Back to "Eternity": A James Jones Overview
“In America, sex is an obsession; in other parts of the world, it is a fact.”
“One is left with the horrible feeling now that war settles nothing; that to win a war is as disastrous as to lose one.”
War and sex. The stuff of which bestseller novels and blockbuster movies are made—and the subject matter that put author James Jones (1929-1979) in the limelight in the 1950s.
Who isn’t familiar with the classic 1953 film, From Here to Eternity and Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s steamy adulterous sex-on-the-beach scene? Well ... as much sex as one could show in the movies back then. Jones’s 1951 smoldery and rawly explicit novel about military lives and loves on the eve of Pearl Harbor had to be carefully sanitized by Hollywood’s vigilantes of virtue before it could make it to the screen. All the same, the gritty, tell-it-like-it-is quality of Jones’s book managed to come across, if only by implication, to a post-World War II American public.
From Here to Eternity was the first in a series of novels that Jones, a former soldier who had witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and fought in Guadalcanal, wrote about the war and its quietly devastating aftermath on the collective psyche of the nation. In the tradition of Stephen Crane, whose Red Badge of Courage he much admired, Jones painted a grimly detailed and brutally honest portrait of war’s horrific realities that stood in stark contrast to much of the era’s popular media.
In Jones’s books, you won’t get the warm fuzzies of the feel-good B-movies that were cranked out by Hollywood to keep the home fires burning while “the boys” marched off to Iwo Jima and Normandy. Nor will you find the bloodless battles and propagandistic patriotism that characterized the subsequent batch of films depicting the war years with steel-jawed, stiff-upper-lipped, stand-tall, straight-arrow heroes played by John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Robert Mitchum.
The rubber hits the road in Jones’s novels, and Hollywood—and polite American society—be damned
His books are very long and extremely graphic. “War is hell” is no casual cliché here. Blood and guts are all over the place. The armed services don’t make men out of boys; they systematically de-humanize them and turn individuals into an anonymous—and expendable—whole. Jones’ soldiers aren’t sitting around pining for the girls-next-door they left behind and waiting for letters from back home in small town U.S.A; they’re getting venereal diseases and learning interesting sexual techniques in the vilest brothels. The fighting men aren’t exactly candidates for the Purple Heart either; they’re angry, scared, sneaky, cruel, corrupt, discontent, dishonest, disgusted, depressed, demoralized, violent, drunk, and just plain fed up. If war is hell, a good part of it occurs not on the battlefield, but in the barracks, where brutality at the hands of sadistic commanders, hostility between different ethnicities and social classes, animosity between officers and the rank-and-file, unchecked corruption at every level and un-redressable injustices are daily occurrences.
And the picture doesn’t get any brighter when the war is over. Johnny comes marching home again, permanently disillusioned and damaged in every way—physically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. The dehumanizing process that equipped him to be an efficient cog in the military’s relentless wheel, combined with the atrocities of the battlefront, has also effectively rendered him a societal misfit who is only minimally able to make the adjustment back to “normal” life. When the tearful reunions and ticker tape parades and celebrations and welcome-home festivities are over, a grim reality remains.
The soldiers call it “combat fatigue”; today, we recognize it as Post-Trauma Stress Disorder. Though it affects soldiers in every war, it is one of those things that people of earlier generations don’t want to talk much about. This reviewer can remember being warned as a small child to be careful of the man next door because “he hasn’t been ‘right’ since he returned from the war”, and hearing her WW I grandmother and WW II mother remarking how many veterans of both eras had come home in what my kinswomen colorfully called a “permanent state of strange.” Jones was one of the first writers to address this subject openly in his books.
So, this all sounds like pretty ho-hum stuff for a post-Vietnam world raised with the harrowing images of ‘entertainment’ such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon and The Deer Hunter, huh?
To understand Jones’s contribution to literature, it’s necessary to keep in mind that his audience were the adults of what we remember as the Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best era of the 50s. People who had survived the Great Depression and a second global war and come out of it all still clinging to a naïve optimism and the desperate desire to create the better days they’d always felt were right around the corner. They took their platitudes and patriotism seriously, and had bought the American dream hook, line and sinker. They really wanted their lives to have the look and feel of It’s A Wonderful Life, that great unabashedly sentimental paean of praise glorifying of Everyman’s daily existence.
And if there were little (or large) unpleasantnesses along the way—alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, mental illness, ‘combat fatigue’, spousal and child abuse, adultery, incest, homosexuality—it was a private matter, to be kept out of the spotlight, swept under the carpet, dealt with (or not dealt with) within the confines of the family. This was an era as far removed from the mentality of Maury Povich, Montel, Howard Stern and the local mental health society as one can possibly get.
Call it denial if you wish, but in America of the ‘40s and ‘50s, it was called respectability.
