James Jones

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I write to reach eternity.

James Ramon Jones (6 November 19219 May 1977) was an American author, who became famous after the publication of his first novel, From Here to Eternity.

See also: The Thin Red Line (1998 film)

Sourced[edit]

It will say just about everything I have ever had to say, or will ever have to say, on the human condition of war and what it means to us, as against what we claim it means to us.
  • I write to reach eternity.
    • As quoted in "From Eternity to Here" in Newsweek (13 January 1958)
  • It will say just about everything I have ever had to say, or will ever have to say, on the human condition of war and what it means to us, as against what we claim it means to us.
  • I want to make everybody in the world groan with the inevitability of sorrow.
    • As quoted in Into Eternity : The Life of James Jones, American Writer (1985) by Frank MacShane, p. 305
  • Colour makes a difference. Gender makes a difference. Ethnicity makes a difference. Acting as if they don't will create more problems than it will solve.
    • As quoted in Wisdom for the Soul : Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing (2006) by Larry Chang

From Here to Eternity (1951)[edit]

Somewhere along the line, he thought, these things have become your heritage. You are multiplied by each sound that you hear. And you cannot deny them, without denying with them the purpose of your own existence...
  • When he finished packing, he walked out on to the third-floor porch of the barracks brushing the dust from his hands, a very neat and deceptively slim young man in the summer khakis that were still early morning fresh.
    • First line. "Jones packs a hell of a lot into that first line. He tells you it's summer, he tells you it's morning, he tells you you're on an Army post with a soldier who's obviously leaving for someplace, and he gives you a thumbnail description of his hero. That's a good opening line." ~ Ed McBain (Evan Hunter) in Killer's Payoff (1958)
  • Somewhere along the line, he thought, these things have become your heritage. You are multiplied by each sound that you hear. And you cannot deny them, without denying with them the purpose of your own existence. Yet now, he told himself, you are denying them, by renouncing the place that they have given you.
  • Unofficially, nobody really minded the clap. It was a joke to those who had never had it and to those who had been over it for a while. No worse than a bad cold, they said. Apparently the only time it was not a joke was when you had it. And instead of hurting your unofficial reputation it boosted you a notch, it was like getting a wound stripe. They said that in Nicaragua they used to give out Purple Hearts.
    But officially it hurt your Service Record, and it automatically lost you your rating. On your papers it put a stigma on you. When he put in to get back in the Bugle Corps, he found that while he was away they had suddenly gone over-strength. He went back on straight duty for the rest of his enlistment.
  • "A deathbed promise is the most sacred one there is," she hawked at him from the lungs that were almost, but not quite, filled up yet, "and I want you to make me this promise on my deathbed: Promise me you wont never hurt nobody unless its absolute a must, unless you jist have to do it."
    "I promise you," he vowed to her, still waiting for the angels to appear. "Are you afraid?" he said.
    "Give me your hand on it, boy. It is a deathbed promise, and you'll never break it."
    "Yes maam," he said, giving her his hand, drawing it back quickly, afraid to touch the death he saw in her, unable to find anything beautiful or edifying or spiritually uplifting in this return to God. He watched a while longer for signs of immortality. No angels came, however, there was no earthquake, no cataclysm, and it was not until he had thought it over often this first death that he had had a part in that he discovered the single uplifting thing about it, that being the fact that in this last great period of fear her thought had been upon his future, rather than her own. He wondered often after that about his own death, how it would come, how it would feel, what it would be like to know that this breath, now, was the last one. It was hard to accept that he, who was the hub of this known universe, would cease to exist, but it was an inevitability and he did not shun it. He only hoped that he would meet it with the same magnificent indifference with which she who had been his mother met it. Because it was there, he felt, that the immortality he had not seen was hidden.
