3rd Rock from the Sun, Season 4, Episode 9, “Happy New Dick!” original air date Dec. 15, 1998, teleplay by Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner, and Christine Zander, directed by Terry Hughes
Friday, December 31, 2021
Quote of the Day (Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, on How Megadisasters ‘Permanently Alter the Course of History’)
I’m sorry to close out this year on a downer note, but this interview with Jeffrey Schlegelmilch is important for explaining in such clear terms what the world has been witnessing, not just this year but so far in the 21st century.
Immediately after the above quote, Schlegelmilch points to the source of these large-scale disasters that are happening more often: human activities:
“We are pumping pollutants into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates, leading to more extreme weather events. At the same time, we are building in flood zones, in forested regions susceptible to wildfires, and in other hazard-prone areas. This dynamic is not unique to climate change. Other disasters, like pandemics, have components where societal development is increasing both the threat and our vulnerability. New diseases are emerging because we’re encroaching into wildlife areas and coming into closer contact with animals that harbor exotic pathogens, and the diseases are spreading faster through human populations because of our global connectedness.”
It's one thing when this happens elsewhere in the nation on the evening news, and quite another when it occurs locally, even on your own street. Such was the case at the start of September, when Hurricane Ida struck my hometown of Englewood, NJ.
Across the street from me, several residents of a housing project were evacuated when an adjacent creek overflowed and surged through their apartments. They were not able to move back in until the end of September.
The situation was—and remains—worse at a senior citizens’ project at the end of the block. The picture accompanying this post, taken a day or so after the waters from the brook had receded, only hints at what happened in and around this complex.
Not only were multiple cars damaged (or even lost), but the flood damaged electrical systems in the basement of the building, including the elevator controls and hot water. As a result, residents were hurriedly moved to CareOne facilities, then to area hotels.
Initially told to take only enough to last them a few weeks, these seniors didn’t have enough time even to take winter coats. It turned out they needed these, as their time away now looks like it will take many more months. (This article from the Bergen Record just before Christmas tells of their plight, as well as the commendable effort of the NAACP to alleviate it by collecting coats for them.)
Some of this situation was the unforeseen consequence of one of the “human activities” cited by Schlegelmilch: building in a floodplain. Nearly 50 years ago, these two projects were constructed along the brook, in an attempt to deal with urgent housing problems of the time.
To make the projects possible, bulldozers rechanneled and tamed the brook by scooping out hundreds of rocks and pebbles, with walls built higher and fences erected to prevent the flood damage that had occurred regularly in previous years.
And that’s how it was for nearly the following half-century. But Hurricane Ida, with its force of historic proportions, overwhelmed defenses deemed close to impregnable back then.
The citizens displaced by the storm face an uncertain future, exacerbated by the disruption of routine, isolation and loneliness prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But one also has to ask: If a disaster such as Hurricane Ida (or, for that matter, COVID-19) can happen once, what’s to prevent it happening again, particularly when so many deny that interlocking crises like this even exist? No matter how high and strong our barriers are and how much we spend, will it be enough if there is a next time?
Or, maybe I should say: when there is a next time.
