2 hot 2 handle

Why Did James Jones’ WWII Classic Skip All the Gay-For-Pay Sex Scenes?

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Writer James Jones, who died in 1977, may best be known for the book From Here to Eternity, based on his experience serving in Hawaii’s infantry. Its copy laced with “fuck,” Jones did agree to remove a few of the offending words (it was the early 1950s, after all) just to get the manuscript in bookstores, but he refused to eliminate the part where he told the (fictionalized) stories of soldiers who, broke and desperate, sold sexual favors to older men. Which got the book blacklisted for a time.

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Jones’s daughter Kaylie writes:

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.)

[…] 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.

You can imagine the pressure at the time to wipe clean the book. Kayle says her 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.” But none of that mattered much, when book publishers were up against … raging conservative Catholics.

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.

What’s amusing(?), then, is that gays in the military is still too much for this country to handle.