  • Why was it everything was always so goddam complicated? Even the simplest things was so goddam complicated when you come to doing them.
  • Prew bit his lips. He got his envelope roll out of the wall locker and the combat pack off the bed foot. He laid them on the floor and opened the light pack. Everyone in the squadroom sat up and watched him silently and speculatively, as they might watch a sick horse upon whose time to die they had gotten up a pool.
This is the song of the men who have no place, played by a man who has never had a place, and can therefore play it.
  • He looked at his watch and as the second hand touched the top stepped up and raised the bugle to the megaphone, and the nervousness dropped from him like a discarded blouse, and he was suddenly alone, gone away from the rest of them.
    The first note was clear and absolutely certain. There was no question or stumbling in this bugle. It swept across the quadrangle positively, held just a fraction longer than most buglers hold it. Held long like the length of time, stretching away from weary day to weary day. Held long like thirty years. The second note was short, almost too abrupt. Cut short and soon gone, like the minutes with a whore. Short like a ten minute break is short. And then the last note of the first phrase rose triumphantly from the slightly broken rhythm, triumphantly high on an untouchable level of pride above the humiliations, the degradations.
    He played it all that way, with a paused then hurried rhythm that no metronome could follow. There was no placid regimented tempo to Taps. The notes rose high in the air and hung above the quadrangle. They vibrated there, caressingly, filled with an infinite sadness, an endless patience, a pointless pride, the requiem and epitaph of the common soldier, who smelled like a common soldier, as a woman had once told him. They hovered like halos over the heads of sleeping men in the darkened barracks, turning all the grossness to the beauty that is the beauty of sympathy and understanding. Here we are, they said, you made us, now see us, dont close your eyes and shudder at it; this beauty, and this sorrow, of things as they are.
This song is Reality. Remember? Surely you remember?
  • This is the song of the men who have no place, played by a man who has never had a place, and can therefore play it. Listen to it. You know this song, remember? This is the song you close your ears to every night, so you can sleep. This is the song you drink five martinis every evening not to hear. This is the song of the Great Loneliness, that creeps in the desert wind and dehydrates the soul. This is the song you'll listen to on the day you die. When you lay there in bed and sweat it out, you know that all the doctors and nurses and weeping friends don't mean a thing and can't help you any, can't save you one small bitter taste of it, because you are the one that's dying and not them; when you wait for it to come and know the sleep will not evade it and martinis will not put it off and conversation will not circumvent it and hobbies will not help you to escape it; then you will hear this song and remembering, recognize it. This song is Reality. Remember? Surely you remember?
"Day     is done...
Gone     the sun...
From-the-lake
From-the-hill
From-the-sky
Rest in peace
Sol    jer brave
God is nigh..."
  • The clear proud notes reverberating back and forth across the silent quad. Men had come from the Dayrooms to the porches to listen in the darkness, feeling the sudden choking kinship bred of fear that supersedes all personal tastes. They stood in the darkness of the porches, listening, feeling suddenly very near the man beside them, who also was a soldier, who also must die. Then as silent as they had come, they filed back inside with lowered eyes, suddenly ashamed of their own emotion, and of seeing a man's naked soul.
    Maylon Stark, leaning silent against his kitchen wall, looked at his cigaret with a set twisted mouth that looked about to cry, about to laugh, about to sneer. Ashamed. Ashamed of his own good luck that had given him back his purpose and his meaning. Ashamed that this other man had lost his own. He pinched the inoffensive coal between his fingers, relishing the sting, and threw it on the ground with all his strength, throwing with it all the overpowering injustice of the world that he could not stomach nor understand nor explain nor change.
  • "You've killed me. Why'd you want to kill me," he said, and died. The expression of hurt surprise and wounded reproach and sheer inability to understand stayed on his face like a forgotten suitcase left at the station, and gradually hardened there. Prew stood looking down at him, still shocked by the reproving question.