Jones was the consummate bubble-burster, the despoiler of our good self-image as individuals and as a society. He portrayed the dark side of the American dream with more realism than we as a country were probably prepared to take. Though often categorized a “war novelist,” he was, more significantly, a cynical chronicler of American mores, and its societal and sexual ‘double standards.’ Following in the footsteps of Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis, and drawing heavily on his own experiences, his novels and short stories were a relentless expose of the seamy underbelly of small town U.S.A. He opened the door and let all our skeletons out of the closet, and we just couldn’t manage to stuff them back in there again.
The book he wanted to be remembered for, Some Came Running, presented civilian life in the heartland of America as every bit as dangerous and treacherous as the battlefront. It was universally panned by critics, as well as largely ignored by the very audience that had made From Here to Eternity a best-seller. It would seem that we could admit that war brought out the worst in human nature, creating as many or more villains and victims than real heroes. But we weren’t exactly comfortable having the mask of respectability and gentility ripped off the face of Our Town to expose the underlying hypocrisy, greed, deception, snobbery—and all that, umm, red-hot you-know-what.
This was pre-sexual revolution America, still under the residual influences of the pre-Freudian Victorian era, which had no real understanding of female libido and was extremely reticent about discussing male sexuality. The two-part Kinsey Report, released in 1948 and 1953 and purporting to chronicle our real sexual mores, informed us that 50% of married men admitted to extramarital affairs, 69% of white males had at least one experience with a prostitute, and 46% of men surveyed had engaged at some time in homosexual activity. The highly publicized and controversial study raised a few sophisticated eyebrows in more cosmopolitan circles, but it shocked and angered conservative Main Street U.S.A. who protested that this was certainly not us.
Or was it? Jones, raised in a small Midwestern town that provided much of the grist for his ruthlessly honest creative mill, emerged as a major writer at the same time the Kinsey Report was rocking American homes and making sex an everyday topic at the dinner table.
Jones’s themes revolving around our cultural sexual repression and the sexual maladjustment of American male run like a throbbing vein throughout his novels and short stories. It made his books challenging to turn into movies that wouldn’t end up mostly on the cutting room floor, courtesy of the industry’s moral watchdogs. However, contrary to pulp fiction wisdom, explicit sexual content did not necessarily guarantee a place on the bestseller list for Jones. His novel, Go to the Widow-Maker, another study of men’s relationships, joined Some Came Running in literary oblivion. Nonetheless, the ‘prurient interest’ component of his books did become what the reading public seemed to remember him for. Interestingly, Jones gifted his children with autographed editions of all his books, but made sure they didn’t take a peek into their pages. His daughter, Kaylie Jones, recalls: “His novels were big and fat and frightening. My bound editions went up on a shelf next to my brother’s, for when we ‘grew up.’”
In The Ice Cream Headache, Jones’s only collection of short stories, originally published in 1968 and re-released this November, the author’s major themes involving the horrors of war, loss of innocence, and sexual obsession have been consolidated into easy-to-manage and highly palatable doeses, especially suitable for yet another generation facing the reality of war with a capital “W” and coping with continuous social changes.
The stories cover over 20 years of his writing career and include some never before published. In his 1965 introduction to the original book, Jones discussed the repressive sexual climate that muzzled creativity and artistic freedom, and turned writers—traditionally the explorers of truth, willing to boldly go where no man has gone before—into dishonest hypocrites, writing only with an eye for getting published:
One simply can’t write anything outspoken about sexuality and get it published in any magazine printing today. This automatically rules out a whole raft of subjects. If sexuality and an interest in it is one of your main themes, as it is with me, this takes away from what you can write a very large chunk of what you’d like to write. You find yourself precensoring from your material much of what you’d like to write according what you know can get printed, or else you just lay the idea away and never do it at all. I can do better with novels.
It is interesting to note that Jones was speaking of an era famous for its rise of then-controversial ‘men’s magazines,’ such as Esquire and Playboy, touted for publishing ‘daring’ and ‘risqué’ stories. It would appear, however, that the sexual openness Hugh Hefner advocated extended only to personal lives and his private clubs, not to short fiction in his notorious magazine.
The stories in The Ice Cream Headache reveal Jones as the gifted storyteller and keen observer of human nature that he really was, proving (in the words of one critic) that “he could write well-crafted stories, that he could write convincingly about something besides war, and that his work did not rely on four-letter words and graphic descriptions of sex for its impact and appeal.” Drawing heavily upon his own life and experiences, Jones probes into the dark corners of childhood, relationships between men and women, friendships among men, war memories, and the difficulty of ‘finding oneself’ in the post-WW II world. All of the thirteen stories are interesting and well-written. Several are remarkable and memorable.
And a couple of them are absolutely brilliant, among the best short fiction this reviewer has ever read, as well as being the essence of Jones’s vision of the human condition.
