HOW A GIFTED OLDER WOMAN GAVE BIRTH TO A LITERARY GIANT
By Michael James Moore
Thirty-two years ago at the age of 55, novelist James Jones died of congestive heart failure. His obituaries were quick to highlight that Jones had won the National Book Award for Fiction in January, 1952, when his debut novel, “From Here to Eternity,” still enjoyed the international sales that fellow author William Styron would later say made it “the most famous book in the world” in the early 1950s.
One year later, “From Here to Eternity” became arguably the most famous movie in the world, thanks to Columbia Pictures and director Fred Zinnemann, plus a stellar cast that included Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra. The film’s raciness was nearly as trailblazing as the book’s profanity (despite the censorship constricting Hollywood) and it won eight Academy Awards in 1954.
Jones had achieved a writer’s dream come true with his blockbuster success. Not only had his 860-page novel been launched by the venerated house of Charles Scribner’s Sons, but that Olympian publisher of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe had taken out full-page ads in trade periodicals, trumpeting variations on the theme stated bluntly on the flap-copy of “From Here to Eternity.”
There, too, Jones had achieved a writer’s dream come true. Even before the huge sales and critical affirmations proved that both a literary and commercial success were ensured, his maiden novel’s dust jacket alluded to the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, clearly implying that Jones was heir to a great lineage in American letters: “The publishers believe that the appearance of this novel is of comparable importance to the publication of ‘This Side of Paradise’ or ‘Look Homeward, Angel.‘ For like the first novels of Fitzgerald and Wolfe, ‘From Here to Eternity’ introduces a writer who will take a commanding place in American literature.”
In the Saturday Review of Literature, Ned Calmer praised “From Here to Eternity” as “ . . . the best picture of Army life ever written by an American, a book of beauty and power . . . a work of genius.” Oddly missing, though, from the media coverage that followed in the wake of Jones’ death in May of ’77 was any thoroughgoing look at the story of his evolution as a writer.
Thirty-two years later, there is still far too little in the way of either critical assessment or good old-fashioned journalistic exploration regarding one of the more eccentric and even inspiring apprenticeships in the history of 20th-century American literature. It’s a story replete with post-traumatic stress disorder, an Oedipus complex, an open marriage, the rags-to-riches storyline one might associate with Horatio Alger and the founding of a countercultural writers’ colony in the middle of postwar small-town central Illinois.
James Jones was born on Nov. 6, 1921. Although his family prospered among the upper middle class in his boyhood (his father was a dentist in the town of Robinson, IL, where Jones graduated high school in 1939), there were financial, psychological and medical crises following the 1929 stock market crash. Eventually Jones’ father would commit suicide. Enlisting in the peacetime Army in ’39 was an option Jones reluctantly accepted. Being an eyewitness to the attack on Pearl Harbor, which occurred one month after his twentieth birthday, was the tipping point. By then he had vowed to become a writer.
Later in 1943 Jones fought with the famed 25th Tropic Lightning Division and was wounded at Guadalcanal. Returned to the U.S., he convalesced at an Army hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. He showed many signs of what was then dubbed “combat fatigue” (what’s now classified as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Aside from his frequent binge drinking, there were bouts of anger and panic overlaid with symptoms of depression and a gnawing sense of literary ambition that no conventional schooling or job could assuage.
He was rescued from a probable military court martial—after having gone AWOL in 1944—by a maverick woman seventeen years his senior: Lowney Handy. She was the wife of a highly regarded executive named Harry Handy, who was the superintendent of an oil refinery in Robinson, Illinois. They had no children, because Lowney had been forced to have a hysterectomy after contracting gonorrhea from her husband soon after they were married. Jones would later alter details and modify that anecdote and weave it as part of the tapestry illustrating Capt. “Dynamite” Holmes and his embittered spouse, Karen Holmes, two of the most prominent characters in “From Here to Eternity.”
Because of powerful small-town tentacles that could reach everywhere from statehouse hallways to the local draft board, Lowney Handy (with help from her husband) was able to secure a medical discharge for James Jones in the summer of 1944. By that time he was already deep into the writing of a novel (never published) about a renegade veteran who could not adjust to the America’s booming wartime society, brazenly enjoying its economic potency directly as the result of the ongoing war that was shredding the psyche and soul of Jones’ characters. The working title was: “They Shall Inherit the Laughter.”
He took the typescript with him when he went to Manhattan to attend classes at New York University in the spring of 1945. Far more crucial is that he made a cold-call one afternoon at the office of editor Maxwell Perkins. The Scribner’s secretary claimed that Perkins was out of the office. Jones refused to leave the typescript of “Laughter,” which he’d packed into a box that was tied with string. Yet he kept on talking. So much so that the secretary finally claimed that Perkins had returned through a private back door. The fledging author was escorted into his lair. The two hit it off. They spoke of writing, the war, and Jones’ vision of himself as a promising novelist. When he exited Scribner’s that day, James Jones’ manuscript was on the desk of Ernest Hemingway’s exalted editor.
It was while corresponding with Perkins early in 1946 that Jones first articulated his vision of a novel about the pre-war Army at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. Although he rejected “They Shall Inherit the Laughter,” Perkins nonetheless reacted with tremendous enthusiasm to Jones’ fresh idea. He offered a $500 advance, thus inducing a new project.
Perkins died in 1947, but Jones’ “From Here to Eternity” was published four years later.
