An Excerpt from AMERICAN PHOENIX: A Life of James Jones

by M. J. Moore

max perkins

Things had changed, the twenty-four-year-old James Jones wrote to Maxwell Perkins:

"But [now] I have nothing to go on except certain people I knew in the army and what made them tick,” Jones elaborated.  “There is no plot at all except what I create.  I’m not even a character in the book myself, except in so far as I am every character. What I have to draw from is 5 ½ years experience in the army.”

All of which reminded Jones that he was working with material that set him apart from the vast majority of the more than fifteen million men who donned uniforms after 1941.  Most of the veterans now being discharged in record numbers had enlisted after December 7, 1941 or had been draftees whose civilian lives were truncated by Pearl Harbor and the three and a half years of America’s war effort in 1942, ’43, ’44 and the larger half of 1945.  But Jones’s story far preceded all of that.  “My material is the peacetime army,” he insisted.  “The war has nothing to do with this material, except as it overshadows, unmentioned, the whole book.”

And yet, he knew all along that "From Here to Eternity" would climax with a full-blown re-creation in fiction of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  He explained to Max Perkins: “The climax is tied in with the event of Pearl Harbor,” which of course begged the question of how all of his characters’ lives would be altered, affected, upended, transformed or summarily ended by that event.

Throughout 1946, Jones repeatedly discovered that no matter how many outlines or notes he prepped for his new endeavor and regardless of how boldly he proceeded to pile up the first one hundred typed pages (or more), he had to halt.  He was impelled time and again to start over after concluding that he had steered the narrative off course.  His livid frustrations were palpable.  He fretted.

"At present I have about 80 pages of first draft,” he was able to confirm when sending Perkins a letter in mid-April.  That was the good news.  The not-so-good news was that while the first 80 typed pages amounted to “about 24,000 words I figure . . . I have not [yet] taken care of one-eighth of what I outlined as being contained in the first 50,000 words.  So there you are, or rather there I am.  [But] all of it is good—or will be when I’ve rewritten it five or ten times—and all of it is necessary to the development of the characters as I see them, and to the scene as it ought to be developed for the reader who had never been to Hawaii.  So far I have only one important scene that I outlined in the synopsis; the rest is additional.  I expected it to be added to, but not that much.”

Jones had run smack into the truth of an apercu that W. Somerset Maugham had put on the record: “There are three rules for writing the novel.  Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  In truth, Jones’s troubles went beyond his trouble writing.

The enormousness of the panorama seizing his imagination and the large cast of characters that he envisioned, on top of the scope of the story he yearned to tell, werecolliding in the privacy of his mind.  His thinking was agitated because his mind was clogged with contrary impulses and oscillating agendas.  Even as he pushed along and typed up well over one hundred pages of first draft, he found himself discouraged and sometimes doubted if he was, in fact, really a writer.

“The whole trouble,” he announced, “seems to be due to a lack of efficiency on my part, but for the life of me I can’t find any way to efficiently encompass all the myriads of things I feel I ought to encompass.  Somewhat like [Thomas] Wolfe in the library: so oppressed by the sight of so many books he could never read that he couldn’t even bring himself to read what he could because it was comparatively so pitifully small.  The trouble with me is my mother was a German, and I seem to be cursed with the German mania for cataloging everything and having it in its little niche.  Only trouble is, there ain’t that many niches.”

The distress signals were heard by Perkins.  Loud and clear.  To encourage Jones and at the same time to help him cultivate a mental discipline that might diminish his doubts and anxieties, Perkins suggested a favorite tactic that he freely admitted none of his other authors had followed through on: “Now this is something I have told many writers,” Perkins began, “and I do not believe any of them have done it.”

Right there he put the anguished young author in control.  The protocol that Max touted was for Jones to decide on.  He could take it or leave it.  If he shrugged off the advice, then he was in the majority.   Such an astute appeal may have caused Jones to believe that he, in fact, would be the first of Perkins’ authors to benefit from the editor’s sage counsel about the efficacy of keeping an orderly set of note cards.

Perkins had a definite scheme in mind: “Most [writers] keep note-books, and they certainly should,” he reminded Jones.  “But they should keep them this way, I think: They should get a loose-leaf note-book and put into it preferably stiff cards, and they should make notes all the time about everything that interests them or catches attention.  Then, each thing should have a separate page, and at the top of the page should be put some key word like, say, ‘Fear.’  Then, just let the cards accumulate for quite a period, and then group them together under the key words.  I think if a writer did that for ten years, all those memories would come back to him, as you say, and he would have an immense fun to draw upon.”

The very nature of this long-distance tutorial reinforced Perkins’ bedrock faith in the notion that Jones was, indeed, every inch a writer.  And he further reinforced his belief in Jones by reminding him in no uncertain terms: “One can write about nothing unless it is, in some sense, out of one’s life—that is out of oneself.”

