Overview of James Jones’s Trilogy on World War II and Soldiering

One of the most brilliant intuitions in the long, brilliant editorial career of Maxwell Perkins, the legendary Scribner’s editor of Hemingway, Wolfe and Fitzgerald, was to offer James Jones a $500 advance for an unwritten novel on the pre-war U.S. Army, the pineapple army, set in Hawaii. By this time, February 1945, Jones had already pressed two versions of his first (still unpublished) first novel, “They Shall Inherit the Laughter,” on Perkins, who had no intention of publishing it. It is easy to see why the novel was rejected — and why Perkins was attracted to Jones. “Laughter” is rambling and episodic in structure, self-indulgent and excessively bitter in tone, and patently derivative of Wolfe, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, and even Emerson and the American Transcendentalists. Toward the end, Jones even borrows Tom Joad’s “I’ll be there” speech from The Grapes of Wrath and applies it to the returning American soldier. Still, it contains some fine writing and is fascinating as a kind of preview of Jones’s later career. It incorporates, moreover, early versions of some of the most memorable scenes from Jones’s later work — for example, Lander’s speech about “the soldier’s responsibilities” to his Indiana hometown Elks Club in Whistle, “Mad” Welsh’s desperate attempt to help the painfully wounded Tella in The Thin Red Line, and several of the major episodes in Some Came Running. In fact, “Laughter” is, to a large degree, an early less successful version of Some Came Running. The hero, Johnny Carter, is a prototype for Richard Mast in The Pistol, Dave Hirsch in Some Came Running, Geoffrey Fife in The Thin Red Line, and Marion Landers in Whistle.

What attracted Perkins to Jones was that he was clearly a writer in the Dreiserian tradition, one who could write novels of saturation about virgin tracts of reality of interest to the large and growing novel readership in the U.S. Jones was not someone who would write small, precious novels of the kind Truman Capote, Jane Bowles and Carson McCullers were turning out during this time. Jones was an American Balzac but instead of delineating all the levels of French society, Jones wanted to reproduce in prose the pre-war American army. It was only one of the novels that Jones mentioned when replying to Perkins’ second, gentle rejection of the “Laughter” manuscript. In the course of outlining the future novelistic work of a lifetime, he described “a real combat novel telling the complete truth” and another, a novel “on the peacetime army, something I don’t remember having seen.” This second idea rang a big bell for Perkins. Jones had never seen a novel on the peacetime army, because they didn’t exist, not in any realistic form, and Perkins knew it. He also knew: 1) that the “old army” was long gone, swept away by mass enlistments, the draft and technology; 2) that 20 million GIs had nevertheless heard about the “old army” via the relentless comparisons of their drill sergeants. (Not a small audience, especially when you add spouses, children, parents and everyone else touched by World War II); and 3) that Jones was unique in the literary world: intelligent, sensitive, tough and well suited for heavy narrative labor, and, most important, he had been on active army duty for over two years when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Jones had actually seen the Japanese strafe Schofield Barracks when he was on guard duty on December 7, 1941. Perkins had a trifecta hunch: he had the writer, the story and the demand. He died in June 1947 before his hunch paid off in full, but he did read the first 200 pages of From Here to Eternity and knew it was a winner.

To repeat, From Here to Eternity is not a combat novel; it is an army novel, arguably the finest ever written by an American. It is, in fact, dedicated to the U.S. Army, and follows three major characters, Pvt. Prewitt, Mess/Sgt. Stark and First/Sgt. Warden through the miseries of the caste-ridden, authoritarian peacetime army up to the symbolic moment it undergoes transmogrification, becoming with the Japanese attack, a completely different creature. “Authenticity” is the word used over and over in essays and reviews on the novel, a tribute to Jones’ massive documentation of the gear, tackle, drills, bugle calls, boredom, KP, masochism and male camaraderie — in short, all facets of barracks, bivouac and stockade life in the “old” army. Although it is 860 pages in length, it never flags. Its narrative drive is tremendous. Jones wrote it with the classic realist’s confidence that the word can be understood and explained. Prewitt, who he described to Perkins as “a small man standing on the edge of the ocean shaking his fist,” is the novel’s tragic hero/scapegoat, and one of the most memorable protagonists in modern American literature.

Exactly when the idea for a trilogy dealing with the before, during and after of Word War II came to Jones is uncertain. His first idea for Eternity was to extend it through the New Georgia campaign to the return of the wounded to the U.S. in 1944 and then to the war’s aftermath in the late 1940s. But this was impractical for one volume and after Eternity was published in 1951 to huge popular and critical acclaim, he turned back to the “Laughter” manuscript and transformed it into Some Came Running, which appeared in 1958. It is his longest novel and, he claimed more than once, his best, a judgment that seems less and less personally partisan as time goes by. Set in a Midwestern town similar to Jones’s hometown of Robinson, Illinois, it deals with the problems — financial, sexual, spiritual — of returning GIs and (as one critic said), “a continent of towns melting into shopping centers, a world of superhighways and jet flights, where men risk becoming slobs.” But it is not often remembered that the 1247-page novel begins with a moving depiction of the Battle of the Bulge, and it ends with a tableau of freezing combat in Korea. Jones’ prologue and epilogue were clues to his novelistic future.

Jones left the Midwest after completing Running, and he went back to the big war, writing first, a novella, The Pistol, set in wartime Hawaii. It was published in 1959. Jones’s friend Irwin Shaw claimed that The Pistol should be the fourth novel in a quartet, but Jones did not agree. But given its wily insights into the nature of the “new” army, it is fair to call The Pistol a pendant to the trilogy. None of the characters in The Pistol are carried over from Eternity, but there are a few who are congruent with the earlier characters, especially First/Sgt. Wycoff, “a big man in his thirties” who might easily confused with First/Sgt. Warden. Jones moved to Paris after he completed The Pistol and it was there that he began work on a combat novel set in the Pacific, one he ultimately titled The Thin Red Line.

