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#62…From Here To Eternity

April 26, 2011

“All love has hate in it. Because you are tied to anyone you love, and it takes away part of your freedom and you resent it, you can’t help it. And while you are resenting the loss of your own freedom, you are trying to force the other to give up to you every last little bit of his own. Love cant help but make hate. As long as we’re living on this earth, love will always have hate in it. Maybe thats the reason we’re on this earth, to learn to love without hating.”

James Jones’ pre-WWII epic, From Here to Eternity, chronicles the rather mundane lives of two career Army men stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii a year before the events of Pearl Harbor. Both of the main characters, Sergeant Milton Warden and Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, have much in common. Both are “30-year men” meaning they have 30 year enlistment terms. Both love the Army more than anything else in their lives, and will make several personal sacrifices because of that love. Both have women troubles in their lives; Warden with his commanding officer’s wife Karen, and Prew with a beautiful prostitute named Alma. Both soldiers have a grudging, unspoken respect for each other, and both men are sensitive under their hardened Army shells. And both’s lives will be changed on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, located only miles from where they are stationed.

Sgt Milt Warden pretty much runs G Company, __th Regiment, although he’s not the commanding officer. Thanks to his organizational skills and his knowledge (and care) about the men under him, he’s able to keep the company together and keep his men happy. Although a bit gruff on the outside, on the inside, Warden is a softie, who would do anything for his fellow soldiers. His advice to his superiors throughout the novel is compassionate, knowledgeable and supportive, preventing them from making rash decisions. Like the rest of the men in his outfit, Warden enjoys his spare time gambling, drinking and chasing women…and since there’s no war on, there seems to be A LOT of free time. Rather than sticking with the town prostitutes like the other men, Warden sets his sights high and dangerously, on his commanding officer’s ice-cold, proper wife Karen, who is stuck in a loveless marriage and feels de-womanized by the hysterectomy she had to have after her own husband gave her an STD. Both fall in love with each other, but the stakes are high. Karen won’t leave her husband unless Warden becomes an officer…and to Warden, becoming an officer is almost like handing over your manhood. Although he grudgingly agrees to put himself up for promotion for Karen’s sake, he doesn’t like it, which can only lead to trouble later on.

Private Prewitt was the head bugler of another company, until his commanding officer promoted another, less competent bugler over Prew. Unable to take being second place to someone less talented, Prew gives up his easy life in the Bugle Corps and asks to be sent back to straight duty, preferring the harder life of a soldier to suffering the effects of favoritism. Ironically, when Prew is sent to G Company, he will continue to suffer thanks to a different kind of Army favoritism. In addition to bugling, Prew also happens to be an amazing boxer. We see a bit of Prew’s sensitive side when it’s discovered that he quit boxing after blinding the last person he fought. Even though he knows he is going into a regiment where athleticism and participation in sports is rewarded, and in his case, expected, Prew sticks to his guns and refuses to fight for the team. This results in a type of hazing known as “the Treatment”, where, Prew is forced to do extra calisthenics and endure verbal abuse from his superiors. It’s not all horrible though. Like Warden, Prew gets out on the town with his buddies, spends all of his payday money on beer, women and cards, and meets a wholesome looking prostitute named Alma. That’s about the last good decision Prew makes for the majority of the book. After attacking one of his superiors, Prew is sent to the Stockade (the military prison) and when forced to watch the Stockade men beat another prisoner to death, Prew goes all vigilante on us and kills the man who led the beating. Knowing that he can no longer return to his unit, as he will surely be blamed for the murder, Prew goes AWOL to Alma’s house, where he hangs out and drinks and reads books until the day he hears about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This news puts Prew over the edge, because it is then that he realizes he cannot leave the Army behind.

The book was not what I would call conventionally enjoyable. If you’ve read the book, you know exactly what I am talking about. It is straightforward and callous at times, much like the life of a soldier. Even the romances aren’t warm and fuzzy. If you’re looking for mushy-gushy love stories, you won’t find one in this book. And don’t let the movie fool you. There are many major aspects of the book’s plot that don’t occur in the movie; I think the romantic angles were played up a bit for Hollywood. What for me was most heartrending was what the book had to say about men, and the relations they have with other men and women. Stuck behind the manly facade of a soldier, the men struggle to reach out to one another to avert loneliness and form friendships or talk about their feelings, and in the cases of Prew and Warden, to love women, and in the cases of Prew’s friend Pvt Angelo Maggio and another superior officer, Nathan Bloom, to be with men. Prew is drawn to the kind and friendly Pvt Salvatore Clark, who unlike most of the other men in the outfit wears his heart on his sleeve, and while in the Stockade, to the calm, philosophical bookworm Jack Malloy. Maggio is exactly the opposite…outgoing, outspoken, angry and, by the end of the book, crazy…but even he is drawn to the calm Malloy. When Warden is caught in a small act of kindness, he usually follows its discovery with denials, bluster, or a torrent of verbal abuse. It was sad to me that these men were essentially trapped inside themselves, and were all emotional islands, not unlike Hawaii.

Jones’ book, upon its publication, was a watershed work in many ways. His original manuscript had much more profanity in it than was considered socially acceptable in 1951. The book also contained many passages relating to gay sex, as I mentioned in an earlier posting on FHTE. Jones wanted his book to be published as a Book of the Month, which was a really big deal back then, and the publishers would not do it unless the bad language and homosexual references were removed, so he gave in. Since passages that were shocking half a century ago are almost old hat these days, those of you who want to check out the original format and have e-readers will get that chance on May 10, when Jones’ controversial unedited version of FHTE will be released. I’d be curious to hear from anyone who reads the full version to see if it added anything to the storyline.

Overall not one of my favorite books, but profound in its own way.

Grade: B-

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2011 1:29 am

    Its interesting you mention the profanity as a lot of war novels seem to have had this problem. Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead was axed by the censors and he had to change the numerous uses of the f-word into ‘fug.’ He later said he felt like and idiot for doing this. Anyway, good review. I’ll have to read this soon.

  2. May 1, 2011 4:48 pm

    I think profanity is as much an intrinsic part of military life as target practice and drill. Trying to write a book about soldiers using clean language would be inauthentic and weird. It’s sad that both Jones and Mailer gave in to the censors in order to sell their books, thereby selling their souls to the publishing machine. I’m glad that we (and publishers) have more open minds these days, allowing the author’s original vision of their work to be available.

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