James Jones emerged as a promising American writer with his first novel From Here to Eternity, published in 1951. The novel is an extensive study of a soldier's life in the peacetime army, and Jones infused thi
s structural framework with the protagonist Prewitt's individualistic struggles against the stifling institution that was the pre-World War II army. The novel evoked such a sharp emotional response in readers because of its graphic brutality, sex, and l
anguage, yet it transcended mere shock value by virtue of its universality, a sense among its readers that the book not only reflected Jones's experiences but also somehow paralleled their own. In addition to the novel's sheer emotional power, its succ
ess also hinged on America's fresh memories and experiences from World War II. Although the novel is set just prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and does not actually depict World War II combat, the fact that every facet of American life had been touc
hed by the war augmented the public's receptiveness to such a story. Furthermore, numerous other bestsellers of the late forties, both fiction and nonfiction, had addressed this subject and thus paved the way for the book's success; the subsequent rele
ase of the film version two years after the book's publication also contributed to its enduring popularity. Thus, the success of From Here to Eternity and its status as a bestseller was contingent upon such factors as postwar publishing trends, the char
acter of the contemporary American public, and the novel's realism and universality.
The changing nature of book publishing in the postwar era significantly impacted subsequent novels, including From Here to Eternity. Book publishing by this time had become a mass market, and the publishing industry evolved to meet this new demand. Dur
ing World War II, the War Production Board set standards restricting the use of paper, a circumstance that clearly did not impede the emergence of many new publishing houses and the expansion of existing ones. An important component of this development w
as book club publishing, the primary factor responsible for the explosive increase in hardcover sales both during and after the war. The Council on Books in Wartime also contributed to the growing success of the publishing industry, as it distributed ove
r 1000 titles to personnel in the armed forces and directed book publication for recently freed civilians overseas. Moreover, with the advent of the five-day working week, more people had leisure time to devote to reading and increasingly sought books as
entertainment, creating a huge demand for the medium. The American public's exposure to books was also heightened by the booming motion picture industry, which frequently based its films on bestsellers and therefore contributed to books' popularity an
d sales (Bowker). Publishing magnate Schuster acknowledged this trend, "People see American literature processed, stylized, syndicated, serialized, Hollywoodized, networked, televisioned, merged and high-pressured" (qtd. in Bowker). All of these factors
enabled the publishing boom of the postwar years, a development from which Jones's novel benefited.
Another publishing trend was an increasing number of bestsellers based on World War II settings and experiences, reflecting a market demand which Jones seized on with his From Here to Eternity. Seven of the top ten nonfiction bestsellers of 1944 treated
the subject of war. On the fiction list for the same year appeared two war books, W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge and John Hersey's A Bell for Adano. In 1946, the annual bestseller list included three nonfiction works based on the war, while
no war-related novels surfaced in the fiction category. Two years later, books on the war had emerged once again on the fiction list, among them Norman Mailer's highly praised The Naked and The Dead, capturing second place on the annual list. Irwin Sha
w's The Young Lions held tenth place on the bestselling fiction list, representing another war-based novel to achieve popularity. Similarly, the nonfiction list of 1948 included several accounts of the war years, such as Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe
and Churchill's The Gathering Storm. In 1949, two of the bestselling works of fiction utilized the backdrop of war, John Hersey's The Wall and Ernest Hemingway's Across the River and Into the Trees, novels which occupied the fourth and third spots, re
spectively. Therefore, in the late forties, ten books about World War II achieved bestseller status in either the fiction or nonfiction category, demonstrating the American public's interest in the subject. However, even Norman Mailer's popular novel
failed to secure the number one position on the list, a spot that Jones captured in 1951 with From Here to Eternity, selling 240,000 copies. War-based novels also occupied the second, sixth, and seventh spaces that year (Hackett 142-155). The success of
earlier novels with a World War II background not only reflected America's interests but also set a precedent for such works, at least partially enabling the success of Jones's first novel.
The postwar trend of the motion picture as marketing tool for the book was also exemplified in the success of From Here to Eternity. Columbia Pictures released the movie version of the bestseller in 1953, a year after the publication of the paperback ed
ition. Writing the film's screenplay proved especially difficult in light of the graphic nature of the novel's language and content, as the film would have to satisfy the censorship standards of Hollywood's Breen Office. Jones was initially the write
r for the screenplay, though he soon succumbed to the very different demands of screenplay writing from that of novel writing, yielding the job to Daniel Taradash on the condition that he preserve the story's integrity with regard to the characters and t
he ending. The movie was immensely successful, grossing in its first year nearly $80 million (MacShane 132). The film's casting was an integral component of its success, with such stars as Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, and Deborah Kerr. A
t the Academy Awards, the film won eight Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor. Thus, the film enjoyed enormous popularity and achieved renown for James Jones, in addition to amplifying demand for the novel (128). Consequently, From Here to Etern
ity continued its upward climb in sales, reaching over three million by 1975 (Hackett 156).