Thursday, December 30, 2021
Quote of the Day (Alfred, Lord Tennyson, on ‘The Ringing Grooves of Change’)
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.” —English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), “Locksley Hall” (1842)
Wednesday, December 29, 2021
Quote of the Day (Natalie Angier, on Science As a State of Mind)
The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science (2007)
Tuesday, December 28, 2021
Quote of the Day (Leo Tolstoy, on Kindness)
A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World's Sacred Texts, edited by Peter Sekirin (1997)
Monday, December 27, 2021
Quote of the Day (Art Buchwald, on Television)
Sunday, December 26, 2021
Spiritual Quote of the Day (Book of Psalms, on God and the ‘Vine’ of Israel)
look down from heaven and see;
Visit this vine,
the stock your right hand has planted,
and the son whom you made strong for yourself.”—Psalm 80: 15-16
Saturday, December 25, 2021
Quote of the Day (A.N. Wilson, on How ‘A Christmas Carol’ ‘Invented the Modern Christmas’)
changed not only Dickens's life, but the Western world. It invented the modern Christmas. By February 1844 at least three theatrical productions based on the book were being performed in London alone. In the years that followed, he would publish further Christmas stories, including The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845) and The Battle of Life (1846). As far as he was concerned, Christmas had become the busiest time of year and one of the most lucrative—especially after 1853, when he had begun a series of public readings of A Christmas Carol. The Christmas edition of All the Year Round was something he spent six months planning. For it was always the Carol, of all his stories for Christmas, that captured the imagination of readers. Before the Carol was published, Christmas Day was not a public holiday in Britain. By 1846 the newspapers were reporting that ‘Experienced salesmen at Leadenhall-market state that the demand for Christmas geese this year exceeded that of any previous season, and that the establishment of clubs has, within the last few days, brought upwards of 20,000 geese into the market. In some parts of the metropolis, “plum pudding clubs” have been established.’”—English man of letters A.N. Wilson, The Mystery of Charles Dickens (2020)
The image accompanying this post is one of the original 1843 illustrations by the Victorian cartoonist John Leech (1817-1864) in A Christmas Carol—in this case, one of the happier memories of Ebenezer Scrooge’s youth: Mr. Fezziwig’s ball. It comes from this post from The Victorian Web. (Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham.)
Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Augustine, on Jesus at Bethlehem)
“Behold, we have the infant Christ in front of us.
“Let’s grow old with Him.”—St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), “Sermo CXCVI: Christmas #13,” translated by William Griffin, in The Best Christian Writing 2006, edited by John Wilson
The image accompanying this post is The Nativity, by Italian painter Federico Barocci (1535-1612.)
Friday, December 24, 2021
TV Quote of the Day (‘Seinfeld,’ In Which George and Jerry Debate a Marked-Down Xmas Gift for Elaine)
[played by Jason Alexander]: “You think she would care about the red dot?”
Jerry [played by Jerry Seinfeld]: “It's hard to say.”
George: “I don't even think she'd notice it. Can you see it?”
Jerry: “Well, I can see it.”
George: “Yeah, but you know where it is.”
Jerry: “Well, what do you want me to do? Not look at it?”
George: “Pretend you didn't know it was there. Can you see it?”
Jerry: “It's hard to pretend because I know where it is.”
George: “Well, just take an overview. Can't you just take an overview?”
Jerry: “You want me to take an overview?”
Jerry: “I see a very cheap man holding a sweater trying to get away with something. That's my overview.”—Seinfeld, Season 3, Episode 12, “The Red Dot,” original air date Dec. 11, 1991, teleplay by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, directed by Tom Cherones
Thursday, December 23, 2021
Quote of the Day (Noel Coward, on the Urge to ‘Go Out and Be Social’)
And extremely polite
And refrain from becoming too loose or too tight
And I mustn't impose conversational blight
On the dolt on my left
And the fool on my right.
I must really be very attractive tonight
As I have got to go out and be social.”—English playwright, composer and bon vivant Sir Noel Coward (1899-1973), “I’ve Got To Go Out and Be Social,” in The Noel Coward Reader, edited by Barry Day (2010)
Wednesday, December 22, 2021
Quote of the Day (George Clooney, on Celebrities’ Twitter Presence)
George Clooney's Rules for Living,” Esquire, December 2013
Well, I suppose that the publicist for George Clooney finally persuaded him to the contrary, because four years after this Esquire rant, the actor-director opened his own “George Clooney Official” Twitter page. Nevertheless, Mr. C. must have warned that he would strictly limit his involvement, because the tweets and retweets consist mostly of pictures of himself and his wife, with minimal commentary.
Every other day, if not more often, Clooney must nod his head over his foresight of nearly a decade ago. Though hardly shy about expressing his opinions, he knows that old-time movie stars loomed large for a reason other than the big screens of the Golden Age of Film: that overexposure removes the mystique invested by fans.
Moreover, as someone who admitted to Newsweek 10 years ago that his past life of substance and and womanizing precluded a life in politics, Clooney knows all too well the perils of going online and venting to the world before you’ve had time to think it over and calm down. Even if you’re not a party animal but simply love the sound of your own voice (an occupational hazard in the entertainment industry), you run a big risk of looking stupid.
