Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

James Jones was lucky—his first novel, From Here to Eternity, was an enormous success, it was made into a film in 1953, and thereafter he was able to devote himself to writing. Critics largely agree that his war trilogy stands above all of his other books. When Ernest Hemingway read From Here to Eternity, he thought that Jones’s talent was possibly greater than his own. The question now is just how high these war novels rank: Are they among the half dozen best American novels about World War II, or further down the list? Is The Thin Red Line as good as or even better than The Naked and the Dead, a famous but fatally flawed novel whose final third is an artistic disaster? Critics who admire the modernists, above all T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound in poetry, James Joyce in fiction, are hard on Jones. Frequently, his style is awkward—it is not literary or “high,” and he often uses words that college graduates do not admit into their lexicons. Those critics, however, who are not advocates of Anglo-American modernism, tend to rate Jones much higher. This plain stylist, who is certainly not a philosophical novelist, treats almost every theme that can be found in Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and other war novels—the motivation of the soldier and the officer, the nature of fear and bravery, of leadership, free will, and authority in the varied situations of war—with more depth and with more probing, psychological breadth of understanding than anyone else.