James Jones (November 6, 1921 – May 9, 1977) was a midwestern American author who wrote in the tradition of naturalism. His novels and short stories often celebrated human endurance. He is best known for the fictional portrayals of his real life accounts as a witness to the Pearl Harbor attacks and as a soldier in World War II. The first of these depictions, From Here to Eternity (1951), has been named one of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century by the Modern Library.
Early in his career, in the 1950s, Jones was regarded as one of the major novelists of his generation. Today, his works are considered particularly valuable material for examining the experience of soldiering from a spiritual and humanistic perspective.
Born in 1921, in the small community of Robinson, Illinois, James Jones was the son of Ramon Jones and Ada Blessing. Jones was a perceptive youth, showing early signs of his talent as a writer. Says Barbara Moody, a friend of Jones' from his earlier years: "He was intensely interested in people. When you talked with him, you were the only person there. He made no judgments. He treated everyone the same, whether he was talking to a small child or anyone." Endowed with a sensitive and passionate nature, Jones stood apart from most other inhabitants of the small town of Robinson. According to Moody, he tended to live "on the edge" and was not understood well by others.
Jones enlisted in the Army in 1939, and served in the U.S. 25th Infantry Division before and during World War II. Assigned first to Hawaii, he was an eyewitness to the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the only major writer to have this distinction. He studied briefly at the University of Hawaii while awaiting his regiment's war assignment. Eventually, he would enter combat at Guadalcanal, for which he earned both a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Due to his wounds, he spent time recovering at a Memphis military hospital before receiving an honorable discharge from the army, returning home to Illinois in 1944, as an embittered and angry man.
Back in his hometown, Jones became a drinker and a brawler, revealing a side of his personality that contrasted with his more compassionate qualities. It was during this time that Jones also became a writer, turning to his experiences in Hawaii and Guadalcanal for the substance of his work. He moved east in early 1945, to study at New York University (NYU). Here he met Maxwell Perkins of Scribner's, to whom he submitted his novel, They Shall Inherit the Laughter, a story about soldiers returning home from World War II. The manuscript was rejected, but Perkins gave Jones a monetary advance on a story idea he had about his pre-World War II experience in Hawaii. Jones then returned to Illinois to work on this novel. Together with his mentor and lover, local intellectual and free spirit Lowney Handy, Jones formed the Handy Writer's Colony in 1949, in Marshall, Illinois. The colony was conceived of as a utopian commune where emerging writers could focus on their projects.
That year, Jones completed what would become his career's catalyst, the novel From Here to Eternity. The book was an international best seller and received high critical acclaim. Its success earned Jones both fame and money, as well as the National Book Award, in 1952. Jones continued to write fiction (Some Came Running) while maintaining his residence in Robinson, where he built himself a dream-house bachelor home. During this time, he frequently traveled, especially to New York City, where he made friends with literary figures such as James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Budd Schulberg, among others.
In 1957, Jones married the enigmatic Gloria Mosalino. The couple soon moved to Paris as part of the second generation of American expatriate writers and artists, becoming central figures for the postwar European literary scene. Their lifestyle was that of the Beat generation, spending most of their time in the St. Germain section of the Left Bank.
The couple had two children in Paris, and Jones continued to write books. His next novel was 1962's The Thin Red Line, which served as the second part of his World War II trilogy following From Here to Eternity. Compelled by an attractive multi-book contract offer from the American publishing house Dell, Jones left Scribner's at the end of 1964, producing for his new publisher, Go to the Widow-maker (1967) and The Ice-cream Headache and Other Stories (1968). During this time Jones also served as a European talent scout for Dell and spent considerable time critiquing and encouraging young writers. Work on the final volume of his military trilogy was interrupted twice to produce The Merry Month of May (1971) and A Touch of Danger (1973).
Following a visit to Vietnam in early 1973, Jones published an account of his trip called Viet Journal and began to think seriously of a return to the U.S. In 1974, he accepted a one-year teaching position at Florida International University in Miami and wrote the text for the illustrated history, WWII (1975). At the end of his FIU tenure, Jones moved to Sagaponack, Long Island, and began again to work on the third in his World War II series, Whistle (1978). Struggling with worsening health, he worked through 1976 and early 1977 to complete the novel but died on May 9, 1977, from heart failure, before he could finish the project. Following his death, his friend Willie Morris added an outline of the unfinished final chapters of the novel, which was then published the following year.
Jones' magnum opus, the three novels which comprised his trilogy examining the evolutionary process of the soldier in World War II, began in 1951, with the publication of his masterwork, From Here to Eternity. The book depicts army life in pre-war Hawaii, drawn from the author's firsthand accounts of his time stationed just before and after Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It was later adapted into a blockbuster movie, which earned eight Academy Awards in 1953.
The second in the series was The Thin Red Line (1964), which describes the intense jungle combat that took place on Guadalcanal. This book, also, was later adapted into a major Hollywood film, first in 1964, and a second time in 1998, by director Terrence Malik.
The final piece of Jones' trilogy, Whistle (1978), deals with a group of wounded soldiers coming home to an Army hospital in America's deep South. This, too, was based on of Jones' own experiences as a wounded soldier in a military hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
The evolutionary process that Jones experienced first-hand as a young man forced to grow up fast as a soldier, was the prime inspiration for the bulk of Jones' works. In his book WWII, Jones gave the following summary of the soldier's culminating insight into his role as a war-fighter:
I think that when all the nationalistic or ideological and patriotic slogans are put aside, all the straining to convince a soldier that he is dying for something, it is the individual soldier's final full acceptance of the fact that his name is already written down in the rolls of the already dead.
Jones firmly believed that it was an absolute miracle that America was able to create a generation of victorious soldiers in such a short amount of time, especially since these same soldiers, unlike those of the the Axis nations, had grown up believing that war was the greatest wrong.
Though regarded in his time by some to be one of the generation's greatest voices, Jones' name for the most part has dropped out of the public's attention. This is due in part to the fact that he was greatly ignored by the writing academy at large during his career.
He is, however, remembered in certain literary circles as a genius of his time, and credited by many veterans today for having contributed much to the world's appreciation of the World War II generation. Furthermore, the Academy award-winning film adapted from his novel From Here to Eternity remains a well-known classic today.
There was also a revival of interest in Jones when his novel, The Thin Red Line, was adapted into a major film directed by Terrence Malick, released in 1998. In that same year, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries was also released as a major film. The movie was an adaptation of the autobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones, James and Gloria's first child, which depicted Kaylie's experiences as James' daughter.
The James Jones Literary Society, founded in 1992, claims hundreds of members from the U.S. and Puerto Rico. The Society offers information and news of the author and his artistic contributions, as well as an $2,000 fellowship conferred annually to an unpublished writer.
All links retrieved March 18, 2018.
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