Wednesday, June 23, 2021

'The Good Sense of the Unremarkable'

Not all of the books we choose to reread or at least recall fondly after many years are masterpieces. In junior-high school, for joining one of the book clubs, I received three World War II novels: Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny and James Jones’ From Here to Eternity. Today, I couldn’t reread Mailer on a bet. From the Wouk volume I retain nothing, only images of Bogart from the movie. For Jones’ novel and the movie adapted from it, my memories are more indulgent. I even bought a copy of From Here to Eternity last year, thinking I might want to reread it someday.

In his autobiography Turner Cassity describes Jones’ 1951 work as “a very good novel and a very great document,” by which he means Jones documents the lives of enlisted men, a population routinely ignored by literary types, on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Cassity served in the U.S. Army in 1952-54. One of the new poems he includes in The Destructive Element: New and Selected Poems (Ohio University Press, 1998) is “James Jones, Infantry (1921-1977)”:


“I was no massive intellect; still, I was not a fool.

I was, as that decade I hated would have put it, ‘cool.’


“Belated and displaced, was I, in an exotic tryst,

Backhandedly, the 1930s’ greatest novelist?


“Hawaii is forever what I made it: Scofield, Pearl,

Hotel Street . . . uniforms and uniforms, the beach, B-girl,


“And preying tourist. By comparison with my roll call

The Steinbeck Joads seem alienated really not at all.


“Count Tolstoy was, in any last analysis, a count;

Blind Homer blind especially to those who ride no mount.


“I brought to page the good sense of the unremarkable.

I put in print the mind of those who have no mind but will.


“Count Leo; John; pretentious, foolish Norman; poet Rud;

Here is my body; here is, page on honest page, my blood.


“Lift up a bugle, you, to art, to me, and to the hurt

Arms heal. To some eternal dogface in a floral shirt.”


I've never understood the enduring popularity of so crude and sentimental a novelist as John Steinbeck. “Rud” is Rudyard Kipling, about whom Cassity writes in a 1987 essay: “Critics of three generations have distrusted Kipling because he does not say that war is hell. He said what Homer says: some of war is hell. Either might have agreed that civil strife is total hell.”


Thomas Parker said...

From Here to Eternity is an honest novel that tries to tell the truth about a time and a place and a class of people ignored, as Cassity says, by arbiters of taste. It has no stylistic distinction, which is not surprising coming from a self-taught redneck from Robinson, Illinois, but it sometimes rises to a crude eloquence. It is an honorable book.

Faze said...

I once asked my father (who served in the South Pacific) what World War II novelist "got it right?" His answer: James Jones.