Thursday, April 7, 2011

Deleted queer stuff from "From Here to Eternity"

The novel prompted one of the most famous heterosexual sex scenes in film history, with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr clasping each other passionately on a beach amid the foaming waves. But an uncensored text of James Jones's 1951 novel From Here to Eternity has revealed that the author originally intended to include frank references to homosexuality considered too scandalous to be published at the time.

The novel, Jones's debut, tells of a group of soldiers stationed on a barracks in Hawaii in 1941, and was loosely based on the author's own army experiences on the island in the run-up to the second world war. Jones served as a soldier from 1939 to 1945 and was present at both the attack on Pearl Harbor and the battle for Guadalcanal, at which he was injured, and also decorated for his service. In later books, The Thin Red Line and Soon Came Running, Jones went on to explore the experience of combat and the aftermath of war.

From Here to Eternity is the story of first sergeant Milt Warden, who has an affair with Karen, the wife of his captain. But the original text of the novel included two scenes which never made it to the published edition, let alone the film. In one, private Angelo Maggio – the soldier played by Frank Sinatra in the 1953 film – confesses to having oral sex with a wealthy man for $5 or $10 that "comes in handy the middle of the month". In the second scene a military investigation into gay activity is mooted.

Jones's editor at Scribner refused to allow the scenes to be included, and also excised various swear words originally intended to be included in the dialogue. In America at the time the US postal service would not carry material it considered obscene, making it impossible for books the organisation thought offensive to be distributed. Disapproval from the influential Book-of-the-Month Club, a mail order club, also meant the end of a novel's chances of commercial success. Many authors, including Ernest Hemingway, were therefore forced to tone down their novels' language and content, on pragmatic rather than moral grounds.

Jones's daughter, novelist Kaylie Jones, said her father fought "bitterly" to keep the novel's language the way he'd originally intended it, but eventually acceded to his editor's insistence. Now, 60 years after it was first published, and more than 30 since Jones's death in 1977, the original version will be produced as an ebook through digital publisher Open Road.

Sarah Churchwell, senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia, welcomed the publication as a reversal of censorship. "Jones was aspiring to realism and verisimilitude and objected to the sanitisation of his novel," she said. "He was trying to tell the truth about war. In the 1950s the US was telling itself a mythic, grandiose, heroic story about the second world war and GI Joe saving the world. Jones was saying, 'That wasn't the war I saw, I want to write something more honest and realistic. Whatever the mid-America myth, one of the things men were doing was giving blow jobs for money.'"

Churchwell added that it was also important to acknowledge that a story celebrated for inspiring the classic Hollywood beach scene between Lancaster and Kerr was actually envisioned as a novel that acknowledged homosexuality. "It's an important historical correction, to allow James Jones his rightful place as one of the earliest mainstream US novelists to try to treat homosexuality sympathetically, without judging or pathologising it," she said. "People don't think of Jones as an avant-garde writer, but in his way he was. We know about Hemingway and Allen Ginsberg, but we don't put James Jones into that story and he deserves to be there."

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