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James Jones (1921-1977)


American author, who in many novels has described war and military life. James Jones's best-known work is From Here to Eternity (1951), a story of the pre-World War II army. The book was adapted for the screen, receiving an Academy Award for best picture in 1953. The Thin Red Line (1962), which followed the experiences of a rifle company, C, for "Charlie Company", had basically the same characters as From Here to Eternity, only the names were changed. Terrence Malick's film version from 1998 was criticized for its lack of dramatic focus, and praised for its photography.

"Ahead of them the LCIs waited to take them abroad, and slowly they began to file into them to be taken out to climb the cargo nets up into the big ships. One day one of their number would write a book about all this, but none of them would believe it, because none of them would remember it that way." (from The Thin Red Line)

James Jones was born in Robinson, Illinois, the son Ramon Jones, a dentist, and Ada Blessing Jones. His grandfather owned one of the oldest and biggest houses on East Main Street. Jones's father had problems with alcohol, he had a reputation as the town drunk, but there was a strong affection between the father and the son. James was a shy child with glasses, but at high school he found he was a fair boxer, though he went down in his second fight. He boxed as a welterweight in Golden Gloves tournaments.

Jones completed his high school education in Illinois, and expected to go to college. However, the family had gone broke during the Depression, and he couldn't continue studies. While in Hawaii, Jones's mother died, and a year later his Jones's father committed suicide with a pistol; he shot himself two times in the head. His mother died of disbetes.

During World War II Jones served in the US army as a sergeant (1939-44). A rebel, he was often in the guardhouse or mopped floors and peeled potatoes in the mess hall. While in Hawaii he became friends with Army rebels, who had been sent to Schofield Barracks' infamous Stockade Prison. During this period he wrote several letters to his brother Jeff, who shared his literary aspirations – the letters were later published in To Reach Eternity (edited by George Hendrick, 1989). Jones was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked; on Guadalcanal he was injured in a combat, and received the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Jones was given a medical discharge in July 1944.

To make up for his lack of higher education, Jones attended the University of Hawaii for a short time in 1942 while stationed on Oahu. His first reading of Thomas Wolfe convinced Jones that he wanted to write, too. In 1945 he attended New York University. Jones's wartime experiences in Hawaii formed the background for his first novel, From Here to Eternity, which depicted life in an Army base at the time of Pearl Harbour. Its came from 'The Whiffenpoof Song': "Gentlemen songsters off on a spree / doomed from here to eternity, / Lord, have mercy on such as we, / Baa Baa Baa."

Jones spent six years writing the book. The beauty and power of the narrative gained acclaim among critics and readers. It became a Book of the Month Club selection and received the National Book Award for fiction in 1951. The central character of the story is Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a recruit from Kentucky, known as Prew to his friends. He is a man with a high personal integrity, who has no other choice in his life but the army. He has given up boxing because of the damage he did in the ring to another fighter. However, his individuality leads to a conflict with the system itself. He refuses to join the boxing squad and Captain Holmes warns him that "in the Army it's not the individual that counts". Holmes attempts to break his spirit. Prewitt becomes involved with a bargirl. When his friend Angelo Maggio is badly beaten in the Hickam Field Stockade by the sadistic Sgt. James R. "Fatso" Judson, Prewitt kills him with a knife, and is killed when he tries to return to his unit. Milt Warden, the highly competent Top Sergeant, has an affair with the wife of Captain Holmes, and cannot help Prewitt. Most of the story takes place before the Japanese surprise attack. With Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948) the novel is among the best works depicting the American army in the Pacific during World War II. Jones's own boxing career gave much authentic flavor to the fight scenes.

With the money he earned from his bestseller, Jones purchased and furnished a house in Marshall, Illinois, and established a writers' colony with the assistance of Lowney Handy; she was also Jones's mistress and introduced him to her library of Eastern philosophy. They had met in 1943 in his home town of Robinson. She was married to Harry E.Handy, superintendent of the Ohio Oil Company's refinery, and devoted herself to helping Jones in his writing aspirations. Noteworthy, she never disapproved of his use of barracks-room language. "If Jim had suggested using those stupid blank spaces," she once said, "I'd have hit him." ('James Jones and His Angel' by A.B.C. Whipple, Time, May 7, 1951) The Handys built him a study on the back of their house and bought a trailer so he could travel when bored.