The Paris Review interview (1958)[edit]

I'm an American, and always will be. I happen to love that big, awkward, sprawling country very much — and its big, awkward, sprawling people.
"The Art of Fiction No. 23 : James Jones" in The Paris Review No. 20 (Autumn-Winter 1958-1959)
  • I'm an American, and always will be. I happen to love that big, awkward, sprawling country very much — and its big, awkward, sprawling people. Anyway, I don't like politics; and I don't make "political gestures," as you call it. I don't even believe in politics. To me, politics is like one of those annoying, and potentially dangerous (but generally just painful) chronic diseases that you just have to put up with in your life if you happen to have contracted it. Politics is like having diabetes. It's a science, a catch-as-catch-can science, which has grown up out of simple animal necessity more than anything else. If I were twice as big as I am, and twice as physically strong, I think I'd be a total anarchist. As it is, since I'm physically a pretty little guy . . . no, in fact, one reason I left was because I believe it is good for an American writer to get outside his country — outside his continent — and see it from a vantage point outside its pervading emotional climate.
  • My grandfather had a saying he used to say to me when I was a kid ... "always remember that I'm always for you, but I'd rather be for you when you're right than when you're wrong." Well, that's the way I feel about America. There's no use trying to say we haven't done a lot of things that were bad. We have.
As far as modern war is concerned I am a pacifist. Hell, it isn't even war anymore... It's an industry...
  • You have to really work at it to write. I guess there has to be talent first; but even with talent you still have to work at it, to write.
  • The perfect ideal would be that a man who is essentially nonviolent would be able to defend himself against any form of violence. But this is very rare in life. But this raises one of the most important themes in Eternity, why Prewitt does not shoot back at the MPs who kill him as he tries to get back to his unit after his murder of Fatso Judson. You see, when Prewitt kills Fatso he is carrying the theory of vengeance by violence to its final logical end. But the thing is that Fatso doesn't even know why he is being killed; and when Prewitt sees that, he realizes what a fruitless thing he has done.
I don't think that combat has ever been written about truthfully; it has always been described in terms of bravery and cowardice ... hell, they don't even apply to what, in actual fact, modern warfare has become.
  • There're so many young guys, you know — young Americans and, yes, young men everywhere — a whole generation of people younger than me who have grown up feeling inadequate as men because they haven't been able to fight in a war and find out whether they are brave or not. Because it is in an effort to prove this bravery that we fight — in wars or in bars — whereas if a man were truly brave he wouldn't have to be always proving it to himself. So therefore I am forced to consider bravery suspect, and ridiculous, and dangerous. Because if there are enough young men like that who feel strongly enough about it, they can almost bring on a war, even when none of them want it, and are in fact struggling against having one. (And as far as modern war is concerned I am a pacifist. Hell, it isn't even war anymore, as far as that goes. It's an industry, a big business complex.) And it's a ridiculous thing because this bravery myth is something those young men should be able to laugh at. Of course the older men like me, their big brothers, and uncles, and maybe even their fathers, we don't help them any. Even those of us who don't openly brag. Because all the time we are talking about how scared we were in the war, we are implying tacitly that we were brave enough to stay. Whereas in actual fact we stayed because we were afraid of being laughed at, or thrown in jail, or shot, as far as that goes.
  • I am at the moment trying to write a novel, a combat novel, which, in addition to being a work which tells the truth about warfare as I saw it, would free all these young men from the horseshit which has been engrained in them by my generation. I don't think that combat has ever been written about truthfully; it has always been described in terms of bravery and cowardice. I won't even accept these words as terms of human reference any more. And anyway, hell, they don't even apply to what, in actual fact, modern warfare has become. Wikiquote-logo.svg QOTD 2007·11·06 Sound file
  • I've made some strides in trying to understand myself, I think. And I think that in my life I'm less afraid of being thought a coward than I used to be.

The Thin Red Line (1962)[edit]

There's only a thin red line between the sane and the mad.
  • This book is cheerfully dedicated to those greatest and most heroic of all human endeavors, WAR and WARFARE; may they never cease to give us the pleasure, excitement and adrenal stimulation that we need, or provide us with the heroes, the presidents and the leaders, the monuments and museums which we erect to them in the name of PEACE.
    • Dedication
  • The two transports had sneaked up from the south in the first graying flush of dawn, their cumbersome mass cutting smoothly through the water whose still greater mass bore them silently, themselves s gray as the dawn which camouflaged them.
    • First lines
  • There's only a thin red line between the sane and the mad.
    • "Old midwestern saying" created by Jones for his story, as stated in James Jones: An American Literary Orientalist Master (1998) by Steven R. Carter

Don Swaim interview (1975)[edit]

Interview with Jones by Don Swaim (1975)
  • I still think its probably the most evil of all pursuits. ... the thing is when you're getting shot at you don't think so much about who's right and who's wrong or who's good and who's and bad ... one of the first things they told you was "Forget about patriotism. That's not how you win a war. You win a war by being a vicious, merciless, mean, son-of-a-bitch." And, they try to infuse that in everybody, and I think rightly so.
    • On war.
  • Especially in the beginning of the war, the guys who became good soldiers, and good infantry men sort of had to accept that they were dead — that they weren't going to get out of it. The statistics were so much their enemy that there wouldn't be much chance that in four or five years, that they would survive it. Some did... and in fact most of the men who got in combat did survive it.
    • On the casualty rate
  • Humor itself is a kind strange thing in the first place, it's kind of a short-circuit in the brain around horror that saves us from having to face it totally.

