James Jones

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

George Garrett’s James Jones is the third in a series of “album biographies” published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich under the general editorship of Matthew J. Bruccoli. An oversize book with a generous selection of photographs of Jones at various stages of his life, Garrett’s study begins with a reevaluation of Jones’s place in the history of the post-World War II American novel and then proceeds to describe his life. Garrett gives a brief discussion of each novel as it appears and a summary of critical commentary, but his focus is on Jones’s experience, not his writing. The book is clearly directed at the general audience, not at literary critics.

It is clear from his introductory comments that Garrett is aware of the problem his subject presents. Jones burst on the literary scene in 1951 with his first novel, the best-selling From Here to Eternity. He would publish a total of eight novels, most of them highly popular, as well as a collection of short fiction and two nonfiction books about war before his death a quarter of a century later. He would be a favorite subject for Life magazine and would live much of his adult life in the public eye. His fiction, however, never attracted respectful attention from professional critics, and this indifference has continued since his death. Garrett’s bibliography lists a single critical study of Jones (part of a series which includes virtually every notable American writer of this century) and one earlier biographical work, a friend’s account of Jones’s last years. This is indifference amounting almost to ostracism for a writer as popular as Jones was, and it reflects the depth of skepticism with which critics have always regarded Jones as a novelist. Given the limitations of the kind of book Garrett is writing, he must argue his case for Jones primarily in an introductory section titled “A Reappraisal”; the rest of the book must be largely biographical.

The strengths of James Jones are largely those of the form. In relatively brief chapters, Garrett provides the reader with the basic information about the various stages of Jones’s career: where he lived at various times in his life (addresses and sometimes phone numbers included), who his friends were, what kinds of reactions his books evoked, and how he responded to reviews. The reader who knows Jones only by name, or who might have seen the motion picture From Here to Eternity (1953) on late-night television, will learn the basic facts of his life, will learn that he was much valued by his friends in the writing community (including William Styron, Irwin Shaw, Willie Morris, and a number of others), and will learn the settings and plots of Jones’s novels. Since Jones led an interesting life, and Garrett writes in clear, uncluttered prose, most readers will enjoy the book.

Garrett’s reappraisal does as much as could be done in attempting to resurrect Jones’s reputation. It focuses firmly on Jones’s integrity, the importance he gave to telling “the truth” in his writings, and his determination to convey accurately to his readers the experiences of army life and the war of which his civilian audience was so ignorant. Garrett also goes to considerable lengths to explain that Jones’s style was an attempt to render in English the speech and thought patterns of the uneducated and often barely articulate men about whom he was writing. Garrett gives Jones high marks for what he regards as an interesting experiment in prose. Garrett’s contention that the trilogy comprising From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line (1962), and Whistle (1978) is the best fictional rendering of World War II is probably sound, although it would not be universally shared.

In his reappraisal, however, Garrett does not confront in other ways the general critical judgment that Jones’s prose style, in almost all of his works, was repetitious, dull, unimaginative, and very often clumsy. He also manages to ignore the objection that Jones used very simple and unimaginative plots, that his use of detail was exhaustive without being interesting or always pertinent, and that too many of his major characters were two-dimensional and, in some cases, entirely unbelievable. Elsewhere in the book, Garrett quotes without disputing a critical observation that Jones never created a believable female character, but in the introductory section, he avoids negative observations in trying to construct his case for Jones.

The drawbacks of James Jones are also, to a great extent, the result of its form. Although he provides a number of minor...

(The entire section is 1897 words.)