Was a WWII Classic Too Gay?
My father, James Jones, shocked the world by using the F-word and many other colorful expletives in his 1951 novel From Here to Eternity. When he was asked to eliminate the offending language from the book, which was based on his experiences in Hawaii in the peace-time Army, he refused and wrote his editor at Scribner’s, Burroughs Mitchell, a prescient letter:
The things we change in this book for propriety’s sake will in five years, or ten years, come in someone else’s book anyway … and we will wonder why we thought we couldn’t do it. Writing has to keep evolving into deeper honesty, like everything else, and you cannot stand on past precedent or theory, and still evolve…You know there is nothing salacious in this book as well as I do. Therefore, whatever changes you want made along that line will be made for propriety, and propriety is a very inconstant thing.
Click Image to View The Original From Here to Eternity Manuscript
My father agreed to eliminate a certain number of F-words—in part because there was a question whether the US postal system would even deliver the book to stores because of its “salacious” nature—but there was another battle he was waging with his publisher. Apparently Scribner’s had a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy about depicting homosexuality in the Army.
My father was told to cut the homosexual scenes in the novel, and he refused to eliminate them because he felt this would be unfaithful to reality he witnessed. (The original manuscript of From Here to Eternity resides in the rare books library at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and the extent to which the scenes were cut can be seen by comparing the original text to the published version.)
How courageous was my father’s stand? Only five years before the publication of From Here to Eternity, Doubleday published Edmund Wilson’s novel, Memoirs of Hecate County. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice raided Doubleday bookstores in Manhattan and seized 130 copies of the book due to its explicit depiction of heterosexual sex. The New York District Attorney charged Doubleday with selling obscene material. Doubleday was convicted. Once the novel had been declared obscene in New York, Doubleday took it out of circulation nationwide to avoid the risk of further prosecution. Booksellers and librarians removed it from their inventories. The Supreme Court later split 4-4 on the case, allowing the conviction to stand. The book was not republished in the US until 1959.
Maggio makes extra bucks by hanging out with older, rich gay men who live in Honolulu, who pay good money for his company. The original manuscript goes into great detail about what kind of sexual favors soldiers like Maggio are willing to provide.
My father wanted to write an honest and truthful book about the peace-time Army preceding WWII, and he insisted that could not be done if the language and routines of the soldiers were eliminated from the book. The soldiers in Hawaii were dead broke, barely one step up from homeless. They joined the Army during the Great Depression because they had nowhere else to go. And they were treated almost as badly as the homeless by the civilians that populated Oahu. They spent their meager Army salaries on leave days paying for whores and booze and on gambling – a way to pass the time.
One character, Maggio makes extra bucks by hanging out with older, rich gay men who live in Honolulu, who pay good money for his company. The original manuscript goes into great detail about what kind of sexual favors soldiers like Maggio are willing to provide. The soldiers act as if it’s simply their company that these older men are paying for, but there’s an underlying, secret understanding that many of them will provide sex. Maggio sees nothing wrong with this at all, since it is a means to an end – a way to make quick money so he can go back and hang out with the whores. Maggio never questions his own sexuality. The number of soldiers who can be found hanging out in the gay bars is also staggering; in fact, there are so many of them that the Army launches a (very quiet) investigation. One soldier, Bloom, realizes he enjoys sex with men, and is so terrified and ashamed of being gay and of being called on it, that he commits suicide. The sin and the shame, it seems, are not associated with the act itself or even in getting paid for it, but in whether or not a soldier enjoys it. My father saw the total hypocrisy and ridiculousness of this and Bloom’s death is portrayed as a tragedy, absurd and unnecessary.
Why was the depiction of homosexuality so frightening to publishers? The National Organization for Decent Literature (NODL), a Catholic group formed in Chicago, first targeted magazines and then paperbacks. NODL objected to “the lascivious type of literature which threatens the moral, social and National life of our country.” In 1947, NODL recommended that church members visit retailers every two weeks armed with a list of “harmful” titles. If they found books on the list, they informed the manager. The result? Widespread intimidation and boycott of booksellers. From Here to Eternity was blacklisted by the NODL in 1954. The religious group stated publicly its belief that certain books on its list—including works by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, my father, and other prominent authors—were too advanced for youthful readers and should be kept out of their hands.
In 1956, the prosecuting attorney in Port Huron, Michigan, ordered booksellers and distributors to stop displaying and selling all books on the NODL blacklist, citing erotic passages. The ban on NODL books was lifted after the paperback publisher of From Here to Eternity joined with other publishers to obtain a federal district court injunction against the prosecution.
Yet the NODL continued to exert influence when The Thin Red Line was published in 1962. In The Thin Red Line, privates Bead and Fife engage repeatedly in homosexual acts. Both try to convince themselves and each other that it’s out of necessity, not attraction. Fife, the dominant one, is so ashamed that he insults Bead whenever he gets the chance. When Bead takes a bullet to the head and lies dying, he asks Fife to hold his hand. Fife, even though he is mortified, forces himself to hold his lover’s hand as he dies.
These soldiers, whom my father followed from the peace time army in Hawaii in From Here to Eternity, to the battle of Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line, and home in Whistle, were based on his actual division, which gained the famed nickname Tropic Lighting for its quick and brave fighting throughout the Solomon Islands and the New Georgia Campaign. My father believed that homosexuality was as old as mankind itself, and that Achilles, the bravest and most venerated fighter ever described, was gay, and to take a younger lover under your wing was a common practice among the soldiers of the time. He also believed also that homosexuality was a natural condition of men in close quarters, and that it in no way affected a soldier’s capabilities on the battlefield. What would have amazed him is that the discussion still continues to this day, cloaked in the same hypocrisy and silence as it was 60 years ago.
Kaylie Jones is the author of the memoir Lies My Mother Never Told Me, and the novels A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (which was made into a film starring Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Hershey), Celeste Ascending , and Speak Now . She also chairs the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, which awards $10,000 annually to the writer of an unpublished first novel. She lives in New York City.