In Secondhand Man, an alcoholic Army veteran with respiratory problems and his much put-upon wife go for a rest cure in the Smokies. Unexpectedly, on their extended rural stay, it is the man’s rocky marriage, rather than his lungs, that begins to heal. His infirmity brings out a tenderness that has been absent in his spouse for years. The long hours of togetherness in a remote mountain cabin renews his interest in his wife. On a walk in the woods, they find a piece of land and consider building a house there. They spend weeks discussing the plans for the proposed structure and envisioning a new, happy life there.
In the space of a couple hours, however, the dream of domestic bliss is irreparably shattered, as a minor event causes both husband and wife to revert permanently back to their old, bitter ways. The man is headed for a whopper of a bender and a ruined life—and the wife is headed (in all probability) for divorce and a dicey liberation.
The story is astounding in its ability to portray both characters—not necessarily sympathetic ones—in a manner that evokes powerful empathy. There are no villains here, only victims—and in them, whether we like it or not, we see ourselves: our illusions, aspirations, ambitions, disappointments, foolishness, and secret fears. Without sentimentality or a trace of melodrama, Jones involves the reader so personally with the unfolding scenario that the climax of the story is as devastating as if it happened in our own lives.
Additionally, the story contains a passage that illustrates the power of Jones’s writing as he magnificently describes, in the simplest language, what can only be called the ‘angst of midlife’:
We become Second Hand Men. That’s what I like to call it. Second Hand to everything, we are. In this day and age. Second Hand to our jobs, to our country’s military strategy, to the money we make or hope to make and then can’t spend, to taxes and the cause of world peace; Second Hand to our children, if we have any. Three hundred years ago at our age we’d be about ready to die, if we weren’t dead already. But now we can go on living for a long time yet, if we want to, in a Second Hand sort of way.
This is Jones at his very best—cutting so close to the bone of truth that it hurts, but we read on in amazement and gratitude that someone has been brave enough and tough enough to express those things that we desperately wish we didn’t feel. Jones is an inveterate turner-over of psychological rocks to let all the wormy, dark, creepy things come out into the light for us to examine and acknowledge.
The second story that deserves to be remembered as one of Jones’s masterpieces is None Sing So Wildly. All of Jones’s major themes are at work here full force. Fill in the blanks applicable for today and for your particular situation—this deftly handled piece of social realism examines the invisible, unspoken territory that separates us from them, whoever ‘us’ and ‘them’ may be. Again set by Jones in an isolated rural environment, a tidy metaphor for the isolation that characterizes modern society, we watch an ostensibly sophisticated engaged couple struggle to come together and inevitably fall apart in a world where loyalties and allegiances, desire and destiny, expectations and actualities clash—and ultimately come to nothing. The characters depart, full of new plans that will be no more successful than their previous ones because the only change has been in the circumstances, not in the perceptions of the protagonists.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the reaction in the literary world to Jones’s works varied widely from critic to critic and from book to book. While From Here to Eternity was universally well received, the rest did not fair so well. The Merry Month of May was praised as “graceful, witty, with tender insights” and likened to Hemingway’s works by one reviewer, but another said, “Jones writes so badly that his offenses constitute as great a crime against nature as against literature. A book written this badly shouldn’t be called a book. It should be called a reading instrument, or a money maker, or a thing.” The book now considered by some to be his magnum opus, Some Came Running, was denounced as “a distasteful and unrelievedly boring orgy in the manure pile,” though retrospectively it has been hailed as a “towering work of native social realism that American writers once dreamed of writing.” There is currently a resurgence of interest in James Jones, and contemporary critics are in the process of re-evaluating his contribution to 20th century literature.
Additionally, his books remain prime candidates for screenplays. From Here to Eternity has had many reincarnations after its 195l publication and 1953 movie debut, cropping up in the last 20 years as two TV mini-series, a made-for-TV movie, and the obvious inspiration for several copy-cat films. His 1962 novel The Thin Red Line was made into a highly successful motion picture in 1991.
James Jones was the social conscience of America during an unprecedented period of transition. His works are a time capsule of an era that ushered in what we know today as our modern world. His was not just the voice of an observer chronicling the events of a particular war and the mores of his own society, but also the voice of a prophet, the harbinger of things to come. His characters were the children of W.H. Auden’s Age of Anxiety—quietly angst-ridden people who came of age during the ever-darkening years of the 20s and 30s with its rise of dictators and fall of economies—and who determinedly struggled to keep on having a semblance of a ‘normal’ life during the national upheaval of war and the personal uneasiness of peacetime.
And we are their heirs, the scions of a global and personal anxiety that only increases exponentially with every passing day and each unsettling headline. It is little wonder that his books have the power to give us an eerie sense of déjà vu.
The works of James Jones should be required reading in time of impending war. After all the rhetoric and political posturing, the canned and stale speeches designed to tug at heartstrings and mold minds, the flag-waving and tearful send-offs and God-is-on-our-side fervor, there is what the author called, in From Here to Eternity, “the song (that is) Reality.” Jones is a grim—but necessary—accountant, walking the battlefields and counting the bones, and reminding us once more that the paths of glory lead not just to the grave, but also to the graveyard of civilizations.