Bette Midler, that means you.
You’d think that the singer-actress would have learned her lesson from three years ago, when she tweeted that women “are the n-word of the world,” or especially last year, when she mocked Melanie Trump’s accent and called her an “illegal alien”—in both cases, sparking a backlash that led the outspoken entertainer to issue uncharacteristic apologies.
But here she was at it again this week, when frustration over Joe Manchin’s opposition to the “Build Back Better” social spending plan of the Biden administration led her to lash out at the Democratic Senator from West Virginia for wanting to keep all Americans like his state: “Poor, illiterate and strung out."
Less than an hour later, Midler was backtracking with a tweeted apology to West Virginians (“Surely there’s someone there who has the state’s best interest at heart, not his own!”)
No matter. In politics, this would have been considered a gaffe, a statement that, for anyone not named Donald Trump, would have halted any possibility for further advancement.
In entertainment, plenty of people feel that she was right the first time. And therein lies the problem.
Statements like Ms. Midler’s only reinforce the conviction of many in Red America that liberal elites are condescending and unworthy of support (even someone like her, who has funded programs for neighborhood revitalization and wounded veterans). She made it that much harder to move back into the Democratic column a state that had once firmly backed the New Deal.
An additional history lesson might be in order here. Ms. Midler, like all non-indigenous Americans (including me), are descended from groups who, for the longest time after arriving on these shores, were “Poor, illiterate and strung out.”
Maybe she should get a copy of Oscar Handlin’s The Uprooted so she can better understand how alienated and resentful the recipients of taunts such as hers felt in the 19th century—and how belittling those remarks remain to the underprivileged and marginalized of this country, whoever they are and wherever they live.
(The photo of George Clooney accompanying this post was taken at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9, 2011, by Ed Van-West Garcia.)
Tuesday, December 21, 2021
Quote of the Day (Mark Helprin, on Political Memoirs)
Mark Helprin quoted in “12 Months of Reading,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 13-14, 2014
The image accompanying this post was taken of Mark Helprin on Sept. 22, 2013, by slowking.
Monday, December 20, 2021
Quote of the Day (Phyllis McGinley, on Little Girls at Christmastime)
Is hidden underneath their curls.
The season's tinsel necromancy,
They take some pains to make pretense
Of duped and eager innocence.
They hang the stocking by the bed,
Make plans, and pleasure their begetters
By writing Santa lengthy letters.
Only too well aware the fruit
Is shinier plunder, richer loot.”—Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978), “What Every Woman Knows,” in Times Three: Selected Verse From Three Decades, With Seventy New Poems (1961)
Sunday, December 19, 2021
Photo of the Day: Creche, Reformed Church, Oradell NJ
So it was yesterday, when I saw the one accompanying this post, outside the Reformed Church of Oradell, several miles from where I live in Bergen County, NJ.
All over the world, people continue to celebrate births as miraculous signs of joy and hope. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago was even more so—an act of faith by Mary in bearing this child under unusual and strained circumstances, and an act of faith by God that human beings, despite their history and tendency towards sin, were worth such a dramatic divine intervention in earthly affairs.
Spiritual Quote of the Day (Teresa Brayton, on What Jesus May Have Seen and Heard in Bethlehem)
The woe of the leper’s prayer,
The surging sorrow of all mankind,
As You lay by Your Mother there?
Beyond the shepherds, low bending down,
The long, long road did You see
That led from peaceful Bethlehem town
To the summit of Calvary?”— Irish nationalist, writer and poet Teresa Brayton (1868-1943), “A Christmas Song,” in Joyce Kilmer’s Anthology of Catholic Poets, edited by Shaemas O’Sheel (1939)
Saturday, December 18, 2021
This Day in Film History (‘Pocketful of Miracles,’ Capra’s Lesser Yule Tale, Opens)
Pocketful of Miracles opened in American theaters almost 15 years to the day that It’s a Wonderful Life premiered, and likewise failed to meet expectations at the box office. But, while veteran director Frank Capra’s earlier film went on, through countless repeat TV showings, to become a holiday classic, his later production—also containing Yuletide elements—has never gained similar popular traction.