It was Lowney Handy, however, who single-handedly coaxed the larger-than-life novel out of the novice author. She was unconventional in every way, even though she lived in a small-town milieu that appeared on the surface to validate Norman Rockwell’s image of all-American values. Caring nothing for Main Street social aspirations or the church-going ethos of her “ladylike” contemporaries, Lowney Handy deployed herself as a bold mentor for wayward youth, abundantly giving her time and often her husband’s financial resources to troubled young artists. She and Harry Handy took Jones into their home, granting him room and board and financial support; allowing him to write unencumbered.
James Jones became the prime focus of Lowney Handy’s life because she believed that he was a born writer who might create great works. She had esoteric ideas about how a writer ought to live, study, learn, compose and revise in order to create a book that was original. It was on Jones that she first tested protocols that many others would later experience at the Handy Writers’ Colony, which was incorporated after the bestselling success of “From Here to Eternity” and windfall profits from Hollywood allowed Jones to invest nearly $100,000 in what amounted to a genuine experiment in counterculture. Cabins were built for solitary writing; dorm-like barracks were constructed; a large kitchen, cafeteria and recreation center were created. The Colony was a world unto itself, with Lowney inviting or rejecting prospective students after evaluating their manuscripts.
Lowney and Jones were lovers for a time (an arrangement her husband was aware of), but eventually their sexual union waned. What never diminished—until much later in the 1950s—was the symbiotic relationship between the two. And all this dovetailed with Lowney’s spiritual principles. Long before San Francisco in the Sixties and well before the Beat rigamarole soon to be both lionized and ridiculed in late-1950s mass media, Lowney was a one-woman cavalcade of non-mainstream thinking. In her rural Illinois town, closely bordering the archetypal Squaresville of Terre Haute, Indiana, she created a parallel universe that was part workshop, part retreat, and in every way Lowney’s world. From Emerson’s “The Over-Soul” to the theosophical tomes of Madame Blavatsky to the philosophical quest at the core of W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge,” Lowney ordered her students to read and ponder material merging East and West, at least in prose.
At a time when Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking” (1952) was considered inspirational by millions, Lowney was singing the praises of Hindu yogis and their macrobiotic discipline with food; as well as their breathing exercises day and night.
She dictated everyone’s daily agenda regarding diet and nutrition, meditation and exercise, writing and revising, or just when a trip to a brothel might be sanctioned.
Before any of her charges were allowed to commence work on their own evolving manuscripts, there was a Colony protocol that Lowney touted with the fervor of an orthodox preacher. It was commonly called “copying” and she considered it the writer’s version of calisthenics. Whole chapters of novels selected by Lowney—Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and “U.S.A.” by John Dos Passos among them—were re-typed by her initiates, word for word. Only then could they shift their focus to original material. She believed that such copying would teach structure and style by osmosis.
Financed at first by her husband but then largely by Jones, the Handy Writers’ Colony was unique. Lowney disdained academe. She held fast to a bedrock faith in her own gifts for tapping the talents of bona-fide literary contenders. After all, as Life magazine showed with a nine-page photo-essay entitled “James Jones and His Angel” in May of 1951, Lowney had functioned as editorial guru, compositional guide, “foster mother” and all-purpose overseer during the five-plus years Jones spent at work writing “From Here to Eternity” in the obscurity of their isolated small town in downstate Illinois. She did not doubt that what she had done for Jones, she could do for others. Jones believed it too.
They weren’t too far from wrong. Although no other writer who passed her way ever experienced Jones’ one-of-a-kind breakout success, there were a number of critically acclaimed novels written by authors who spent months or years under Lowney’s tutelage at the Colony, remnants of which still stand in Marshall, Illinois. It was there (a town not far from where Jones grew up in Robinson) that Jones spent six years writing his second novel (“Some Came Running”) before his marriage in 1957 was followed by a fifteen-year expatriate’s sojourn in Paris. By then he had severed his ties with Lowney Handy.
Nonetheless, in its heyday throughout the 1950s, the Colony was the spawning ground not just for Jones’ massive second novel, but also for Gerald Tesch’s “Never the Same Again,” published in 1956 by Putnam’s and far ahead of its time with its older man-seduces-teenage-boy homosexual storyline. In a Library Journal review by critic George Adelman, it was astutely noted: “This very powerful first novel has much to recommend it but regrettably also has objectionable aspects that would preclude its being wanted by most public libraries.”
Then, in 1957, Lowney’s protege Tom Chamales’ “Never So Few” (which evoked the little-known China-India-Burma theater of the Second World War, also becoming a successful film with Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen, Gina Lollabrigida and Charles Bronson) earned a rave review from esteemed critic Maxwell Geismar, who lauded it in the “Saturday Review” as “an extraordinary first novel.” That debut work was also a Scribner’s title.
At decade’s end, in 1959, Norman Mailer published his first nonfiction collection, “Advertisements for Myself.” It included an essay wherein he assessed the literary landscape across which he and his peers had fought since the end of the Second World War. The first sentence of “Evaluations—Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room” was the verbal equivalent of a salute to Jones. There Mailer wrote that:
“The only one of my contemporaries who I felt had more talent than myself was James Jones. And he has also been the one writer of my time for whom I felt any love. I . . . can still say that ‘From Here to Eternity’ has been the best American novel since the war, and if it is ridden with faults, ignorances, and a smudge of the sentimental, it has also the force of few novels one could name.”
Thirty-two years after Jones’ death in 1977, that salute bears repeating.