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.”