It’s not that Pocketful of Miracles is completely unknown: The comedy has, after all, been shown numerous times over the years on TCM, and its stars included the very recognizable Bette Davis, Glenn Ford, and, in her big-screen debut, Ann-Margret.
But even many fans of older movies don’t recognize it, as was borne out for me a few days ago, when another fan of such fare could not bring it to mind when I spoke to her. And lines from the film have not entered popular memory, as they have with It’s a Wonderful Life or a much more recent movie, A Christmas Story.
Making the movie, Capra admitted a decade later in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, was a “miserable” experience. It soured him so much on how the industry had changed since his heyday at Columbia Pictures in the 1930s that it turned out to be his swan song.
Part of the reason why the production turned out to be so joyless and disappointing was that Capra had begun it with such high hopes. It was, after all, a remake of Lady for a Day, which had earned him the first of six Oscar nominations for Best Director back in 1934.
Among Capra’s generation of older directors, the idea of remaking their own black-and-white films of more than 20 years before had a certain appeal, as evidenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956), and Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (released first in 1939, then redone as An Affair to Remember).
The logic behind their reasoning seemed overpowering, even inescapable: If Hollywood was going to remake these (and it would), who better to do so than the original creative force who knew not only what aspects of it were worth preserving but also what could be corrected and what could be added that wasn’t around a generation before (notably, color and bigger screens)?
There were only a couple of problems with this in Capra’s case, but they were significant. First, although he was eager to adapt Damon Runyon’s Prohibition Era tale “Madame Le Gimp” for a later generation, Hollywood executives did not feel similarly, believing audiences would find it dated.
Second, Hitchcock and McCarey had, in James Stewart and Cary Grant, stars not only well-cast but also uninterested in throwing their weight around. But Capra had as his male lead Glenn Ford, who, as associate producer, had helped finance the film and was not shy about determining its direction.
In particular, Ford insisted that, as gangster moll Queenie Martin, his girlfriend Hope Lange should replace Shirley Jones, a recent Oscar winner for Elmer Gantry whom Capra had already promised the role. The reluctant director acceded to his star’s cast-her-or-I-quit threat, but it rankled.
One of the few fundamental deviations that Pocketful of Miracles made from Robert Riskin’s script for Lady for a Day was a larger presence for Queenie (whom 1930s audiences would have recognized as a fictionalized stand-in for nightclub hostess Texas Guinan). It is hard not to see the hand of Ford in that decision.
Lange was hardly a disaster in her role. But her presence represented a mounting list of initial casting choices that weren’t turning out as Capra had wished.
Ford himself was not his preference for superstitious gangster “Dave the Dude.” But his desired choices—Steve McQueen, Jackie Gleason, Kirk Douglas, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra—didn’t work out, for one reason or another. (Sinatra’s association with the production would, in the end, be limited to turning its theme song into a hit.)
Likewise, Bette Davis was not whom Capra had in mind for street peddler Apple Annie. But Shirley Booth felt she couldn’t improve on May Robson’s Oscar-nominated performance in Lady for a Day; Helen Hayes couldn’t find space in her schedule; and Katharine Hepburn and Jean Arthur (so memorable in Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) both turned down the role.
Davis, with increasingly lower-profile roles since her triumph a decade before in All About Eve, was eager for the work and the $100,000 salary, and agreed to take on the part when Capra offered it.
As great an actress as she was, Davis was, at 53, younger and less believable as woebegone Annie than the two-decades-older Robson. But Capra had a more immediate problem with her, caused by—yes, Ford.
The trouble began a week after Davis came to the set, when Lange requested a dressing room next to Ford. That room belonged to Davis, who was miffed about yielding her position to a younger, less-established actress.
In a well-intended but clumsy attempt to smooth things over, Ford only made matters worse by saying in an interview that he was repaying Davis for giving him his start in films by putting her in this movie, hoping it would be a comeback vehicle for her.
“Who is that son of a bitch that he should say he helped me have a comeback!” Davis stormed. “That shitheel wouldn’t have helped me out of a sewer!”
From then on, the production was “shaped in the fires of discord and filmed in an atmosphere of pain, strain, and loathing," Capra wrote in The Name Above the Title.
