|the writing of
From Here To Eternity
My father liked to read. My father never made it out
of high school but he wound up spending three years
in another institution much better suited for
developing powers of concentration and the
narrowing of interests: Attica state prison. His
preference was for books on crime and the mob and
bios of people like Capone and Lucky Luciano and
Meyer Lansky etc, but he also enjoyed some history
and the occasional novel.
One day he came home from the library with a copy
of From Here To Eternity. I was 13. At this time I
was emerging from the comic book stage and
beginning to read people like Mickey Spillane and
Irving Schulman and Erskine Caldwell and so forth.
I saw this book on the coffee table and picked it up
and started to read and went into my bedroom and
stayed there for three days. When I emerged my
head was spinning.
I was 13 and the thought of becoming a writer had
never occurred to me and wouldnt occur to me until
some years later—but it may have been at this time
and by this book that the seed was first planted.
The writer of Eternity was James Jones and there is
an interesting story behind the book. Jones grew up
in a small town—Robinson Illinois. He was a small
town boy who wanted to be a big town boy. He
wanted to be a writer—and a particular kind of
writer. He wanted to be a Thomas Wolfe kind of
writer. Wolfe—-another small town type-—had a
taste for the 900 page novel—-less of a problem for
the reader in those days before the invention of TV
and the VCR—-and suffered from an acute form of
adjectivitis. It was Mark Twain who said of the
adjective: when in doubt—throw it out. Wolfe said:
the adjective be damned. But they were good
books—written from the heart. They had power. I
read them myself—Look Homeward Angel, The Web
and the Rock, Of Time and the City. Those were my
college years when I could hole up in my room and
knock off a 900 page novel in three days.
Jones was self taught as a writer. He never attended
college. War broke out and he was drafted and, four
years later, returned to Robinson. He started work
on a book—Eternity. There are three problems with
1) the writing itself.
2) getting published
3) selling books
One is by far the easiest.
He banged on the book and at some point sent a few
chapters to an editor at Scribners named Maxwell
Perkins. Maxwell Perkins was the editor of Thomas
Wolfe—also Hemingway--and a legendary figure in
the publishing world. Jones had never met Perkins,
had never corresponded with Perkins, had never
talked to Perkins on the phone. He did not exist for
Perkins. But he sent the manuscript to Perkins
because in his enfeebled brain he, James Jones, was
the next Thomas Wolfe.
What are the odds of an unsolicited manuscript
submitted by some mental case from a town called
Robinson Ill working its way out of the slush pile at
the office of a major New York publishing house like
Scribners and landing on the desk of a man like Max
Perkins who actually proceeds to start reading this
thing, and to like what he is reading, and to like it
well enough to mail off a letter to the mental case
encouraging him to continue work on the book?
The odds are high—astronomical.
But there you have it. He writes Jones a letter and if
Jones had one quality—-besides a similar taste for
the use of the multiple adjective acquired from
Thomas Wolfe—it was a capacity for work.
Perkins was aging and in poor health and at some
point, halfway thru the book, Jones was turned over
to another editor—Burroughs Mitchell.
The writer/ editor relationship is critical and fragile.
Writers are difficult people. They are loners, they
are neurotic, they are obsessive. They are a pain in
the ass. In addition, many of them lack talent.
Jones had the talent but was otherwise a splendid
example of the breed—a stubborn cuss who
considered the words golden and getting one of
these types to delete a single word, let alone a
paragraph—or chapter—is like pulling teeth. Its an
endless struggle—exhausting. But Mitchell had a gift
for nursing these people along. He was a class act—
a gent. He was kindly, forgiving, patient. He was the
man for this job.
The book got finished—a hell of a book—flawed in
ways and badly overwritten in places—but it had
the one thing that no other thing can substitute for—
that irresistible thing that grabs the reader and
keeps him glued to the page. It had that power. You
started this book—all 300,000 words—and once
started you finished it. That’s writing.
And the timing was right. The war was still fresh in
everyones mind and the publishers were desperate
to get their hooks into the writer of the great novel
of World War 2—the blockbuster they knew was out
there and being written at that very moment.
That book was From Here to Eternity
There is a famous picture of Jones—in front of
Scribners Bookstore—on Fifth Ave in New York, the
mental case from Robinson Ill, self taught, a loner
from out of nowhere, the reader of Thomas Wolfe,
and behind him, filling up the display window of
Scribners, stacks upon stacks of copies of From Here
He was 31.
This is called happiness.
age 15 Robinson Ill