Damned 'From Here To Eternity'
It was my summer read, 1960. I was 12 and had already come to see the world as a harsh place ruled by secret agendas. My dad had a beat-up paperback copy. The front artwork featured a soldier's bugle. From Here to Eternity called me to Schofield Barracks, the Territory of Hawaii. That summer, I served with the "Pineapple Army" in the months before the Pearl Harbor attack.
James Jones served there himself. Like his hero, Robert E. Lee Prewitt, he was a lighter-weight divisional boxer. Jones went on to World War II duty and lived to write From Here to Eternity after the conflict. Prewitt was shot and killed by Military Police on a Honolulu golf course. He was trying to rejoin his unit, square AWOL charges, and fight in the big war himself. His "Kentucky hard-head" dignity and craaaazy history swirling all around him sealed his fate.
Rudyard Kipling's epigraph: 'Gentlemen-rankers, out on a spree, damned from here to eternity. God ha' mercy on such as we.'
From Here to Eternity was published in 1951. It was the first major American novel to use the common vulgar word for the sex act on almost every page. The language was shocking then; the depiction of the casual cruelty and daily repression inflicted by the United States Army fascinated, horrified and appalled. Jones gave us the human infrastructure of great public events and a panoramic view of institutional corruption. Jones gave us 1941 Hawaii in astonishing detail. More than that, he gave us men and women of the time and place, and couched them at the outset of America's most perilous moment and ultimate ascent. They were there. They were driven by deep hungers, and fought the bureaucracy that sustained them and the history that damned them with ferocious will. They left most of themselves or all of themselves on a tourist-trap island just as the defining American adventure was about to begin.
Prewitt, Alma-Lorene, Milton Warden, Karen Holmes. Angelo Maggio, Fatso Judson, Blues Berry — beaten to death at the Schofield Barracks stockade. Rudyard Kipling's epigraph: "Gentlemen-rankers, out on a spree, damned from here to eternity. God ha' mercy on such as we." A tragic vision, and a primer on tough people and the native guile and sense of purpose essential to survive.
The novel runs nearly 900 pages. It encapsulates huge themes within the brutal framework of daily tedium and the aching restlessness of the spirit. We are given military nomenclature and catch brief glimpses of mountain ranges, military encampments, cathouses and enlisted men's bars. Jones paints a wildly exotic picture. We come to see it all and know what it all means. We come to love the tortured men and women he has given us. They have become our comrades. We have fought their struggle along with them, and have succumbed and surmounted in their precise proportion. We possess their soul knowledge. It keeps us coming back to read this work again and again.
From Here to Eternity is a great American novel. It remains incandescent after 58 years. It gives us America then, and prophesies America's great and costly rise to power. It explodes with humanity and conspicuous acts of conscience. There has never been a novel like it, and there never will be.
James Ellroy is the author of 'L.A. Confidential' and 'Blood's A Rover'.
You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.