Years later, he regretted that with Davis, he “didn’t see that needed consolation and reassurance after so long away.” But on set, he was not inclined to mediate the noticeable tension between her and Ford, and he developed increasing headaches.
It’s hard not to read Capra’s memoir without the sense that, over and above everything else, he resented Ford for undercutting his authority and creative freedom as the director: “My ‘one man, one film’ Hollywood had ceased to exist. Actors had sliced it up into capital gains.”
The results showed on the screen. It wasn’t so much in the performances of the supporting players. (Particularly wonderful are “It’s a Wonderful Life”’s Uncle Billy, Thomas Mitchell, here in his last movie role; Mickey Shaughnessy, given perhaps the funniest line of the film, “She's like a cockroach what turned into a butterfly!”; and Peter Falk, nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Dave the Dude’s cranky right-hand man “Joy Boy”).
Rather, the trouble is apparent in the film’s pace—which, uncharacteristically for Capra, is uneven, even slack at points. Lady for a Day had a running time of an hour and 34 minutes—plenty of time to tell its story and be on its way. In contrast, Pocketful of Miracles clocks in at two hours and 16 minutes but feels like it could use a good half hour cut.
Capra received a Directors Guild of America nomination for this film. But overall, he agreed with reviewers like The New York Times’ A.H. Weiler, who noted, “Mr. Capra and his energetic troupe manage to get a fair share of laughs from Mr. Runyon’s oddball guys and dolls, but their lampoon is dated and sometimes uneven and lifeless.”
A couple of years later, Capra expressed interest in directing an adaptation of the Broadway satire The Best Man, but creative differences with playwright Gore Vidal kept him from taking on that project, probably for the best.
Pocketful of Miracles was an exercise in nostalgia for a world that had passed. So had the studio system in which Capra had once flourished.
(The image accompanying this post shows Ford, Falk and Davis. Though it seemed imperative to have the two feuding co-stars in a still for my commentary, I couldn't resist including Falk, whose performances gives viewers as much pleasure as it did Capra.)
Quote of the Day (Ann Radcliffe, on ‘The Best Security Against the Contagion of Folly’)
What stuck out for me in this quote was the word “contagion.” It may have been a metaphor when it was written.
But these days—as COVID-19, aided more than a little bit by misinformation, has not only stubbornly hung on but even formed variants—the term is literal as well as symbolic.
Friday, December 17, 2021
Movie Quote of the Day (‘A Christmas Story,’ on How Ralphie’s Old Man Was Like the Old Masters of Painting)
] [voice of Jean Shepherd]: “My father worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oil or clay. It was his true medium: a master.”—A Christmas Story (1983), screenplay by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark, based on Shepherd’s In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, directed by Bob Clark
Thursday, December 16, 2021
Quote of the Day (Mary Karr, on the ‘Emotional Conviction’ of Memoirs)
The Monday Interview: Mary Karr,” Publishers Weekly, Nov. 9, 2009
Wednesday, December 15, 2021
Photo of the Day: You Can’t Keep a Bad Grinch Down
Dr. Seuss’s creation is all over the place this holiday season—not just on TV, where he’s been since 1966 (in the TV special narrated by Boris Karloff), but now, as I saw on an early evening walk earlier this week, on at least one front lawn in my hometown of Englewood, NJ.
Quote of the Day (Vladimir Nabokov, on Reading a Book for the First Time)
Lectures on Literature (1980)
Tuesday, December 14, 2021
Quote of the Day (Simone de Beauvoir, on the Value of One’s Life)
French writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, and feminist Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), Old Age, translated by Patrick O'Brian (1972)
Monday, December 13, 2021
Tweet of the Day (Cadaea, on the Upteenth Entry in the ‘Fast and Furious’ Franchise)
movie should be called Fast 10: Your Seatbelts.”—London-based Twitch streamer Cadaea, tweet of July 11, 2017
Sunday, December 12, 2021
Photo of the Day: Lantern Display, Van Saun County Park, Paramus NJ
Van Saun County Park, northwest of me in Bergen County, NJ. Throughout most of the rest of the year, the picnic tables in this 146-acre suburban park are filled—and I bet even more so during this pandemic, as more people shied away from indoor settings. Last week, with temperatures plunging, that was not the case, and I suspect that this state of affairs will continue over the next three months.