WWII (1975)[edit]

What it is that makes a man go out into dangerous places and get himself shot at with increasing consistency until finally he dies, is an interesting subject for speculation.
  • History is always written from the viewpoints of the leaders. And increasingly, in our age, war leaders do not get shot at with any serious consistency. Leaders make momentous, world-encompassing historical decisions. It is your average anonymous soldier, or pilot, or naval gunnery rating who has to carry them out on the ground. Where there is often a vast difference between grandiose logic and plans and what takes place on the terrain. What it is that makes a man go out into dangerous places and get himself shot at with increasing consistency until finally he dies, is an interesting subject for speculation. And an interesting study. One might entitle it, THE EVOLUTION OF A SOLDIER.
    • Preface - 'To Us Old Men'

Whistle (1978)[edit]

  • We got the word that the four of them were coming a month before they arrived. Scattered all across the country in the different hospitals as we were, it was amazing how fast word of any change got back to us. When it did, we passed it back and forth among ourselves by letter or post card. We had our own private network of communications flung all across the map of the nation.
    There were only four of them this time. But what an important four. Winch. Strange. Prell. And Landers. About the four most important men the company had held.
    • First lines.

To Reach Eternity (1989)[edit]

To Reach Eternity : The Letters of James Jones (1989) edited by George Hendrick,
There were such things he wanted to be, to do, to write: He wanted to be the voice that shrieked out the agony of frustration and lostness and despair and loneliness, that all men feel, yet cannot understand...
  • I'm really serious about this writing thing. What time I haven't been writing, I've been reading: Thomas Wolfe, if you know who he is. His writing is mostly built about the central character of a writer, himself. Altho it's fiction, it deals with his life and experiences. In my opinion, little as it's worth, he is the greatest writer that has lived, Shakespeare included. He is a genius.
    • Letter to his brother Jeff, from Hawaii (7 April 1941); p. 11
Sometimes the air is awfully clear here. You can look off to sea and see the soft, warm, raggedy roof of clouds stretching on and on and on. It almost seems as if you can look right on into eternity.
  • Here's the way I wrote in one of the things I wrote a while back: "But since he had been in the army, he had come to understand his ungraspable longing and his phantasmal and belly-shrinking dissatisfaction: there were such things he wanted to be, to do, to write: He wanted to be the voice that shrieked out the agony of frustration and lostness and despair and loneliness, that all men feel, yet cannot understand; the voice that rolled forth the booming, intoxicating laughter of men's joy; the voice that richly purred men's love of good hot food and spicy strong drink; men's love of thick, moist, pungent tobacco smoke on a full belly; men's love of woman: voluptuous, throaty voiced, silken-thighed, and sensual."
    I suppose that sounds an awful lot like Wolfe, but if it does, it's exactly the way I feel.
    • Letter to his brother Jeff, from Hawaii (7 April 1941); p. 13
  • Sometimes the air is awfully clear here. You can look off to sea and see the soft, warm, raggedy roof of clouds stretching on and on and on. It almost seems as if you can look right on into eternity.
    • Letter to his brother Jeff, from Hawaii (22 March 1942); p. 17
  • I wasn't hit very badly — a piece of shrapnel went thru my helmet and cut a nice little hole in the back of my head. It didn't fracture the skull and is healed up nicely now. I don't know what happened to my helmet; the shell landed close to me and when I came to, the helmet was gone. The concussion together with the fragment that hit me must have broken the chinstrap and torn it off my head. It also blew my glasses off my face. I never saw them again, either, but I imagine they are smashed to hell. If I hadn't been lying in a hole I'd dug with my hands and helmet, that shell would probably have finished me off. The hole was only six or eight inches deep, but that makes an awful lot of difference, and it looked like a canyon.
    • Letter to his brother Jeff from Guadalcanal (28 January 1943); p. 25
It doesn't make any difference who you are, how tough you are, how nice a guy you might be, or how much you may know, if you happen to be at a certain spot at a certain time, you get it.
  • In spite of all the training you get and precautions you take to keep yourself alive, it's largely a matter of luck that decided whether or not you get killed. It doesn't make any difference who you are, how tough you are, how nice a guy you might be, or how much you may know, if you happen to be at a certain spot at a certain time, you get it. I've seen guys out of one hole to a better one and get it the next minute, whereas if they'd stayed still they wouldn't have been touched. I've seen guys decide to stay in a hole instead of moving and get it. I've seen guys move and watch the hole they were in get blown up a minute later. And I've seen guys stay and watch the place to which they had intended to move get blown up. It's all luck.
    • Letter to his brother Jeff from Guadalcanal (28 January 1943); p. 27
If I get it, no one will ever know to what heights I might have gone as a writer. Maybe if you wrote about the promise that was there, all wouldn't be lost.
  • I'm going to ask you something. If I do get killed, and I honestly don't see how I can help it, I want you to write that book we were thinking about when I enlisted. If I get it, it's a cinch I won't be able to do it, and it would make me feel a whole lot better to know that if not my name and hand, at least, the thot of me would be passed on and not forgotten entirely. You know, sort of put into the book the promise that I had and the things I might have written so at least the knowledge of talent wasted won't be lost. . . If I get it, no one will ever know to what heights I might have gone as a writer. Maybe if you wrote about the promise that was there, all wouldn't be lost.
    • Letter to his brother Jeff from Guadalcanal (28 January 1943); p. 28
  • I have discovered only two writers whom I can take all the way, or at least nearly so; and those are Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Wolfe. I think Hemingway is confused on lots of things, just as I think the Fountainhead was confused; but I also think both are magnificently right in many things.)
  • I have separate lists titled by characters in which I list each scene concerning that character consecutively and also the proposed scenes for that character along with notes of how I want to write it. So I take these and by them map out ahead the final draft, interlacing the scenes between various characters. Wonderful, isn't it? If I fail as a writer, I can always become a bookkeeper.
    I have always been bothered because I couldn't remember details of time, place, etc. and I used to find myself either surrounded by reams of written pages, or else rewriting the same thing three or four times. This helps somewhat to alleviate that.
    • Letter to Maxwell Perkins (21 October 1946); p. 78
  • Also by the way, I have found a title for this book. From Here to Eternity. Taken from the "Whiffenpoof" song, of Yale drinking fame. It goes: "We are little black sheep who have gone astray, baa . . . baa . . . baa. Gentlemen songsters out on a spree, damned from here to eternity. God have mercy on such as we. Baa, etc." Maybe it's maudlin, but so am I. I get chills every time I sing it, even when sober.
    • Letter to Maxwell Perkins (21 October 1946); p. 80

