“Then you might as well get use to it,” the Chief said. “You probly be seein it often before you die.”
These lines summarize the dilemma dramatized in James Jones’s 1951 bestseller, From Here to Eternity; do we get used to injustice, accommodate to it, accept it, or do we do something about it?
Readers may be surprised at this interpretation, for the cultural imprint left by the 1953 film has blotted out much of what the book was really about. For many people, From Here to Eternity is Milt Warden (Burt Lancaster) and Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr) making love amidst the breaking waves on a Hawaiian beach. It is the eternal summer of American innocence before Pearl Harbor. An American romance made in Hollywood.
Penguin’s issue of the uncensored paperback in 2013, with a new afterword on its publishing history, is a good opportunity to set the record straight. If heterosexual romance shines so brightly in the film, it’s because the references to homosexual acts and practices in the army were eliminated from the original manuscript by the publisher. Jones’s daughter wrote about this censorship after her mother died. She said that her father believed that “homosexuality was as old as mankind itself” and was “a natural condition of men in close quarters”. She argued that the censored references to homosexuality should be included in any new edition of the novel.
As the uncensored version of the novel shows, heterosexual romance is mainly reserved for the officer classes and their wives. For the majority of Enlisted Men (EM), sex is a matter of prostitution; the soldiers spend their wages on prostitutes in town, and then prostitute themselves with rich men to be able to go on seeing the women. The principal romance in the story is between the main character, Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Prew) and the prostitute Lorene.
Prew’s character has been forged by his experience of Depression America. He is from Kentucky, the son of a Harlan County miner. He has grown up in desperate poverty, witnessed strikers being shot down by deputies, ridden the freight trains across America in search of work, done time in jail, and forced labor for vagrancy. He has shared the experiences that made the American working class what it was in the 1930s. His passion is playing the trumpet. He joins the Army because it is the only employment he can find. Despite this, he is dedicated to the Army and a disciplined soldier. But when he refuses to join the Company’s boxing squad, his CO, Captain Holmes, sets out to break him. He is subjected to The Treatment, a campaign of physical and psychological punishment that humiliates him and isolates him from his fellow soldiers.
At the heart of the story is Prew’s struggle against his own dehumanization by the army. The Treatment cannot destroy him merely by inflicting pain. It works by destroying his faith in his fellow men. When he sees his friends remaining silent as he is singled out for undeserved punishment, his will to fight is shaken. But when he is put in the Stockade, he finds comradeship among his fellow-prisoners. The brutality he witnesses makes him determined to act, with disastrous consequences for himself.
Written in the hardboiled style of 1930s detective fiction, the novel uses language that we refuse to use today. Nevertheless, the racist language is set in a context where the main character contests and argues against racism. Prew is proud of having played Taps at Arlington in the presence of the President, but—
“There had been a colored bugler who played the echo to his own Taps from the stand. The Negro was a better bugler, but because he was not white he had been stationed in the hills to play the echo. It should have been himself who played the echo.”
This constant preoccupation with injustice runs through the novel and is what makes it worth reading. For this reason, From Here to Eternity deserves to be considered a modern classic.
— Catherine Vigier, Zeteo Contributing Writer
James Jones, From Here to Eternity (Penguin Modern Classics, 2013). Unabridged version may have to be ordered from the UK.
Lindsay Waters, “From Here to Eternity: James Jones sets an American romance on a military base in Hawaii.” In Greil Marcus and Werner Sollers, editors, A New Literary History of America (The Belknap Press, 2009), 823-28.
Alison Flood, “Censored gay sex scenes in From Here to Eternity revealed,”The Guardian, 13 November 2009. Includes still above from the 1953 Hollywood movie. Photograph credited to Rex.