But Jones now had a problem, one that he finessed in The Pistol. He explains it in a preface to the third novel in the trilogy, Whistle:

One of the problems I came up against, with the trilogy as a whole, appeared as soon as I began The Thin Red Line in 1959. In the original conception, first as a single novel, and then as a trilogy, the major characters such as 1st/Sgt Warden, Pvt. Prewitt and Mess/Sgt Stark were meant to continue throughout the entire work. Unfortunately, the dramatic structure — I might even say, the spiritual content — of the first book demanded that Prewitt be killed in the end of it…. It may seem like a silly problem now. It wasn’t then…. I could not just resurrect him. And have him there again, in the flesh, wearing the same name…. I solved the problem by changing the names…. So in The Thin Red Line, 1st/Sgt Warden became 1st/Sgt Welsh, Pvt. Prewitt became Pvt. Witt, Mess/Sgt Stark became Mess/Sgt Storm. While remaining the same people as before. In Whistle, Welsh becomes Mart Winch, Witt becomes Bobby Prell, Storm becomes John Strange.

In the preface Jones also points out that unlike the three novels of John Dos Passos’s trilogy, USA, the three novels of his trilogy stand alone as a fully realized works. Jones, in effect, had it both ways: he devised a scheme that permitted him to use the same characters, and continue the same master theme, but also permitted him to write three separate narratives, each of which has its own themes, structure and mood. So the careful and systematic depiction of the corrupt and brutal “old” army in Eternity is followed by the stark presentation of random and impersonal death in modern technological warfare in The Thin Red Line, which appeared in 1962. In the second novel of the trilogy Jones follows C-for-Charlie Company through an amphibious landing on an anonymous Pacific island that ends, after savage combat, with its capture by U.S. troops. Jones explore three recurring themes in the course of what may be the finest combat novel ever written by an American: the absurdity of anonymous death in combat, the ineffectuality and corruption of the officer class, and the brutalizing effects of warfare on the most decent of men. Of special interest is the episode in chapter three describing Bead’s killing of a Japanese soldier in hand-to-hand combat, a scene based closely on an incident in Jones’s own experience on Guadalcanal, one that haunted him for the rest of his life.

The unifying idea of the trilogy, the master theme, is “the evolution of the soldier.” Jones first fully articulated this theme in his 1975 nonfiction work, WWII, which contains Jones’s narrative and a moving collection of World War II graphic art, all by combat artists, and selected by the former art director of Yank magazine, Art Weithas. In simplest terms, the evolution consists of green soldiers becoming trained, hardened by combat and then turned into fearless automatons who know that they will die. A soldier’s acceptance of the fact that he is lost, Jones says, changes everything: “Little things become significant. The next meal, the next bottle of booze, the next kiss, the next sunrise, the next full moon. The next bath…It has its excitements and compensations. One of them is that, since you have none yourself, you are relieved of any responsibility for a future. And everything tastes better.” If a soldier survives, he must undergo the de-evolution of a soldier; in an ordeal just as painful as the numbing of combat, he begins to feel, begins to hope and begins to remember even as he tries to forget.

The de-evolution is manifested most powerfully in the final novel of the trilogy, Whistle, which was published posthumously in 1978. Whistle develops Jones’s vision of the embittered American soldier returning home from combat overseas only to develop a new kind of alienation in a suddenly affluent and overwhelmingly “new America.” The homefront had no place for the camaraderie that the returning wounded American soldiers had come to depend on for physical survival. The frenetic mood of the city of Memphis, renamed Luxor, the Peabody Hotel and the army hospital are depicted with ease of deeply imprinted memory — Jones knew these places well. Here the remnants of the old rifle company wait for news of the death or wounding of their comrades while drinking and fighting as much and as often as they can, fighting and drinking to forget and not to forget. The fight with the navy chiefs in the hotel bar is especially evocative of the fierce abandon of these late war years.

A disembodied narrator who speaks for all the members of the old company tells Whistle’s first chapter in the first person plural. Jones’s instinct is unerring and the brilliantly evoked “we” perspective proves to be the perfect point of view for capturing the final decline and fall of Prell, Winch and Strange. In one sense, they are still Prewitt, Warden and Strange, but markedly different having evolved and de-evolved during the course of over 2600 pages and three novels written over 33 years. It ends with the suicide of Sgt Strange who slips over the rail of his troop transport en route to the fighting in western France, unable to face more combat. Strange’s suicide was virtually the last thing Jones dictated on his tape recorder in the hospital before he died in 1977.

And then as he’s treading water with his woolen GI gloves, he can feel the cold beginning to swell his hands. And from this, in a sort of semi-hallucination, all of him begins to seem to swell and he gets bigger and bigger, until he can see the ship moving away or thinks he can. And then he goes on getting bigger and bigger and swelling and swelling until he’s bigger than the ocean, bigger than the planet, bigger than the solar system, bigger than the galaxy out in the universe.
And as he swells and grows this picture of a fully clothed soldier with his helmet, his boots, and his GI woolen gloves seems to be taking into himself all the pain and anguish and sorrow and misery that is the lot of all soldiers, taking it into himself and into the universe as well.
And then still in the hallucination he begins to shrink back to normal, and shrinks down through the other stages — the galaxy, the solar system, the planet, the ocean — back to Strange in the water. And then continues shrinking until he seems to be only the size of a seahorse, and then an amoeba, then finally an atom.
He did not know whether he would drown first of freeze.

Originally published in the James Jones Journal 17 (spring 2009), 7–10.

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