Quotes about Jones[edit]

  • For almost thirty years, James Jones was the friend, and frequently the benefactor, of American writers at home and abroad. Despite his clear importance in the writing community, the academy still largely ignores him. PMLA biographies from 1951 to 1976 list only ten articles about his work in scholarly journals and essay collections, three of which are in publications outside the United States. It often seems that, when academicians remember Jones, it is as the spokesman for an anachronistic male supremacy or as a writer of flawed naturalistic prose.
    • James R. Giles in James Jones (1981)
  • I learned a lot about the play of emotion. There was a part of me that whistled in the dark, and said, "It's all right, he wrote a very good book; it's probably better than The Naked and the Dead." I must tell you now, in this point of my literary existence, I think it was better than The Naked and the Dead, because it went into the taproot of Army experience. I had learned a lot in the Army from a couple of years in it, and it had had a huge effect on me, and I'd been able to write a pretty good novel with it. But it hadn't been my life in the way it had been for Jones. He hadn't had a successful career life as an adolescent and a young man, so he went into that Regular Army. That was going to be his life; that was going to be his existence. It wasn't something he was going to get out of necessarily. And so his book, I felt, went deeper into the nature of what it was like to be a soldier. So I thought, yes, it was a better book than I had written.
  • He wanted to go very deep ... but he was not a stylist at all. Sometimes his efforts to go deep seemed superficially very clumsy. But consider the effect that the book From Here to Eternity had on everybody I knew — on writers, on fans — and myself included. It just knocked me absolutely cold. We didn't care about the style; I mean, who could care about the style? You were just tremendously moved. I think Prewitt became the prototype for all the laconic, quiet, mysterious, basically tragic heroes populating almost every novel there is now.
  • It's rare that a song grounded in reality moves me because I don't feel like I'm getting the whole story. Songs are made to exist in and of themselves, like a great James Jones or Robert Louis Stevenson novel — they're not autobiographical, and yet there's a reality in every single page. It's real life of the imagination.
  • For novel readers who care about war and warriors who cared about novels, a great memory is the picture, seen in tens of millions of imaginations, and finally in a film, of Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt playing taps at Schofield Barracks, 25 miles from Honolulu, on the eve of Pearl Harbor, in James Jones's great novel, From Here to Eternity. It was published 55 years ago and sold three million copies, and it is on my mind today because I'm thinking about the taps we will all hear this Monday, Memorial Day, at ceremonies and in cemeteries throughout the country. When I hear it I'm going to think of what my father always said when he heard taps. "Play it, Prewitt," he'd say. Because that character was like men he'd known in the American army of World War II.
  • James Jones was a curiously American phenomenon: the great novelist who comes out of nowhere, equipped only with talent and a fierce determination to write.
    • "A Hunger to Write" in The New York Times (5 March 1989)

External links[edit]

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