen: this was writing.)

But when Jones came to start writing seriously, he didn’t sound like Wolfe at all. Of course, like Wolfe, he was caught up in his own feelings and experiences, but he was looking outward as well as homeward. He had been there in the army at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and what he wanted to tell the world was what it was like when the Zeros swooped out of the sky and began bombing and strafing, not how he felt about it. There’s nothing lyrical or poetical about the prose; it’s staccato, the talk is tough, direct, believable. First …

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