It may have been that line that inspired Jones to share with Perkins the initial blueprint—the first template, as it were—for what would emerge over the next three decades as the capstone achievement of Jones’s career: his World War Two trilogy.  At this time, however, Jones believed that everything he eventually wrote in three long novels was somehow going to be contained in the  “Stewart novel.”  At this time, no working title was yet given to the magnum opus Jones summarized:

I have planned the book in three parts: one, from 1930 to Dec. 7/’41; two, from Dec. 7 to Nov./’42—a very interesting time in Hawaii; and three, from Nov./’42 (when this Regiment shoves off for the South Pacific) to the death of Prewitt 8 months later on New Georgia.  I’ve made a detailed action synopsis of the peacetime period, conflicts between various characters and what they do to or for each other, which I intended to keep within 50,000 words.  At present I have about 24,000 and have hardly begun to touch the action for 50,000!  How in the name of God I’m going to get in all that I want in, I don’t know.  Yet it all belongs in,” he explained to Perkins.

 And it all mirrored—chronologically and geographically—the trajectory of Jones’s life.  His insecurities aside, he was conceiving a tale “out of one’s life—that is out of oneself.”  Nonetheless, he remained frustrated and periodically despondent.

Each time he felt hamstrung, though, he also realized that one or another of the suggestions made by Max served as a diversion and sometimes even as a lesson in what did not work, but was worth trying.  Perkins’ hidden agenda was actually hidden in plain sight: To keep Jones mentally stimulated as the intangible subconscious work necessary for the new book had its chance to percolate. 

Meantime, Jones’s funks would segue to better moods: “I enjoyed your last letter very much.  So much so that I went out first chance I got and bought myself a small looseleaf notebook and filled it with stiff cards.  I’ve already started making notes in it.  The idea you wrote me about is the best."

And yet, he immediately informed Perkins that he was already at loggerheads with the whole concept.  “Of course, how far I shall get with it is something else again.  I am depressed because it isn’t perfect.   Already I’ve made notes that I’m incapable of classifying generally.  They’re not Fear, tho some have fear in them.  And they aren’t courage.  They aren’t Sadness, although they have elements of sadness, and they aren’t Pathos, Joy or Bitterness.  Yet almost all of them have two or three of these elements in them.  You see what I mean by a German mind?  I’d need a Dewey Decimal System, only I don’t know how to read one very well.  Tomorrow I begin plugging away again.”

Jones may not have had a Dewey Decimal System, but he had an eagle eye for his own tendency to overwrite.  The primary trouble was that even though he sensed that he was providing too much detail, risking digressions, straying from anything resembling a linear plot-line or in general not getting on with his story, he believed that everything he wrote was essential if he were to achieve his ultimate vision.

"I think my writing has the same trouble,” he candidly admitted: “Not a plethora of words but a plethora of detail, all of which needs to be there to get just the right shade of meaning.”  Such a notion had Jones sounding like a painter, with his concerted efforts to varnish the “detail” and “just the right shade” in his prose.

It was not too far removed from an insight offered once by Perkins, when he was reassuring Jones about his gift.  “I remember reading somewhere,” Max told Jones, “what I thought was a very true statement, to the effect that anybody could find out if he was a writer.  If he were a writer, when he tried to write, out of some particular day, he found in the effort that he could recall exactly how the light fell . . . and all the quality of it . . . would be part of the frame of reference, for instance, if they were writing fiction.  They would use that day in the fiction, and they could get the exact feel of the day.  Most people cannot do it . . . but that ability is at the bottom of writing, I am sure.””

Could there be a more direct analogy between the arts of writing and painting than the image of an author trying to “recall exactly how the light fell”?

Such tidbits from Perkins, shared in letters that were spaced apart by weeks or months (long-distance phone calls were not the norm), served as catnip to Jones.  After one of his anxious periods had passed, he again shared with Max how much in harmony he felt they were—but with a difference or two or three.  Which was fine.

"I have concluded, somewhat hopefully, from your letter” Jones confessed (making it plain how much be was buoyed by Max’s guidance) “that I am in essence a writer, although it works a little differently with me: Instead of remembering the exact day, sharp and clear, I seem to remember with equal sharpness and clarity, not that day itself, but the way that day should have been for the particular scene I’m writing.  In effect, the day, the temperature,, all the thousands of little things fit themselves to the scene, the way they should be for that particular scene.  I guess, tho, that that is only another way of saying exactly what you said.”

Even as he thrashed at his typewriter, banging out a letter to Perkins, it was possible for Jones to make an editorial decision, as his mind worked its way into high gear: “Since I began writing this letter,” he signed off on April 9, 1946, “I have made a note to cut out the first three chapters entirely (about 15 or 18 pages); they are good writing and give a reader a fine picture of what I’m leading up to, but I guess they are more or less superfluous.”  Nobody knew better than Perkins that such an act of editorial excision was precisely what F. Scott Fitzgerald suggested to Ernest Hemingway twenty years earlier, thus ensuring that “The Sun Also Rises” began with less background and more momentum.  The song remained the same.

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