If parents weren’t out eating, however, many were walking around with their kids near the entrance to the park’s zoo. The lights were set up for “Let It GLOW! A Holiday Lantern Spectacular,” which began on November 26 and will continue from now to January 30 every Thursday through Sunday, from 4 to 9.
Spiritual Quote of the Day (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on the Hope of Advent)
God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas (2012)
Saturday, December 11, 2021
Quote of the Day (Sara Teasdale, on the Ecstasy of Winter Skaters)
Flew to and fro,
With sharp turns weaving
A frail invisible net.
In ecstasy the earth
Drank the silver sunlight;
In ecstasy the skaters
Drank the wine of speed;
In ecstasy we laughed
Drinking the wine of love.”— American poet Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), “A Winter Bluejay,” in Rivers to the Sea (1915)
Friday, December 10, 2021
Joke of the Day (Rodney Dangerfield, on Father-Son Christmas Gift-Giving)
Laughter Really Is the Best Medicine: America's Funniest Jokes, Stories, and Cartoons, from the Editors of Reader's Digest (2011)
Thursday, December 9, 2021
Quote of the Day (William Hazlitt, on Why Women Often Have More Good Sense Than Men)
Table-Talk: or, Original Essays, Vol. 2 (1822)
Naturally, women reading the above would argue with the point that women “do not reason at all.” But, in the context of the true subject of Hazlitt’s piece—theory, classical education and these realms' distance from actual practice (“the most learned man…knows the most of what is farthest removed from common life and actual observation, that is of the least practical utility”)—they are far more likely to nod in agreement with everything else in that paragraph.
(Well, with one other exception: they might substitute "usually" for "often" in that first sentence.)
What better illustration of what Mr. Hazlitt is talking about concerning men without sense and women with it than the picture next to this post?
Well, maybe there is one—this bit of dialogue from The Honeymooners:
Ralph: “What's the matter? Aren't you up on current events? Don't you read the papers? Don't you read comic books? That's the trouble with you; you don't know the latest developments.”
Alice: “I don't know the latest developments? Who is it that lets your pants out every other day?”
This demonstrates why, on more than one occasion, Ralph shows that he has a "BIG mouth"—big enough to put his foot in it.
Wednesday, December 8, 2021
Spiritual Quote of the Day (Cindy Perazzo, on Mary, ‘First and Perfect Disciple to Jesus Christ’)
Hail Mary!”, Carmelite Review, Fall 2013-Winter 2014 issue
The image accompanying this post is The Annunciation (ca. 1485-92), by the Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi) (c.1445–1510). The painting now hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Tuesday, December 7, 2021
This Day in Literary History (James Jones Survives Pearl Harbor to Pen ‘From Here to Eternity’)
As he recalled what he was doing that dawn 80 years ago in World War II: A Chronicle of Soldiering:
“On Sunday mornings in those days there was a bonus ration of a half–pint of milk, to go with your eggs or pancakes and syrup, also Sunday specials. Most of us were more concerned with getting and holding onto our half–pints of milk than with listening to the explosions that began rumbling up toward us from Wheeler Field two miles away. ‘They doing some blasting?’ some old–timer said through a mouthful of pancakes. It was not till the first low–flying fighter came skidding, whammering low overhead with his MGs going that we ran outside, still clutching our half–pints of milk to keep them from being stolen, aware with a sudden sense of awe that we were seeing and acting in a genuine moment of history.”
Three decades later, Jones still remembered a Japanese pilot’s toothy grin showing through goggles as he strafed the base; Battleship Row, a “living inferno” where men, “precipitated into full–scale war without previous experience and with no preparation, performed feats of incredible heroism and rescue that seemed unbelievable later”; and, from a distance, Pearl Harbor itself, with “the huge rising smoke columns high in the clear sunny Hawaiian air for miles.”