When Norman Mailer visited Jones in 1953, they had a conversation about the ideas of Karma. "It's the only thing that makes sense," Jones argued for Mailer's surprise. After gaining financial independence, Jones was very generous to his fellow writers, and at one point he paid the poet Delmore Schwartz's hospital bills. Mailer's attitude toward Jones became strained, Mary McCarthy called Jones ''intelligent'' and ''uneducated,'' but William Styron remained his friend, observing that "there was a certain grandeur in Jones's vision of the soldier. . . . ." Ernest Hemingway wrote about Jones to their mutual publisher, Charles Scribner: ''I hope he kills himself as soon as it does not damage his or your sales.''

Jones was very sensitive to criticism about his work and worked for seven years before his second book, Some Came Running (1957), was published. Jones dedicated the novel to his younger sister, Mary Ann, who died of a brain tumor. It drew on his life in Illinois after the war and did not gain much critical acclaim. Frank MacShane described the novel in his biography about Jones "more like a nineteenth-century novel, infused with social consciousness and sympathy for the characters. The reader therefore does not know whether to take the story straight or to accept its basic absurdity..." A favorable verdict is given by Jones's friend Willie Morris who argued that "the novel is the towering work of native social realism that American writers once dreamed of writing".

After leaving Lowney Handy, Jones married Gloria Mosalino, whom Irwin Shaw described as "the candle that kept the house alight." From 1958 until 1975 they lived in Paris, where their apartment on the Quai d'Orleans became a meeting place for writers and artists. Jones bought eventually three floors in the house. His critical novel about the Paris student riots of 1968, The Merry Month of May (1970), was particularly praised for its description of Paris and its ambience. Jones's other works include Pistol (1958), a story of an army private who accidentally obtains a gun on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack.

The Thin Red Line, about raw recruits, who land on Guadalcanal, demonstrated the author's ability to create dramatic episodes, which illuminate the spiritual evolution and karma of his characters. In a letter to his editor at the publishing firm of Charles Scribner's Sons Jones once spoke of an unsevered thread that will run continuously through everything he writes. This book formed the basis for Terence Malick's three-hour drama (1998). Unlike the more successful war film from the same year, Steven Spielberg's Oscar winner Saving Private Ryan, Malick avoided all hero worship. There is no single hero in the story, although the characters of Witt, Welsh, and Storm have similarities with Prewitt, Warden, and Stark.

"This was war? There was no superior test of strength here, no superb swordsmanship, no bellowing Viking heroism, no expert marksmanship. This was only numbers. He was being killed for numbers. Why oh why had he not found and taken to himself that clerkish desk-job far in the rear which he could have had?" (from The Thin Red Line)

Jones's last work, Whistle (1978), was published posthumously. It concerned a group of wounded soldiers sent home and their attempts to adjust to normal life. The four central characters appearing in the novel are the same personae – with different names – that appeared in From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, illustrating the various kinds of roles of a soldier. Jones did not finish the last three chapters. They were completed by Willie Morris, who used the author's notes and conversations with him. Whistle ended Jones's great war trilogy.

In 1974 Jones was offered a teaching position at Florida International University in Miami. At the end of the 1976 school year, the Joneses moved to Southampton, New York. He died in Long Island, on May 9, 1977. His friend William Styron, who visited Jones in hospital, wrote in his farewell that  "In many ways, Jim, you were the most  "American" writer of your generation, the most deeply implanted  in the American grain. And your personality and literary style were so inextricably wound up in each other in a peculiarly American way that you were sui generis." (William Styron, This Quiet Dust, 1983, p. 269)

James Ivory's film A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (1998), starring Kris Kristofferson, was largely based on the autobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones, the daughter of James Jones. During his lifetime, Jones was largely considered a good minor writer by critics. After his death his work has received several book-length scholarly examinations. Steven R. Carter has remarked that Jones's "tough, masculine voice spoke out against the insensitivity and foolhardiness of the Hemingway code of manhood and sought to replace it with restraint, compassion, and adult love." (James Jones: An American Literary Orientalist Master, 1998, p. 1)

