James Jones (1921–1977) was one of the preeminent American writers of the twentieth century. With a series of three novels written in the decades following World War II, he established himself as one of the foremost chroniclers of the modern soldier’s life.
Born in Illinois, Jones came of age during the Depression in a family that experienced poverty suddenly and brutally. He learned to box in high school, competing as a welterweight in several Golden Gloves tournaments. After graduation he had planned to go to college, but a lack of funds led him to enlist in the army instead.
Before the United States entered World War II, Jones served in Hawaii, where he found himself in regular conflict with superior officers who rewarded his natural combativeness with latrine duty and time in the guardhouse. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, which Jones witnessed, he was sent to Guadalcanal, site of some of the deadliest jungle fighting of the Pacific theater. He distinguished himself in battle, at one point killing an enemy soldier barehanded, and was awarded a Bronze Star for his bravery. He was shipped home in 1943 because of torn ligaments in his ankle, an old injury that became aggravated during his tour of duty. After a period of convalescence in Memphis, Tennessee, Jones requested a limited duty assignment and a short leave. When these were denied, he went AWOL.
His stretch away from the army was brief but crucial, as it was then that he met Lowney Handy, the novelist who would later become Jones’s mentor. Jones spent a few months getting to know Lowney and her husband, Harry, then returned to the army, spending a year as a “buck-ass private” (a term which Jones coined) before winning promotion to sergeant. In the summer of 1944, showing signs of severe post-traumatic stress—then called “combat fatigue”—he was honorably discharged.
He enrolled at New York University and, inspired by Lowney Handy, began work on his first novel, To the End of the War (originally titled They Shall Inherit the Laughter). Drawing on his own past, Jones wove a story of soldiers just returned from war, presenting a vision of the armed forces that was neither romantic nor heroic. He submitted the 788-page manuscript to Charles Scribner’s Sons, where it was read by Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. Perkins rejected it, but saw promise in the weighty work, and encouraged Jones to write a new novel.
Jones began writing From Here to Eternity, a story of the war’s beginning. After six years of work, Jones showed it to Perkins, who was impressed and acquired the novel. After Perkins’s death, the succeeding editor cut large pieces from the manuscript, including scenes with homosexuality, politics, and graphic language that would have been flagged by censors of that era, and published the novel in 1951. The story of a soldier at Pearl Harbor who becomes an outcast for refusing to box for the company team, it is an unflinching look at the United States pre-WWII peacetime army, a last refuge for the destitute, the homeless, and the desperate. The book was instrumental in changing unjust army practices, which created a public outcry when it was published. It sold 90,000 copies in its first month of publication and captured the National Book Award, beating out The Catcher in the Rye. In 1953 the film version, starring Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift, won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and made Jones internationally famous.
He returned to Illinois to help the Handys establish a writers’ colony. While living there he wrote his second novel, Some Came Running, which he finished in 1957. An experimental retelling of his Midwestern childhood, it stretched to nearly 1,000 pages and drew little acclaim.
In 1958, newly married to Gloria Mosolino, Jones moved to Paris, where he lived for most of the rest of his life, spending time with his old friend Norman Mailer and contributing regularly to the Paris Review. There he wrote The Thin Red Line (1962), his second World War II epic, which follows a company of green recruits as they join the fighting in Guadalcanal; and The Merry Month of May (1970), an account of the 1968 Paris student riots. The Thin Red Line was brought to the screen by director Terrence Malick in 1998.
Jones and his wife returned to the United States in the mid-1970s, settling in Sagaponack, New York. There Jones began Whistle, the final volume in his World War II trilogy, which was left unfinished at the time of his death. However, he left extensive notes for novelist and longtime editor of Harper’s Magazine Willie Morris, who completed the last three chapters after Jones’s death in 1977. The book was published in 1978.