An Excerpt from AMERICAN PHOENIX: A Life of James Jones

An essay by M. J. Moore

james jones

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.

Return to home page


Ray Bradbury: Masterheart of Mars

An Excerpt from Searching for Ray Bradbury

by Steven Paul Leiva

ray bradbury

Mars beckons us.

Like Melville’s elusive white whale it tasks us — to come, to see, to explore, eventually to colonize as humankind’s first step towards an outward-bound migration to the stars.

No one understood this more, or more poetically, than Ray Bradbury, who died this year on June 5, and who is currently, I like to think, hitching a ride on the latest Mars rover, Curiosity, and will land with it on his beloved red planet on August 5. Ray was not a scientist. He was not even, really, a science fiction author. Ray was a romantic with a nineteenth-century imagination combined with twentieth-century anxieties. He was an artist of pure instinct who understood the call of a beck, the necessity of a task, and the blood-quickening need to answer an urge.

The mission of Curiosity to Mars, and all the other past Mars missions, might very well not have happened without Ray Bradbury. It would probably be difficult to find a space scientist, especially one concentrating on Mars, who was not inspired by Ray’s The Martian Chronicles, despite the fact that the novel contains not one concrete factual detail on the difficulties of get- ting to, landing, and living on Mars. The Mars that has been and will continue to be explored by these scientists bears little resemblance to the Mars that Ray wrote about in his stories of humankind’s disturbing annexing of the red planet. But what it does contain is a portrait, or maybe better said, the music of the urge to leave the relative comfort and safety of our home, our backyard even, to go out into the extremely inhospitable space beyond our atmosphere to explore — and it must be said, to exploit — its few equally inhospitable islands of matter that we can stand on.

The Homo genus first migrated out of its cradle continent of Africa around 1.8 million years ago, and repeated that migration often, especially after the near extinction of humanity 73,550 years ago when Mount Toba, a large volcano on Sumatra, erupted decimating most of our species, reducing it, back in Africa, to only four to ten thousand females of reproductive age. It would be nice to think that our species continued to move out of our cradle because of a hunger to see what was over the next hill, but that most likely wasn’t the case. It was a hunger that compelled them alright, but it was the more elemental hunger for food. They followed the herds out of Africa not only to eat them, but to let them find the water and vegetation to compliment the meal. There was no time to give in to what little curiosity they may have had. Many generations later, though, as the cradle continent gave way to the cradle of civilization, our curiosity, our need to know, grew, slowly — but not as slowly as one might think — and then exploded about five hundred years ago in an exponential expansion of knowledge that has left many dizzy.

And here we are now, only one hundred nine years after the first powered flight in an aircraft, landing a roving science laboratory on Mars.

The urge that led to this has, I believe, three components. Ray Bradbury instinctually understood two, and was a poet of the third.

The first is survival. This is why primitive humans did not stay home when the climate changed and the herds moved and vegetation became more lush elsewhere. To do so would have meant extinction. During the first migrations out of Africa the world population was in the low thousands. We are now a planet of over seven billion people facing the crises of climate change caused by our rapid technological growth, hoping we can deal with it if only knowledge can win out over ignorance. But even without climate change, the balance of population to resources is putting a negative pressure on all of us. Can the exploration of Mars and going back to the moon — even going beyond both — relieve that pressure? If so, not quickly, not easily, but eventually? The possibility of a positive answer compels us.

The second component has provided the name for the current rover: Curiosity. We have become a knowledge-seeking species, it is as ingrained in us genetically as the need for survival. To have the capacity to go to the stars and explore and to not do so, would be the greatest of sins — the denial of our nature.

The third component is either more primitive than the other two, or more advanced. I’m not quite sure which, which may be why it is best expressed through art, and why Ray was so effective at expressing it. It is a purely instinctual urge not to be confined, that feeling some of us have when we look up at a night sky — especially away from city lights — and see the Milky Way, of which we are a part, and ask, “Why?” Why must we be confined to this thin slice of atmosphere, why must we be but a smudge of life on only this one small planet, when the whole of our solar system, possibly the Milky Way, maybe the universe, is out there for us if we but only....

In The Martian Chronicles and many other stories Ray, still hot from the fever he caught from Edgar Rice Burroughs, created a romantic Mars of golden-eyed natives, wondrous ancient cities, expansive landscapes, and a very utilitarian canal system. But knowing the history of humankind’s past explorations and exploitations of new territories and their peoples, he did not romanticize the humans who might be going to Mars and the range of their motives from the best to the worst. There is a certain dark cynicism throughout the book accompanying the idealism of Man ascending. But this ninteenth-century romantic with twentieth-century anxieties knew that it is not whether we could or should go to Mars and beyond, but that we must, as surely as we must breathe and eat and quest for knowledge and feel the injustice of planet-bound confinement. And despite that some of our motives are less than pure, that we may, most likely will, make mistakes along the way, that we might take some of the worst of us into space, none of that should deter us from the opportunity to take the best.

As Ray said to Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci when she asked him ”So why go?” for her 1967 book, If the Sun Dies:

“Don’t let us forget this: that the Earth can die, explode, the Sun can go out, will go out. And if the Sun dies, if the Earth dies, if our race dies, then so will everything die that we have done up to that moment. Homer will die, Michelangelo will die, Galileo, Leonardo, Shakespeare, Einstein will die, all those will die who now are not dead because we are alive, we are thinking of them, we are carrying them with us. And then every single thing, every memory, will hurtle down into the void with us.

“So let us save them, let us save ourselves. Let us prepare ourselves to escape, to continue life and rebuild our cities on other planets: we shall not long be of this Earth!”

Nowhere in The Martian Chronicles are these thoughts as precisely expressed, for in fiction Ray’s art was the art of the metaphor. In reality Mars is just a sun-orbiting rock. But Ray knew that Mars, in the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, had been romanticized into much more than that. Because it was our fellow sun-orbiting rock that was most like us, because it seemed to harbor life, or at least the remnants of life, because it represented both danger and opportunity, the two grand aspects of adventure that stir human blood, Mars was the perfect metaphor for the human urge to migrate off our orbiting rock. Whether to survive, gain knowledge, or just because we see no reason to be confined to here when there is so much “there” there, Mars has become the material manifestation of this instinctual urge.

That is why, at the end of The Martian Chronicles, when a family of survivors of the destruction of Earth land on Mars, and a child pleads with his father to show him a Martian, the father directs him to look at their reflection in the waters of a canal. For they, the seeds of human expansion beyond our world, were now the Martians.

In 2010 in a ceremony before the Los Angeles City Council, which had just proclaimed August 22 through 28 Ray Bradbury Week in Los Angeles, the poet in Ray said to the assembled council members and a packed council chamber, “How strange it must be for you to see before you this Martian.”

No, Ray, not strange. Inspirational.

The above essay appears in Searching for Ray Bradbury, a book of eight essays about Bradbury written between 2009 and 2012 by his colleague and friend, Steven Paul Leiva, which was published in April of this year. The essay was originally written for KCET.org and published on July 31, 2012 on their Social Focus Blog

Return to home page