Jones, James (Vol. 10)
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...
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L. J. Davis
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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Pearl K. Bell
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...
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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 way that Henry Ford was a self-made millionaire. On the one hand, he is a crass materialist, a greedy consumer of experience, and on the other a sentimentalist…." Jones is the very model of the redskin writer…. Our major redskin writers—Twain, Dreiser, Hemingway, Steinbeck—draw their metaphors from biology rather than literature…. But the situations one discovers in redskin novels are public and irremediable, even when they deal with the private individual. The redskin writer tends to see man as part of an inevitable process, ground down by fate or accident.
The limitations in James Jones's work are similar to those in Dreiser. Everything his critics have pointed to as weak is readily observable. He was unable...
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Thomas R. Edwards
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 technique and style, no assessment of Whistle can avoid saying that it is a very badly written book….
Except for Landers, these are not characters who could be expected to be very eloquent or even articulate about what they know and feel, and Jones relies a great deal on explanatory narrative that stands close to their thoughts without purporting to reproduce them verbatim. But even with Landers the method keeps muffling or confusing the consciousness it means to explain to us:
But Landers knew there was something more. Something inside him. Aching to get out. There was something inside him aching to get out, but in a way that only a serious fight or series of serious fights would...
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