For further information: Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 2., ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); James Jones: A Friedship by Willie Morris (1999); James Jones: An American Literary Orientalist Master by Steven R. Carter (1998); Into Eternity: The Life of James Jones, an American Writer by Frank MacShane (1985); James Jones by G.P. Garrett (1984); James Jones by J.R. Giles (1981); James Jones by W. Morris (1978) - Other great war novels about the war in the Pasific: Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, Herman Wouk's The 'Caine' Mutiny, Pierre Boulle's Bridge on the River Kwai, J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, James Dickey's The Performance, Tamiki Hara's Glittering Fragments, John Ciardi's The Massive Retalion, Nobuyuki Saga's The Myth of Hiroshima, Nobuo Ayukawa's Saigon 1943.

Selected bibliography:

  • From Here to Eternity, 1951
    - Täältä ikuisuuteen (suom. Oiva Oksanen, Väinö Tervaskari, 1965)
    - Films: 1953, prod. Columbia Pictures Corporation, dir. Fred Zinnemann, starring Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift, Ernest Borgine. The novel ran to 859 pages. Jones wrote the first story treatment himself, but the screenplay was written by Daniel Taradash. He sent Jones the first draft, then met the author early in 1953. "You couldn't be more pleased with my reaction than I was with your screenplay," Jones later wrote to him. - TV mini-series 1979, prod. Bennett/Katleman Productions, Columbia Pictures Television, dir. Buzz Kulik, starring William Devane, Natalie Wood, Roy Thinnes, Peter Boyle, Kim Basinger. TV series 1980, starring Kim Basinger, William Devane and Roy Thinnes
  • Some Came Running, 1957
    - Films: 1958, prod. :Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), dir. Vincente Minnelli, starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine; Aska susayanlar, 1964, prod. Kral Film (Turkey), dir. Feyzi Tuna, with Ekrem Bora, Kenan Pars and Semra Sar
  • The Pistol, 1958
    - Pistooli (suom. Kai Kaila, 1966)
    - TV drama 1965, in The Wednesday Play, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. by James Ferman, starring Clive Endersby, John Brandon and Hal Galili
  • The Longest Day, 1962 (screenplay, with Romain Gary, David Pursall, Cornelius Ryan, Jack Seddon)
    - Prod. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, dir. Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Gerd Oswald, Bernhard Wicki, Darryl F. Zanuck, starring John Wayne, Robert Ryan and Richard Burton. Based on Cornelius Ryan's book The Longest Day.
  • The Thin Red Line, 1962
    - Ohut punainen viiva (suom. Oiva Oksanen, 1963)
    - Films: 1964, prod. A.C.E. Films, Security Pictures, dir. Andrew Marton, starring Keir Dullea, Jack Warden, James Philbrook, Bob Kanter; 1998, prod. Fox 2000 Pictures, Geisler-Roberdeau, Phoenix Pictures, dir. Terrence Malick, starring James Caviezel, Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Ben Chaplin. "Aside from some notable additions and changes, including an idyllic prologue and the Solomon Islands and the surviving troops' departure from Guadalcanal, the main features of Jones' narrative are retained intact – the company's disembarkation, landing, and march inland; the protracted battle to seize a stubbornly defended hill (the main body of the film); an interlude of R&R; and a soldier's self-sacrifice to enable his comrades to escape the enemy... Malick seems more interested in the action's aftermath, preferring to dwell on the emotional devastation of both sides of the conflict. Moreover, despite the action and noise several superbly staged action scenes, Malick is more interested in keeping the film unusually quiet and reflective." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1999)
  • Go to the Widow-Maker, 1967
  • The Ice-Cream Headache and Other Stories, 1968
  • The Merry Month of May, 1970
  • A Touch of Danger, 1973
  • Viet Journal, 1974
  • WW II: A Chronicle of Soldiering, 1975 (with A. Weithas)
  • Whistle, 1978 (edited by William Morris)
  • To Reach Eternity: The Letters of James Jones, 1989 (edited by George Hendrick)
  • The James Jones Reader, 1991 (edited by James R. Giles and J. Michael Lennon)

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