A 20-year-old assistant clerk with aspirations of becoming a writer, Jones gained enough material from his wartime experience for a three-decade career. But his rookie effort was the one that brought him the greatest success, not only netting him the National Book Award in 1952 but becoming the basis of the Oscar-winning film that has continued to keep his characters in the public eye.
Despite having read Jones’ first novel and being generally familiar with the outlines of his subsequent career, I was unaware of many details of his Army experience until I read Roy Morris’ fine article, “Before Eternity,” in the Autumn 2021 issue of MHQ.
I did not know, for instance, that Jones not only based many of his characters in the novel on soldiers in his own unit but also that in several cases, he used only minimal means of veiling their identities (e.g., not even bothering to change their surnames, in some cases).
I was midway through high school when I read Jones’ blockbuster. It was the time of my life when, with the magic combination of the fewest responsibilities and the most energy, I could spend time with many, often long, books.
Even so, I felt my attention severely strained by a novel that, for more than 800 pages, qualifies as a true doorstop. In fact, it could be argued that, for all its concessions to the censorship code of the early 1950s, Daniel Taradash’s screenplay effectively channeled the essentials of Jones’ sprawling plot.
For all the honesty and ambition of Jones’ first published work of fiction—his attempt to depict an entire complex community—it lost much in terms of economy and artistic control. This might have been part of the reason why his best-known literary achievement has not had the same staying power of Ernest Hemingway’s influential novel of World War I, A Farewell to Arms.
In a profile I wrote for my college newspaper years ago, Frank MacShane joked that he had been labeled “the biographer of the stepchildren of literature” for writing about critically underrated authors. Although his reclamation efforts have borne some fruit in the case of John O’Hara and considerably more for Raymond Chandler, he did not produce a similar widespread revival of interest with his 1985 biography of Jones, Into Eternity.
Nevertheless, From Here to Eternity retains considerable value. Readers prepared to look beyond the pair of romances involving Sgt. Milt Warden, Karen Holmes, Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, and Alma Burke will find both a visceral picture of the peacetime army before America became a world power and a shocking treatment of a military establishment rife with institutional corruption and abuse of power
Jones would have none of the “Good War” mythology already taking place in the postwar period. He was intent on delivering a decidedly unromantic rendering of the caste system in the military. This novel and the two others that formed his “World War II Trilogy,” The Thin Red Line and the unfinished Whistle, reflected his belief that “In every war there were two wars, the war of the officers and the war of the enlisted men.”
Thus, while officers in that pre-war period might attend clubs where they would even present calling cards, enlisted men would face overwhelming pressures to conform and arbitrary discipline that could land them in brutal stockades.
In the latter respect, From Here to Eternity functions as what today might be seen as a dissection of toxic masculinity. Females are cheated on and exploited; officers look the other way or even encourage bullying (including pressure by Karen Holmes’ husband, the commanding officer in the unit, to induce Prewitt to join the boxing team); and enlisted men endure tedium that can suddenly transform into after-hours barroom fisticuffs and back-alley knife fights.
Within a year, Jones would be not just a witness to war but also a combatant, participating in the Guadalcanal campaign. His experience there—killing with a bayonet two Japanese soldiers—unsettled him. Wounded in early 1943, he underwent extensive medical treatment at a military hospital before being honorably discharged the following year.
Although Jones’ physical wounds were visible, his psychic ones—what we would call today post-traumatic stress disorder—were less so. His alcoholism, his daughter Kaylie contended in her memoir Lies My Mother Never Told Me, combined with the malaria he contracted in the war to produce the heart condition that ended his life in 1977.
The school of realism to which Jones belonged may seem less attractive to modern readers than the surrealism of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. But Jones is just as critical in his way of the military as a soul-killing institution that even destroys its most dedicated members than these two other World War II novels. Clumsy and even artless as From Here to Eternity can seem at points, it also remains vibrant because of Jones’ fierce commitment to truth.
One of Jones’ most eloquent advocates is Joan Didion. Though her exacting, sometimes minimalist style can appear light years away from Jones, she wrote a deeply moving appreciation of the veteran-turned-novelist not long after his death in her essay “In the Island,” published in her collection The White Album:
“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image, and not only Schofield Barracks but a great deal of Honolulu itself has always belonged for me to James Jones.”