There are a lot of writers I admire. There are a lot of writers who have influenced me. Like a lot of guys, I was floored when I first came across Hemingway’s sentences. I spent years imitating Faulkner. Raymond Carver hit home for me, too. Of course all of those men were talented, but they were not the nicest of fellows either. The one writer I feel closest to, the one who I look up to not just as a man of prose but of human decency is James Jones. Though he is not as well read today, and some of his writing can feel clunky, even a bit dated, I believe that Jones is the closest thing America has to a Tolstoy. Besides writing wonderful, sprawling novels, Jones’s life was filled with compassion and honesty.
James Jones grew up in Illinois—the pre-war mid-west would be a place of love and hate for Jones just as the South was for Faulkner. Because of the depression, Jones didn’t feel he had too many options after graduating high school, and he enlisted in the army in 1939. James Jones found himself stationed at the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii—just sixteen miles from Pearl Harbor. Jones witnessed the attack on December 7, 1941, and he became the attack's only witness to write a successful novel about it. Jones later fought on Guadalcanal and was discharged in 1944. For the next few years Jones drifted around America and worked on his fiction. He had developed a love for Thomas Wolfe and imitated his style and structure. Then Maxwell Perkins—the great editor of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Jones’s idol, Wolfe—asked Jones to write a book about the peacetime army. Jones went back to his typewriter and wrote the National Book Award winning novel From Here to Eternity. It became a sensational best seller and made Jones rich and famous.
From Here to Eternity is one of my favorite novels, which surprises a lot of people since Jones was not a stylist, his language can even be described as flat. But the man had a distinct voice—one that was masculine and confident and aware of the absurdity and tragedy of the world. Jones is clearly an author with roots in the mid-west harkening back to writers such as Dreiser or Lewis. He is interested in character and story, not literary trickery or gymnastics. The book is massive, and after finishing it you feel as if you were there on the islands. Similar to War and Peace, the novel is like life itself. From Here to Eternity came out in 1951, and it explores how society can corrupt the individual. The novel is actually pretty anti-authority, and it portrays women and homosexuals with a compassion way ahead of its time.
A lot of folks tried to label Jones as some type of literary barbarian. The big, tough war writer. The macho American. It is true that Jones cursed a lot, he drank a lot, and he wrote openly and frankly about sex. He enjoyed guns and knives. Some of the New York literati labeled him the hick from the sticks. But Jones believed that man’s greatest attribute was sensitivity. He ridiculed Hemingway for being a lover of war and violence. Jones had pacifist leanings, and he adored the ballet, Virginia Woolf, and Emily Dickinson. Jones was a cultured and intellectual man who distained narcissism, elitism, and snobbery. He liked people, all types of people. He was just as comfortable discussing Stendhal as he was bowling or playing poker. On top of that, Jones was a dedicated family man and a loyal friend. Novelists such as William Styron and James Baldwin adored him. He helped out struggling young writers whenever he could. After Jones died in 1977, Willie Morris wrote a book about their friendship out of respect and out of love.
For me these are the things that really make James Jones one of my biggest heroes. Though he died pretty young, he died having lived a life of joy, adventure, romance, and warmth. He didn’t blow his brains out with a shotgun, he didn’t curse his daughter for wearing shorts and tell her that no one remembers Shakespeare’s children, he didn’t beat his wife—he wrote some amazing books that are brutal but true, and he left behind a legacy of kindness and generosity that continues to endure.
I admire Jones as a writer. I admire Jones as a man.
For more information about James Jones please click on the link below.
Writer living in the hill country of Texas