From Here to Eternity: the Restored Edition

The history of book editing is littered with the corpses of corpuses. Editors can be lionized for their brilliant work in shaping a text, as Maxwell Perkins did on Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel; discovering new talent from a slush pile; or championing an overlooked foreign author’s work, as Will Schwalbe did for Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet. But they can also be savaged when, in the opinion of writers, critics, or even family survivors or descendants, they have dominated a writer’s work, viz., Gordon Lish on Raymond Carver’s short stories or the huge red pencil-machete that Houghton Mifflin’s editors took to Ross Lockridge, Jr.’s Raintree County.

Now along comes the “writer’s cut” of James Jones’s novel From Here to Eternity–published in 1951, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 1952, and made into a film the following year–to “restore” the original vision. The book FHTE has been dominated by its slimmed-down movie adaptation as much as any big American novel. One cannot help but approach its reading with the faces of the actors in mind: Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Ernest Borgnine, Donna Reed (playing a whore!), and Frank Sinatra, whose absurdly over-the-top performance makes you wish he had been knifed by Borgnine hundreds of frames before he actually was. There were scenes in which you couldn’t be sure if Sinatra were trying to express emotion or if he had just sat on a bag of potato chips.

 FHTE appeared six years after the end of World War Two, which naturally was a fecund period for war novels to emerge. It is often compared to Norman Mailer’s 1948 The Naked and the Dead, with which it shares a sense of spiritual deadening. One could also link it to popular novels of that period that centered on solitary, violent men, such as Mickey Spillane’s 1947 I, the Jury, which, like FHTE, was made into a film in 1953.

Set in 1941 in the Schofield base on the Hawaiian island of Oahu just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, FHTE takes a last gasp of 1930s humanism, which Jones filtered through a decade of stupefying brutality. It focuses on two hard-headed GIs: Robert Prewitt, a talented musician and boxer, and Milton Warden, a rough-edged but thoughtful sergeant, and their relationships with women of two decidedly different social strata and background, and sprinkles it with sparkling secondary characters, mainly working-class misfits hobbled in their dissolution only by army fatigues.

In his book Leopards in the Temple, Morris Dickstein places it in the context of novels of the post-war that link the ’30s to the ’50s, social realism corrected by war. Though he calls it a “pre-war novel” he also recognizes that it belongs to a post-war sensibility, that the men of the economically depressed ’30s ended the Depression by fighting a political war set in the ’40s, which often left them existentially adrift. Jones’s characters bring with them remnants of a visible class struggle, à la Michael Gold and John Dos Passos, and when Prewitt is killed near the end of the book, his death seems to represent the end of a naïve belief in positive change. Only ten years later, in 1961, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 would reconfigure such stories through the lens of a broad, comic cynicism and absurdity.

But Jones–like Steinbeck, whose East of Eden appeared the following year–underpins his naturalism with a significant bedrock of mythology. Absent are the great heroes of the war movies of the late ’40s, the “greatest generation” writ by one who lived it–Jones himself had been stationed at the Schofield base–absent the fighting fields of heroism, which are far from Jones’s bailiwick. Instead he gives us fallen men and women against the backdrop of paradise, whoring and whore-mongering, gambling, violence, adultery, verbal and sexual abuse, racism, class tension and psychic violence, and a succession of artificial combats filtered through the ambitions of sport: the Ten Commandments are paraded like ducks in a shooting gallery, waiting to be picked off. And then there are the venalities: anger, boredom, degradation, and the simple fatuousness of military life. No one is exempt from sin in this determined former Paradise, as if Warden’s first name had been a deliberate reference to the poet of Paradise Lost. And as if those implications weren’t enough, Jones’s characters themselves muse on the mythological subject matter in paintings by Gauguin and Titian and the devil and free will. If the English garden was the symbol of a fallen Eden in the sixteenth century, in FHTE it is the golf course, where the main character meets his end. Jones’s characters also unabashedly question the American mythologies of racial “settling” of the Civil War (Prewitt’s full name is “Robert E. Lee Prewitt”), the myth of the American frontier (several characters discuss who makes the best movie cowboy), and the substituting of factitious athletics for true combat (boxing, baseball, football, golf, horseback riding).
Thank heaven for the development of digital books and the desire to include the dirty bits that were omitted from the original publication. Perhaps this will give FHTE a new life with a new generation. In terms of the depiction of a broad array of sin, it’s all dirty bits, actually. Digital publication has its advantages: Just enter the search term “queer” and one-by-one your device will take you to references to gay sex. In most cases, the digital version only adds a line or two that might have seemed off-color in 1951. But don’t expect it to be erotic. When Maggio–the Sinatra character–needs money for a prostitute but loses all his winnings gambling, he decides to go downtown and pick up a gay man. “At least I’ll get a few drinks and get my gun off,” he says in the unexpurgated digital version. Or the following: “Aw, [queers] all right. They just peculiar is all. They maladjusted. Besides, they’ll buy you preparation all night long. Just to get to blow you. ‘Ats a lot a preparation, friend.” “I don’t like to be blowed,” says Prewitt.

This restored edition should be read not because of the movie tie-in, or for its expanded sex scenes, but because FHTE is a great American novel, perhaps the best representation of vigorously masculine, muscular writing of consequence in the United States, without the mediating, comic irony that came later. FHTE‘s gritty realism remains only part of its achievement. The rest lies in its self-aware depiction of the history of history.