Wins Wide Readership Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

James Jones’s From Here to Eternity broke with tradition to present a realist, non-idealized, vision of the U.S. military during the early 1940’s. The book earned both critical and popular acclaim and a National Book Award for fiction. It was adapted into a movie that won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1953.

Summary of Event

Even before James Jones’s From Here to Eternity (1951) appeared in bookstores, Charles Scribner’s Sons Charles Scribner’s Sons[Charles Scribners Sons] , its New York publishing house, had mounted an ambitious publicity campaign. On December 16, 1950, Scribner’s bought the front page of Publishers Weekly, the industry trade journal, for a full-page advertisement that included a photograph of Jones. The next two pages compared From Here to Eternity with previous best-selling first novels the company had published, such as Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel (1929) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926). When Jones’s novel appeared on February 26, 1951, it was reviewed favorably in newspapers all over the United States and in important magazines such as The Saturday Review of Literature, The Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s. Sales kept up with the good reviews, and by March, Scribner’s doubled its original advertising budget to $20,000. By April, the book was the country’s number one best seller, and by May, 163,000 copies had been sold, with sales continuing at a rate of about 4,000 copies a week. In November of the following year, it received the National Book Award National Book Award for fiction. From Here to Eternity (Jones) [kw]From Here to Eternity Wins Wide Readership (Feb. 26, 1951) [kw]Readership, From Here to Eternity Wins Wide (Feb. 26, 1951) From Here to Eternity (Jones) [g]North America;Feb. 26, 1951: From Here to Eternity Wins Wide Readership[03440] [g]United States;Feb. 26, 1951: From Here to Eternity Wins Wide Readership[03440] [c]Literature;Feb. 26, 1951: From Here to Eternity Wins Wide Readership[03440] Jones, James Perkins, Maxwell Handy, Lowney Turner

James Jones.

(National Archives)

The book was based on Jones’s own experiences in the U.S. Army, in which he enlisted shortly after he turned eighteen. He had graduated from high school in June, 1939, in Robinson, Illinois, but during the depths of the Great Depression, employment prospects were very poor, and his family did not have enough money to send him to college. He was initiated into the Army Air Corps, which was then part of the regular army. After he was shipped to Hawaii, however, it was found that Jones could not fly because of his poor eyesight. He was sent to clerical school at Wheeler Field, a small Army Air Corps base in Oahu next to Schofield Barracks. He hoped to find a place in the infantry at Schofield Barracks, and he was eventually accepted as a recruit in the Twenty-Seventh Infantry Regiment in 1940.

Schofield Barracks Schofield Barracks was an elaborate military camp made up of eight three-story stone quads for enlisted men and noncommissioned officers. Other structures included a headquarters building, a shopping center, a boxing ring, stables, a movie theater, a library, a hospital, a gymnasium, and a stockade. Sports activities were considered important, both for personal health and for company morale, with boxing commanding the most attention. While Jones was at Schofield Barracks, he read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel Look Homeward, Angel (Wolfe) and recognized the similarities between Wolfe’s hero, Eugene Gant, and himself. This determined Jones to fulfill his early longing to become a writer.

Jones soon embarked on a novel about returning veterans, tentatively titled They Shall Inherit the Laughter, which he showed to Maxwell Perkins at Charles Scribner’s Sons after he was given an honorable discharge from the Army on June 6, 1944. Perkins, then a highly regarded editor, decided the novel needed further work. He encouraged Jones by purchasing a $500 option on his second novel, on which Jones had begun working. Perkins developed a personal relationship with the writer, passing along hints and suggestions he had gathered over the years, such as that Jones should keep a notebook in which to record ideas or emotions he found striking. In June of 1946, Jones sent Perkins the first fourteen chapters of From Here to Eternity, which Perkins praised highly. Perkins died in June of 1947, when the novel was only half finished, and it was assigned to other editors.

During most of the writing of From Here to Eternity, Jones lived at the home of Harry Handy Handy, Harry and Lowney Turner Handy in Robinson, Illinois. He had met the couple in 1943, and Lowney had recognized Jones’s genius. She and her husband took him into their home as soon as he was out of the Army, and for several years Harry supported Jones financially, although he knew that Lowney and Jones were lovers. Lowney became Jones’s tutor and mentor and later persuaded him to take writing courses at New York University. Lowney eventually established the Handy Writers’ Colony, which included James Jones among its alumnae.

