James Jones Essay - Jones, James (Vol. 1)

Jones, James (Vol. 1)

Jones, James 1921–

American novelist, still best known for his first novel, From Here to Eternity. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

In the enthusiastic critical reception of From Here to Eternity, culminating in the National Book Award, the word compassion was sprayed all over the scene by the critical fraternity. The writing of James Jones may well have many admirable attributes, but I do not see wherein compassion is one of them.

Like all the other pseudo-tough young writers engaged in this peculiar transposition of values, Mr. Jones is shamelessly and laughably sentimental. This is missed by some simply because he isn't sentimental about Mother or Dad or the Pure Girl or Jesus or Darling Babies. Instead, he is sentimental about incorrigible anti-social and criminal types and whores. He is said to be compassionate toward these—which is as you choose to think. Certainly, though, if you are not one of these you may expect short shrift from Mr. Jones, for he has precious little compassion for anyone else.

If you can wipe Mr. Jones' tears out of your eyes, you will see that the famous Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt is not a social being, nor are his buddies. Prewitt is not the most extreme of them, but he is the "hero." His type is a social hazard. Since many men have endured as much in the way of background experience as Prewitt did, he is no more the helpless creation of something outside him than anyone else. His character is partly, even largely, self-created, as is true, for practical purposes, of most of us.

But, says Compassionate Jones: Prewitt, Maggio, Stark and the others, drinking and whoring, knifing and slugging, rolling homosexuals, defying authority indiscriminately and eternally, are good, good people. All authority, all sobriety, all the rest of the world, are bad. He is vindictive against the socially adjusted or constructive. If you listen to him long you'll be ashamed to be sober and out of jail. This is not compassion; it is paranoia.

And this is why some of us regard From Here to Eternity not as a controlled work of art but as a clinically interesting projection of personalities by a man endowed with genuine gifts for narrative and pictorial characterization. Whether we are right or wrong, the minority holding this opinion must state it, in the face of reviews, sales and awards.

Edmund Fuller, in his Man in Modern Fiction: Some Minority Opinions on Contemporary American Writing (© 1958 by Edmund Fuller; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1958, pp. 35-6.

Despite the fact that Jones seems able to fulfill his talent only when he draws upon his army experiences, he has not remained static during the past fifteen years. Technically, his latest book is far superior to anything he has done before, and his vision has altered and matured. The Thin Red Line is set in Guadalcanal during World War II, but its attitudes and theme belong to the 1960's. This novel reveals that Jones has recognized and accepted his limitations and learned to work brilliantly with them. He has avoided the artistic errors of Some Came Running and the areas of human experience which that novel proved he was unable to handle. The absence of women in The Thin Red Line has much to do with its success. Jones cannot create complex female characters, and he cannot deal with the relations of men and women….

Jones's vision of human existence is brutal and unsentimental, and he conveys it with superb artistry. [The Thin Red Line] is fast-paced, tightly structured, painfully realistic. James Jones's fictional terrain is limited, but within that limited area he has presented a frightening twentieth-century view of individual man's insignificance in society and in the universe.

Edmond L. Volpe, in Contemporary American Novelists (© 1964 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), edited by Harry T. Moore, Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 107, 112.

With most writers, once you've said the book is bad you've said all there is to say; but with James Jones, you have barely begun at that point. For Jones is the king of the good-bad writers, those writers who seem to be interesting by mistake and in spite of themselves…. Technically, there is little danger of Jones's ever becoming any good. His prose, struggle manfully with it as he may, remains a sneer-and-grin, pulp-fiction prose. His philosophical disquisitions sound like second-drawer reform-school bull sessions. His dialogue is wooden and undifferentiated, to the point where you can scarcely tell the girls from the boys. And to make assurance doubly sure, he seems to have passed beyond the reach of normal editorial protection against himself….

Go to the Widow Maker makes sense only if we read it as the further adventures of the Jones enlisted man who began life in From Here to Eternity and was forged and twisted into adulthood in The Thin Red Line.

Wilfrid Sheed, "James Jones: Go to the Widow Maker" (1967), in his The Morning After (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed; © 1968 by Postrib Corp.; foreword © 1971 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 22-35.