Frank MacShane’s book on James Jones is above all a retelling of his life—and a very good biography it is. It is not a critical study. He devotes only a very small amount of space to an analysis of Jones’s book. These remarks are always interesting, however, and many of his observations are valuable. An astonishing amount of bad or irrelevant criticism has been written about Jones. Although MacShane’s critical interpretations are useful, they are brief and give rise to far more questions than they answer. The main strength of his book is its thorough, objective, and well-researched treatment of Jones’s life. It was a life of absorbing interest and great turmoil, illustrating many of the conflicts at the center of American culture. If MacShane’s book provokes many questions, they are questions essential to twentieth century American literature.
One of the most moving parts of the book is at the beginning, a description of the long process of writing From Here to Eternity (1951). This chapter is called “The Shining Dream,” and it recalls the atmosphere of the late 1940’s when writers and critics often talked about “great” novels. Perhaps it is just as well that critics talk less about “the great American novel,” as it begs the question of what is a “good” American novel and the role of art in general—the notion of the great American novel is surely naïve. Yet Jones did have a “shining dream” that was admirable. He intended From Here to Eternity to be on the same scale as Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma (1839) and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-1869); Jones’s “dream” saved him from cynicism and hopelessness and reconciled him to years of deprivation. MacShane admirably captures Jones’s bittersweet feelings upon finishing From Here to Eternity, when, short of money, he was living temporarily in a trailer park in Los Angeles:Jones had not yet felt the satisfaction he had hoped for when he finished the book. That piece of work, which took five years of his life, was proof of his seriousness and dedication as an artist and certified his human and literary growth. The bitter young veteran who had come home without money or position was now someone.He had also paid a price, leading a solitary life and controlling his sexual drives and feelings, dedicating himself with puritanical single-mindedness to his work. Now he wanted some of the rewards of achievement.
He had wanted to be a great writer and was obsessed with his calling, which he partly modeled on Thomas Wolfe’s life. Look Homeward, Angel (1929) was one of Jones’s favorite books, and he made a pilgrimage to Wolfe’s birthplace in Asheville, North Carolina. Jones, the son of an alcoholic dentist in a small town in southern Illinois, who received bad grades in school and joined the army as the only way of avoiding unemployment, developed a notion of literature and of the artistic calling as profound, as intensely charged, as anyone else in his generation. Although some critics belittle the extent of cultural diffusion in America, Jones’s life would suggest that it might be spread further and deeper than one might think. Throughout his life, Jones insisted that there was no barrier between art and life. Throughout his life, critics would doubt his credentials as an artist, pointing to his “awkward” and “rough-hewn” style, his lack of college education—a mistake: Jones attended both the University of Hawaii and New York University on the G.I. Bill—and lack of high culture. Jones responded by telling hick jokes and blowing his nose with his finger. Yet MacShane’s book makes clear that his dedication to his art was as complete and serious as that of any of his peers.
One of the advantages of a thorough biographical treatment of a writer’s life is that often it highlights the problems of interpreting and judging the texts. Certainly MacShane’s book will give an impetus to discussion of the following points.
First, with the passage of time, more and more critics are coming to believe that Jones’s trilogy of war novels—From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line (1962), and the unfinished Whistle (1978)—represent his finest work. It would seem that there is considerable truth in this judgment. When they were published, they received better reviews than his other books. Some critics, among them John Keegan, the British military historian, think that The Thin Red Line is one of the two or three best novels about World War II. Yet this book was written almost twenty years after the events it describes, and Whistle was written thirty years after the war was finished. Has this lapse of time made the events described less immediate, more remote? One of Jones’s greatest strengths as a writer was his closeness to his characters, his ability to enter into their lives. Is not this ability more prominent in his “civilian” novels? Very likely it is true that the war trilogy represents Jones’s finest work—but few critics have asked why this is so.
A second important problem bears on Jones’s interpretation of war. MacShane says that Jones treats the army in From Here to Eternity as society in miniature; this was facilitated by taking the point of view not of a draftee but of an enlisted professional. Other critics have made a similar interpretation of Jones’s other books about the war. Yet there are good reasons to doubt that it is correct—the ending of From Here to Eternity and the attack on Pearl Harbor would seem to negate it, with one of the most extreme acts of war intruding and resolving the novel. In more general terms, Jones’s attitudes about the army were deeply, profoundly ambivalent. He liked to say that he hated the army, but at the same time he...
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