Jones, James 1921–1977
An American novelist and short story writer, Jones is best remembered for his candid, realistic portrayals of military life and the horrors of war. His first novel, From Here to Eternity, secured for Jones an international reputation, but his following works have often been criticized as crude and simplistic. Whistle, on which he was working when he died, was completed from his notes by his friend Willie Morris. He won the National Book Award in 1952. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 69-72.)
Jones wrote out of his obsession with the condition and fate of [the] doomed men [who made up the ranks of enlisted men in the years before the democratization of the Army]. His important works are really one long book. Jones considered it a trilogy, starting with "From Here to Eternity," going on to "The Thin Red Line" and the book he had almost completed when he died—"Whistle."… By adding his "The Pistol" I would prefer to call the work a quartet…. (pp. 3, 34)
Speaking of a work of another writer—"Golden Boy" by Clifford Odets—the director of the play, Harold Clurman, once said, "It is a play about the conflict between the fiddle and the fist," meaning, of course, the conflict between art and savagery, civilization and barbarism. In the case of Jones, we might say his work is about the conflict between the gun and the bugle. It is no accident that Jones's hero in "From Here to Eternity" is both a boxer and a bugler, and renounces boxing.
Now the last notes have been played and we can ask of the player, What was the call we heard and how was it played?
It was a song about valor and sorrow, a cry of exile, of pride in adversity, of comradeship and hatred, of resignation to organized injustice, a speaking up for men too inarticulate to speak up for themselves, a song of outcasts, of men who did the dirty work that others shunned. And how was it played? Clearly, unsentimentally, bluntly,...
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Of the four main protagonists of Whistle, two are suicides, one is murdered in a bar fight, and the last goes mad. All are medal winners for heroism during the U.S. South Pacific campaign of World War II. That was Jones's final verdict on the war he himself had tried to fight honorably and found there was no honor; there was only self-survival, which became contaminated by meaningless death on every side and led to the most profound despair on the part of every man with a shred of conscience.
It might be appropriate to give a newer generation a quick sketch of what made Jones unique. Unlike radical intellectuals and practicing Christians who also condemn war—as a matter of fact, who doesn't today?—Jones began as a romantic, hard-nosed war lover…. There was something so basically up-yours American male in his appetites that he spoke for hundreds of thousands in his first, most widely read novel, From Here to Eternity, which ended with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
A decade later came The Thin Red Line, which examines with a kind of brooding contempt the murder and monstrosity on Guadalcanal during the campaign against the Japanese in '42 and '43. Any male romanticism that Jones might have had about testing himself in the ultimate contest had long since fled. What makes the book extraordinary is the tremendous calm and self-discipline with which he opens a door on hell; no shrieking, no hysteria, but instead a very level and unrelenting examination of what modern warfare is like….
Whistle brings this big, sad story of the American fighting man and the so-called last great war to its final ghoulish resting-place. The four characters who dominate the book have all been wounded in some fashion during the fighting on the Pacific Island of South Georgia, following Guadalcanal. They are all sent to an army hospital in "Luxor," Tennessee, to mend…. The hospital and the town become the final stage for the deterioration of the four men.
Three of the four we have met before under different names. Mart Winch was the sardonic and masterful 1st/Sgt. Warden in Eternity and 1st/Sgt. Welsh in Red Line: Bobby Prell was the defiant bugler Pvt. Prewitt (really the young Jones) in Eternity and Pvt. Witt in Red Line, and John Strange was the amiable Mess/Sgt. Stark in Eternity and Mess/Sgt. Storm in Red Line. (p. 70)
All have deep mental wounds as well as physical ones, revolving around the men they have deserted on South Georgia. One must recall that the war is still...
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There are a number of excellent reasons why James Jones's last novel shouldn't work, none of them particularly new. Jones was neither a psychologist nor a stylist; his characterizations lack both depth and complexity and his prose is serviceable at best, although there is, as always, rather a lot of it. His notions about sex are frequently preposterious, and his ideas concerning American womanhood are egregious when they are not positively insulting. His protagonists are unpleasant. His plot is a symphony based on a single note. His earnestness resembles that of a man trying to thread a needle in boxing gloves.
