BOOKS & THE CULTURE The Epistolary Soldier The Letters of James Jones BY WILLIE MORRIS TO REACH ETERNITY: THE LETTERS OF JAMES JONES Edited by George Hendrick Random House 370 pages, $22.50 ill IM JONES and I were comrades and neighbors in the last years of his life, after he and Gloria and the children returned to America from Paris and settled in our village by the sea on eastern Long Island. He was a loyal friend and a memorable companion. These were the years that he was struggling against his own death to finish the concluding volume, Whistle, of his monumental trilogy of men-at-war which began with From Here to Eternity and continued with The Thin Red Line. To Reach Eternity contains the rich and revealing letters of Jim Jones. He was a complex and deeply feeling man who spoke honestly and knew what he was talking about. In reading these letters, selected and edited by George Hendrick of the University of Illinois with resourceful, descriptive, biographical bridges, I acknowledge anew how serious and impassioned Jim was about being a writer, that it was his whole life: “serious about fiction in a way that now seems a little old-fashioned and ingenuous,” his old friend William Styron writes in an eloquent and moving Foreword, “with the novel for him in magisterial reign.” So profound was Jim’s dedication that only three days before he died in 1977 he dictated into a tape-recorder in the heart ward at the Southampton hospital the final passage of Whistle, including the suicide of his character, Strange: “He had taken into himself all the pain and anguish and sorrow and misery that is the lot of all soldiers.” He never wrote a more autobiographical sentence. He was born in 1921 in Robinson, Illinois, growing up in his words “in an atmosphere of hot emotions and boiling recriminations covered with a thin but resilient skin of gentility.” His family was an old and promi Willie Morris is the author of the memoir, James Jones: A Friendship. His latest novel, Taps, set during the Korean War period, will he published later this year. He is a former editor of the Observer. nent one which had fallen on hard days. His father was an alcoholic dentist who killed himself. There was no money for college. Jim enlisted in the army in 1939 and was stationed in Hawaii. In his spare hours he read most of the books in the post library and took courses at the University of Hawaii. “I stumbled onto the works of Thomas Wolfe, and his home life sounded so similar to my own, his feelings about himself so similar to mine about myself, that I realized I had been a writer all my life without knowing it or having written.” Given his burgeoning sensibilities, he was unique witness to the extraordinary caste system of the United States pre-war army, the uncommon American proletariat, the castoffs and misfits like Prewitt and Maggio, the fear and brutality. In an early letter to his brother Jeff: “[In the post theatre] the officers’ children … sit in the balcony. We common herd sit in the ‘pit’ as the rabble did in Shakespeare’s day also. We are not allowed to associate with the officers’ children at all. I was told of a fella who was running around with an officers’ daughter here about a year ago, and he laid her. She had a baby, and he is still serving his year in the guardhouse. Another boy was walking down a walk and a little girl skating past him fell down. He picked her up. The girl thanked him, but the sergeant who saw him got him a month in the ‘little red schoolhouse.’ ” He began writing in Hawaii. “I’m writing in the dark all the time … If only some authority that knew would tell [me] I was good and had promise, then I’d be all right, but as it is, I’m always full of that fear that maybe I’m not very good. Sometimes I get so damned low I feel like blowing my brains out. That’s no shit, it’s the straight dope.” Never a refined stylist, certainly not in the conventional sense, he struggled to find a voice, and when the war came he harbored a deeper fear. “I might be dead in a month, which would mean that I would never learn how to say and never get said those things which proved I had once existed somewhere.” War would remain the very substance of his life, the sustaining reality he wrote the best about. He was obsessed, for instance, with our own Civil War, the slaughter and blindness and terrible caprice of it. One springtime, a year before his death, he and I took our teenaged sons, David and Jamie, to the Civil War battlefields below Washington, ending at the tormented ground of Antietam, scene of the bloodiest single day’s combat in the history of warfare. Jim and I concluded that day that if we had been living then, we would have fought on different sides. It was raining heavily and the four of us returned to our motel at Harper’s Ferry. Jim dropped us there, then went back to Antietam by himself. He returned three hours later, soaking wet. Why did he go back in such weather? I asked him. “There are places a man has to be alone,” he replied. From Hawaii in ’42 Jim shipped with the First Army to Guadalcanal, where he was in vicious hand-to-hand combat. A starved Japanese soldier slipped out of the jungle and attacked him while he was relieving himself. He had to kill the soldier. This haunted him for years. To his brother Jeff from Guadalcanal in ’43: “You don’t spend any time in consoling yourself that if you die, you will be dying for your country and Liberty and Democracy and Freedom, because after you are dead, there is no such thing as Liberty or Democracy or Freedom. It’s impossible to look at things thru the viewpoint of the group rather than your individual eyes. The group means nothing to you if you cannot remain a part of it. But in spite of all this, you keep on fighting because you know that there is nothing else for you to do.” He was wounded in action, then badly reinjured an ankle, and was eventually evacuated to Kennedy General Hospital in Memphis. The scenes of that booming wartime city, the booze and the girls and the embittered fellow wounded, psychologically scarred by war, would later provide him with many of the indelible episodes of Whistle. Twice he went AWOL. On one trip over the hill to his hometown in Illinois, he met a forceful and eccentric married woman named Lowney Handy, who conducted a bizarre writers’ colony in the woods. She encouraged him in his writing and reading. When he was mustered out of the Army with an honorable discharge they began an affair which lasted for years. Jim moved to New York and enrolled in writing courses at N.Y.U. He finished a war novel called They Shall Inherit the Laughter. 18 MAY 18, 1990 AtIMON..M.MM.NNOCVNINNOMMINMAINN.M. .
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