From Here to Eternity. James Jones

Jones, James. From Here to Eternity. Scribner’s New York 1951. Unabridged edition Open Road New York, 2011. 8/20

This novel, first published in the decade after World War II ended, sold well and then was in 1953 made into a very successful Academy Awards Best Picture with the likes of Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, and Frank Sinatra in leading roles. We are in the Honolulu of the early 1940s and contemporary authenticity pervades every page. I went to Honolulu with my family in December of 1960 at the age of twelve and many of the hotels in the novel, and some of that atmosphere, seem oddly recognizable as I remember that Christmas holiday.

This 2011 manuscript, exhumed and with the author’s family’s permission presented as it was originally written, is much more coarse in its realism than the 1951 book which had been heavily edited to reflect the acceptable language and social and sexual standards of the day. The realism feels like something written in the late 70s or 80s, but the aura of gender issues and relationships is pure 1940s.

Robert “Prew” Prewitt is a boxing champion in the army who also plays a mean bugle and prefers that to fighting. His tough but fair sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster in the movie) supports him as best he can while carrying on an affair with the neglected wife (Deborah Kerr) of rifle company commander Captain Holmes who tries to get Prewitt to fight for the company. Prew falls in love with prostitute Lorene and visits her and her roommate in a high-class neighbourhood in the city. For being AWOL he is eventually incarcerated in a stockade where the treatment is unbelievably punitive. The Pearl Harbor attack surprise comes late in the story, and (PLOT ALERT) Prewitt is eventually shot by his own soldiers, mistaken for a spy.

Although for most people in 2020 there is something long out of sync about abuse of homosexuals and women, and much else going on in the rough army scene in Honolulu. I also had a disorienting sense of looking back on it from only 20 years subsequent in that 1960 holiday there as an older boy. The unreal Honolulu I experienced then – sandy beaches, beautiful hotels, scent of flowers, pineapple drinks – would I guess have been reflected in the early version of this story and in the movie. And the publishers of this much more harsh version invite a look back at situations we are now expected to consider abrasive and barbaric. Not just vicious abuse, but its dressing-up and covering-over with the serene optimism of America at what we now appreciate was the pinnacle of its success. The atom bomb. “Vast, vulgar, and meretricious” as Fitzgerald ironically celebrated it in 1925. Vietnam, Nixon, and Donald Trump still safely away off in the future.

We see past times as if we had been there, watching with our modern eyes. But of course if we had been there it would’ve been without our experience of intervening events. Those experienced eyes didn’t exist, couldn’t have existed, long ago and so contemporary ones could not have seen what we think we see now.

This story as it’s republished carries plenty of thrilling impact, and the characters are real and human beyond their responses to circumstances of 80 years ago. But I’m not sure if we are realistic about that long-ago world and the one we live in. It’s still one of my preoccupations that we may not know about or we may ignore enormous differences. And sometimes we might apply present standards to some picture of that long-ago time, and help ourselves to what could be a (no doubt vegetarian) banquet of ignorant celebration of how much better we are with our modern sensibility.

Recommended if you’re interested in past life in the Army. 7.9/8.8

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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