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 Sergeant Milt Warden (Burt Lancaster in the movie) is organizing his men just after the first wave of planes has come in over Schofield Barracks:
“The CQ will unlock the rifle racks and every man get his rifle and hang onto it. But stay inside at your bunks. This aint no maneuvers. You go runnin around outside you’ll get your ass shot off….
“Stay off the porches. Stay inside. I’m making each squad leader responsible to keep his men inside. If you have to use a rifle butt to do it, thats okay too.”
There was a mutter of indignant protest….
“What if the fuckers bomb us?” somebody hollered.
“If you hear a bomb coming, you’re free to take off for the brush,” Warden said. “But not unless you do. I dont think they will. If they was going to bomb us, they would of started with it already. They probly concentratin all their bombs on the Air Corps and Pearl Harbor.”
There was another indignant chorus.
“Yeah,” somebody hollered, “but what if they aint?”
“Then you’re shit out of luck,” Warden said.
This is pure Jones soldier-speak, remembered with what appears to be absolute accuracy almost eight years after the event. Alas, just a few pages later we get a touch of pure Jones artiness: “‘Thats my orders, Sergeant,’ Malleaux said irrefragably.” Instead of fighting Jones over dirty words—eventually compromising on the number of “fucks” and “cunts”—it’s at “fragably” where Burroughs Mitchell should have put his foot down. He should also have done something about Jones’s writerly tics—like his unrelenting repetition of “grinned” and “grinning.” (On one page alone, Prewitt grins six times.)
From Here to Eternity, as has often been noted, is a peacetime novel—“Pearl” happens only toward the end. It’s a soldier novel. It’s about men and women, about the idea of manhood. It’s about authority and rebellion. It’s about realists and idealists: Warden is the tough, capable, clear-sighted cynic who knows everything and runs everything but has a soft spot for the romantic yet unyielding Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), who is doomed by his refusal—his inability—to accommodate himself to the way things work and the way things are; Prewitt is also an artist—one of the army’s finest buglers (he once played “Taps” at Arlington) as well as a renowned boxer who enrages his commanding officer by refusing to fight for the company, having unwittingly blinded an opponent. Nothing can shake him, and he’s going to suffer and die rather than meet authority halfway.
Prewitt falls in love with an elegant whore who’s saving up to go home and make a classy marriage; Warden falls in love with the captain’s unhappy and mistreated wife. The two men appear to be entirely different, but finally they are ruled by the same inner compass—an insistence on untrammeled independence. Prewitt goes to the fearsome stockade rather than give way to his savage violence as a boxer. Warden can only marry Karen Holmes by becoming an officer, and at first he succumbs:
She could make him do anything now, even become an officer, now that she was sure he did love her. He was no longer a free agent, and as a result the old wild terrible strength that had been the power and pride of Milt Warden was gone.
It’s Samson and Delilah. But finally he can’t bring himself to do it—his hatred and scorn for the officer class prevail over his love for the only woman he has ever really cared for.
The need to prove oneself a man; the destructive trap of the Virgin Mother—“They had you by the balls from the minute you were bornd”; the pride in being a true soldier; the realization of life’s “unbelievable cruelty, its inconceivable injustice, its incredible pointlessness.” These are among the basic issues of From Here to Eternity, and they’re mulled over in endless interior monologues and bull sessions—embarrassing soul-searchings and strivings for profundity that are strikingly similar to many passages that mar Steinbeck. The two writers are a score or so years apart in age, but when they get thinky, they could be sophomores in the same class.
They also share a talent for brilliant observation. The Grapes of Wrath, when it isn’t swollen with meaning, is an extraordinary piece of reportage. Jones’s novel, too, is crammed with masterly scenes from life. Always you feel that he knows what he’s talking about, whether it’s the savagery of the stockade, life in a rough whorehouse, the anguish of love, or the most mundane minutiae like a “can of milk with its top sliced open by a cleaver butt. The thick white, dripping out past the congealed yellow of past pourings that had almost sealed the gash….”
The war had been over for just under six years when From Here to Eternity appeared, and even more than Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, published three years earlier, the public devoured it as a revelatory portrayal of the military life. There had been a tremendous publicity buildup before publication, and when the book was released, in February 1951, the critical reception was for the most part wildly enthusiastic. The cover of The New York Times Book Review, for instance, announced: “Make no mistake about it, From Here to Eternity is a major contribution to our literature.”
Writers as various as John Dos Passos, John P. Marquand, and Mailer himself praised it vigorously: “I felt then and can still say now that From Here to Eternity has been the best American novel since the war.” Years later, Joan Didion would praise it as well: “It seemed to me that…James Jones had known a great simple truth: the Army was nothing more or less than life itself.” It was number one on the best-seller list for four months and the top-selling novel of 1951. It won the National Book Award. And, of course, it was immediately acquired for the movies.
Who could have foreseen that sixty years later, most people, if they remembered it at all, would know it only from the movie—and the movie from the famous Lancaster–Deborah Kerr roll on the beach? The reputation of From Here to Eternity—and of James Jones himself—wouldn’t last “a couple hundred years after I’m dead”; it would hardly survive its first half-century.
Where would James Jones go when he returned from his five years as an enlisted man in the army? He went home, to Robinson, Illinois, the small town he grew up in and despised.
By the time Jim was born, in 1921, the Joneses were sadly diminished from the days when they were one of the leading families in town. His domineering grandfather still lived in an impressive house, but the money was gone. Ramon Jones, Jim’s sensitive father, was a dentist who would have liked to be a poet, and who would commit suicide while Jim was overseas. Ada Jones, Jim’s mother, had social aspirations and pretensions, and resented their reduced circumstances. She was unkind to her husband and neglectful of her children, particularly hard on Jim. Ada would grow obese, diabetic, and nasty—in her son’s fiction, mothers do not fare well. He remembered her, after her death, as “totally selfish, totally self-centered, and totally whining and full of self-pity.”
He was a small gawky kid with stick-out ears (his father said he looked like “a car coming down the street with both doors open”), and he didn’t fit in. He was belligerent and aggressive, always scrapping; a loner. But though he was a mediocre student, as he grew older he grew increasingly bookish, wolfing down the contents of the local Carnegie Library and already trying to write. He was girl-crazy, sex-crazy, but socially inept and frustrated. (Ada didn’t help: catching him masturbating, she warned him that his hand would turn black, and when he fell asleep, sneaked into his bedroom and rubbed black shoe polish into his palm.)
His social life in Robinson was mostly restricted to the tough guys in town who hung around the poolroom and the bars. When he was just eighteen, desperate to get away, he enlisted in the peacetime military and soon found himself in Hawaii, working as a clerk and radio operator. The work was easy, the life not unpleasant, and he was allowed to take writing courses at the University of Hawaii, where at last he found some encouragement. One day, mowing the grass, he had an epiphany: “I had been a writer all my life without knowing it or having written.” To his brother he wrote, “I laugh at my attempts to write. And yet I cannot change. I must succeed. To be a nonentity would crack my brain and rend my heart asunder. It is all or nothing.”