As reflected by the success of earlier war novels and particularly by From Here to Eternity, the American public harbored significant interest in the subject of World War II. The war effected changes across the spectrum of American life, and people's ex
periences of this period were still fresh and memories still painful. Novels based on this subject were thus very relevant to contemporary America. Men had served in the armed forces and could identify with characters like Robert E. Lee Prewitt in From
Here to Eternity, and those without actual involvement in the war had still experienced its effects through the lives of family members or friends. In the case of From Here to Eternity, even those who had fought in the war could not fully relate to the e
xperiences of the book's characters, for this novel examines the lives of enlisted soldiers whose career is the army, placed in a peacetime setting. However, the army backdrop appealed to former enlisted men interested in an account of a soldier's life
prior to the war. This receptiveness of the American public to books based on the recently concluded war finds a parallel in the sales trends of similar European books after World War I, one of which was Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western
Front (Bowker). These books achieved such tremendous success primarily because of their appeal to people's experiences in these wars and to people's continued emotional involvement through their memories. Therefore, the success of From Here to Eternit
y derived largely from its timeliness and relevance of subject to the character of contemporary America.
Also crucial to the book's success was its realism, an element that simultaneously shocked and appealed to readers. Paul Pickrel in the Yale Review described it as "a book that will offend many readers; it contains several sensational situations and en
ough impolite language to make it unpublishable by the standards of even a decade ago" (Book Review Digest 453). While explicit language to this degree was certainly unprecedented, it nonetheless contributed to the book's power and thus its appeal to re
aders, as Robert P. Jordan of The Washington Post acknowledged: "It is Jones' faithful reporting, of which these words are a part, that gives the novel its extreme and, at times, terrible realism. It, too, is Jones' deep understanding of the Army and
the men in it that makes the novel human and appealing" (Garrett 101). Life magazine alluded to the book's graphic language in a play on words in an article entitled, "From Here to Obscenity," reflecting the public's shock at such content. Particularl
y controversial was Jones's frequent use of a word which even Norman Mailer had euphemized with "fug" (96). Therefore, Jones's attempt to present his characters realistically in their setting is apparent through this element of language, and this quali
ty enhanced the novel's effect on readers.
Violence is portrayed just as explicitly in several instances in the novel, specifically the stockade scene, and sex is presented throughout the book as an integral part of the plot. The characterization of the two main characters, Prewitt and Warden, i
s largely dependent upon their sexual relationships. Warden's affair with his commanding officer's wife and Prewitt's relationship with a prostitute are key elements of the plot; the men realize their desire for a deeper relationship with the women on
ly after basing these relationships on sex, an occurrence which is central to Jones's demonstration of the nature of soldiers' interactions with women (MacShane 110). Thus, while the severity of language and the depiction of violence and sex in the nov
el shocked readers in the 1950's, these elements provided a realism which enhanced its appeal.
Moreover, From Here to Eternity achieved bestseller status because of its ability to appeal to a diversity of readers. The novel was widely successful in part because of its link to World War II, but it also received critical acclaim from academic sourc
es. Jones's focus on the lives of enlisted men like Prewitt rather than the officer class clearly emphasized the plight of the underdog and symbolized the proletariat, attracting interest among the intellectual left. Furthermore, many literary academic
s praised the novel, extolling its merits as both a piece of serious literature and one of popular fiction. This group also emphasized the simple structural framework of the book and its treatment of Prewitt's character in his individualist struggle aga
inst an imposing institution (Garrett 97). For these reasons, From Here to Eternity transcended the bounds of typical popular literature with its success among academics.
The most significant factor responsible for the novel's mass appeal, however, was the universality of its characters and ideals. Prewitt, a mere private, harbors great ambition and adheres to his own strict personal standards, a characterization which
is coupled with his archetypal quest in the novel, rendering him an Everyman character with which the reader can identify. Prewitt and his fellow enlisted men are clearly underdogs who endure oppression in the merciless institution of the Army. Jones's
central theme is the struggle between individual will and society, symbolized by Prewitt's fierce individualism and Warden's practical demands. Prewitt defies the Army through his refusal to box under his company commander, exemplifying this individua
lism which ultimately results in his own destruction. Warden, however, understands the realistic demands of the Army and thus tolerates the injustices that he perceives as inherent, a jadedness into which Prewitt could never lapse (MacShane 112). Jones
later explained this theme when he wrote,
"the Army had an infallible way of destroying its own best advocates and
adherents. The type of which Prewitt was one are almost always the best
examples of real combat soldiers?[yet] these very characteristics and ideas
which made them the best possible soldiers in combat are the very same things
which always threw them into conflict with authority out of combat?I think that
had Prewitt lived, and continued to live, he would have eventually become a
Warden. That would mean compromising on his part, and the only alternative
was death" (qtd. in MacShane 111).
This theme of individual will in conflict with societal demands has universal appeal, confronting the reader with aspects of his own aspirations. Consequently, the novel's success depended on these elements of theme and characterization.
James Jones's bestselling novel From Here to Eternity achieved such tremendous success as a result of contemporary circumstances and its own universal qualities. A postwar publishing boom proved beneficial for the book, as well as the positive and wide
spread reception enjoyed by previous novels that addressed a similar subject. Moreover, the release of a major motion picture based on Jones's novel also increased its popularity and boosted sales in subsequent years. Equally crucial to the book's suc
cess was the American public's recent experience in World War II, heightening interest in the subject of a soldier's life in the peacetime Army. While the novel was frequently decried as brutal and explicit, these qualities in fact appealed to a divers
e audience of readers who were moved by its realism and power, and who identified with the struggle of an individual against the demands of society. Thus, these factors served to ensure the bestseller status of From Here to Eternity.
1. Book Review Digest, 1951.
2. Bowker. A History of Book Publishing in the U.S.
3. Garrett, George. James Jones. Harcourt Brace, 1984.
4. Hackett. Eighty Years of Bestsellers.
5. MacShane, Frank. Into Eternity: The Life of James Jones, American Writer. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.