These qualities have inevitably proven fatal to most if not all of Jones's civilian fiction, but in Whistle—as in its predecessors in the trilogy, From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line—they are either moot or, what is more remarkable, they are improbably transmuted into virtues. What his characters lack in depth is more than made up for in resonance. The interminable clumsiness of the prose, the sexual naiveté, and the unidimensional eroticism of the male-female relationships cease to function as crippling liabilities and become instead badges of authenticity.
Jones as a writer had mastered a single subject: World War II as perceived and experienced by the proletariat of the military slum, the common professional soldiery. If his words do not possess the suppleness, wit, and...
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Throughout his career as a novelist, James Jones … was a self-willed anachronism out of step with his literary generation…. After 1945, when other ex-soldiers lusting for literary glory began spinning the ephemeral exploits of war into the relative permanence of fiction, Jones doggedly set out, in From Here to Eternity, to write not about combat but about the pre-war, peacetime Regular Army…. Not until 1962 did Jones get around to publishing The Thin Red Line, drawn from his combat experiences in a rifle company that fought on Guadalcanal and New Georgia.
Characteristically, Jones wrote The Thin Red Line oblivious to all the signs that the advance guard of intellectual opinion about war and venerable American ideals had begun to turn with radical hostility against the exultant mood of victory now more than fifteen years in the past. Only a year earlier, Joseph Heller, in Catch-22, had provided the decade with a startling new attitude toward the World War and all war…. Yet while Heller's savage mockery of army bureaucracy and the shibboleths of war became the absurdist epiphany of the 1960's, Jones was choosing to celebrate such old-fashioned virtues as bravery under fire and the warm solidarity of men at arms….
Not that The Thin Red Line was merely a gung-ho glorification of combat. If one side of Jones's imagination strove to apotheosize warfare as "the greatest" of all human endeavors, he was also capable of rendering with blunt power the charnel-house brutality and mutilation and senseless death that await soldiers in battle…. [Jones] needed to believe that the reality of war, however nightmarish and bloody, was in the end something other than Heller's lunatic farce. (p. 90)
The Thin Red Line was the last work of sustained literary merit that Jones wrote…. It was as if his idea of the fearlessly aggressive virility that distinguishes men from boys had become frozen for the rest of his days by the army's unyielding maleness, which ritualized not only the soldier's performance of his duty and the punishment of his derelictions, but his drunkenness and whoring, his obscenity, his deeply private longings and distemper. If the army was the only milieu in which Jones felt at home as a writer, it was because that fine-tuned machine of war, that honeycomb of rules and traditions and ranks and regulations, provided him with a rigidly stable point of personal, sexual, and social reference, the unalterable measure by which he could grasp and judge the world at large. Indeed, the army was the world—the great American cross-section of rubes and city slickers, leaders and lackeys, bullies and men of honor, fags and he-men, pillars of society and Dead End kids, redneck louts and visionary rebels. (pp. 90-1)
The numbing regimentation and the jungle violence, the mindless tedium and primitive integrity of the barracks world was Jones's singular experience, his sole claim to originality. In his first book, From Here to Eternity, he had made the most of it. Investing all his imaginative energy in "the cult of experience," Jones relived his peacetime-army years with such seductive authority, such a...
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From his first appearance on the literary scene with From Here to Eternity in 1951 …, Jones presented himself, and was viewed by critics, as a writer in whom art and life had synthesized. He possessed a distinct, if limited, talent as a novelist, and asked that his readers accept the honesty of his observations….
Jones was a late arrival in the ranks of those Philip Rahv labeled the "redskins" of our literature. Unlike their "paleface" rivals, the redskin writers were so distinctly American, so much the product of this culture, that even their harshest criticism could be easily absorbed into the American way of looking at things…. For Rahv, the redskin was "a self-made writer in the same...
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James Jones may have been the last prominent American novelist to suppose that fiction should be a virtually unmediated presentation of life, that material counts for more than craft….
Certainly the last and most important question one asks of a novel is not How is it done? but What does it know? To this extent Jones struck the right note when he wrote of Whistle, his last and not quite finished novel, that "it will say just about everything I have ever had to say, or will ever have to say, on the human condition of war and what it means to us, as against what we claim it means to us." But even if Jones was a novelist who aimed for, and often enough achieved, something beyond mastery of...
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