Schofield Barracks provides the setting for most of the action of From Here to Eternity, and it stands for an entire world, mirroring society. Set in the months leading up to and including the attack on Pearl Harbor, the time of the novel also mirrors Jones’s early years in the army. Jones envisioned the main axis of the book as a contrast between his two main characters, Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt and First Sergeant Milt Warden. Both men love the military, but they are very different. Prewitt, a loner, is defined by his refusal to box on the regiment’s team, despite his prowess, because he previously blinded a man in the ring. He has his own code of honor and refuses to compromise, even though he is an expert boxer. His individualism leads to his imprisonment and, finally, to his death. Warden is the perfect soldier: efficient, hard-working, and capable. He is trusted by the men under him and relied on by his commanding officer, Captain Holmes, with whose wife he has an affair.

The affair with Karen Holmes, begun in cynicism, turns to mutual love, but for Warden there is a cost to this love. Karen will only marry an officer, and while Warden is capable of becoming one, he could only play the part. Warden has a moment of introspection in which he realizes that, being in love, he is no longer a free man and that the wild power and strength to control others that was his great pride has been compromised. He finally refuses his promotion, but his integrity is restored when he takes control of the crisis of the Japanese bombing on December 7, 1941. Afterward, he has a final scene with Karen, in which they agree they must give each other up.

Warden is so drawn to Prewitt, the company’s “misfit,” that he allows himself to violate his own code of noninvolvement with the men under him. When Prewitt refuses to box, Captain Holmes attempts to “break” him by placing him in the stockade after Prewitt has a fight. There, Prewitt endures great suffering and humiliation, but only after witnessing the beating death of “Blues” Berry, which is supervised by Staff Sergeant “Fatso” Judson, does he vow vengeance. He sees no way to put things right except to kill Judson. After his release from the stockade, Prewitt does kill Judson in a knife fight. Wounded himself, Prewitt makes his way to the home of his mistress, Alma Schmidt, where he goes through a prolonged period of drinking and reading. Upon learning of the Japanese attack of December 7, Prewitt tries to return to his regiment, but in the chaos and confusion following the attack, he is killed. Thus, Prewitt’s decision to go absent without leave after killing Judson—a decision that Warden tried to talk him out of—ultimately leads to Prewitt’s death.

Significance

From Here to Eternity is widely considered one of the best books of the twentieth century. In some ways, it is an old-fashioned realist work that presents characters as subject to the conditions of their environment, but it also uses such modernist literary techniques as stream of consciousness and idiosyncratic punctuation. The novel broke the tradition of previous U.S. Army novels that depicted characters in a primarily heroic mode; instead, it exposed the truth about the life of enlisted men. It was enthusiastically received by a United States weary from the efforts of World War II and tired of propaganda. It not only launched the career of a great novelist and told a wrenching story, but also grappled with the perennial question of how much conformity a society should impose on its citizens in the name of patriotism. From Here to Eternity (Jones)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carter, Steven R. James Jones: An American Literary Orientalist Master. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998. Focuses on Jones’s spiritual evolution as indicated by progressive philosophical changes in his novels and stories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Giles, James R. James Jones. Boston: Twayne, 1981. A concise, vivid biography with a detailed literary analysis of From Here to Eternity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hendler, Jane. Best-Sellers and Their Film Adaptations in Postwar America: “From Here to Eternity,” “Sayonara,” “Giant,” “Auntie Mame,” “Peyton Place.” New York: P. Lang, 2001. Study of five best-selling novels that became popular films after World War II. Details the American cultural reaction to From Here to Eternity and the process of bringing its film adaptation to the screen.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hendrick, G., H. Howe, and D. Sackrider. James Jones and the Handy Writers’ Colony. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 2001. Well researched, this book illuminates the connections between Lowney Handy, James Jones, and the Handy Writers’ Colony, while indicating how each influenced the other.

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