A Forgotten Master

None of the novels of James Gould Cozzens is now in print. More’s the pity, yet in an age of chick- and hen-lit and little minimalist novels with their one-sentence paragraphs about angst-riddled urban professionals, Cozzens’s work is out of place though not out of time.

Cozzens was born in 1903 to middle-class parents. His family lived on Staten Island and were firm Episcopalians, a religion that figures prominently in several novels. He was educated at the Kent School in Connecticut and was admitted to Harvard in 1922. Cozzens was rusticated after two years for failing to study and running up debts with both the school and local merchants. By this time he published his first novel, Confusion to good reviews but modest sales. Another book, the historical novel Michael Scarlett followed in 1925.

Cozzens tutored in Cuba and Europe for a couple of years, the foreign experience providing material for later books. Returning to America, he married a literary agent, Bernice Baumgartner on New Year’s Eve 1927. They set up house in New York, her income and experience providing Cozzens with the freedom and support to write two more novels, Cock Pit and The Son of Perdition.

With the 1931 S.S. San Pedro, about a ship lost at sea, Cozzens hit his stride as a mature novelist with an objective style free of sentimentality. Two years later, The Last Adam began Cozzens’s series of novels reflecting his fascination with men of professions, this about a Connecticut country doctor. It was also the first Cozzens novel to be made into a film, Doctor Bull starring Will Rogers.

Castaway of 1934 was Cozzens’s one and final attempt at an allegorical novel. He wrote a number of short stories which sold well to magazines, but he did not care for the form and felt he had no particular aptitude for it. Men and Brethren, about a New York Episcopal priest, appeared in 1936, followed by Ask Me Tomorrow in 1940.

Cozzens and his wife had moved to a farm near Lambertville, New Jersey in the early 1930’s with money from the proceeds of his book sales. The couple were not social; visitors to Carrs Farm were rare, no authors were entertained and Cozzens remained aloof from literary politics. He became increasing interested in the law, frequently visiting nearby Doylestown, Pennsylvania and the county court there; the 1942 novel The Just and the Unjust about a murder trial was the product.

Cozzens enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1943 and spent the war years in a variety of writing positions, eventually with the Chief of Staff, Hap Arnold. Cozzens’s Air Corps years were a break with his usual reclusiveness. He kept a journal, but did no literary writing during that time.

He was discharged in 1945 with the rank of major and returned to his former life. His experience with the hierarchy of the Army gave him the inspiration for his next book, Guard of Honor, published in 1948. Though its sales were not extraordinary, this novel of 48 hours on a Florida air base is held to be possibly the great World War II novel and won Cozzens the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1949.

Up to now, Cozzens was recognized as a major American novelist, but one whose fame had not spread widely. His next novel, By Love Possessed, was to change that. Published in 1957 it became an immediate best-seller and held the Number 1 position for several months. The critical acclamation was such that Cozzens allowed himself to be interviewed for a Time cover story.

It was a major mistake. The usually ironic Cozzens came across in the story as a cranky reactionary, a bigot and a snob. The real blow to his reputation came in a 12-page article written by Dwight Macdonald in Commentary in 1958 which rubbished Cozzens’s writing style and world view. Macdonald was crass enough to send a copy of the article to Cozzens, whose reply was savage:

I see that you don’t understand prose structure very well; that shades of meaning in words are, like irony, altogether lost on you; and that your imperceptiveness is, for an educated adult, quite remarkable… I’m afraid your infirmity here makes me unable to take your “literary criticism” very seriously. You’d always, it seems safe to guess, be wrong. However, in the field of the philippic (sorry to send you to your dictionary again) I think you’re gifted. I haven’t in years had the pleasure of reading so refreshingly venomous an outburst. For that, at least, let me award you an earned A … and I’ll bet all those little-mag. people are just loving you to death.

Cozzens’s output slowed considerable after By Love Possessed, not because of the reaction among the literary elite, but because he found it more and more difficult to express himself fully. A collection of previously published short stories, Children and Others, appeared in 1964. Cozzens’s final novel, Morning, Noon and Night, came out in 1968 to dismal critical reaction and sales.

Cozzens was a borderline alcoholic. Alcohol gave him the relaxation to write and when on advice from his doctor he gave up drinking, he found himself no longer able to write. He and Bernice retired to Florida. He died in 1978; the New York newspapers were on strike at the time and his death went largely unnoticed, which would have struck Cozzens as highly amusing.

Cozzens’s characters are not from among the lower classes, though neither are they wealthy. He wrote about men as professionals – lawyers, doctors, ministers, businessmen – because such men succeeded by using their talents and not giving up. Duty is a very strong ethic among Cozzens’s characters. For example, Norman Ross in Guard of Honor, finds himself at a low point dealing with the various crises with which he’s been left:

Downheartedness was no man’s part. A man must stand up and do the best he can with what there is. If the thing he labored to uncover now seemed in danger of stultifying him, could a rational being find nothing to do? If mind failed you, seeing no pattern; and heart failed you, seeing no point, the stout, stubborn will must be up and doing. A pattern should be found; a point should be imposed. Was that too much?

An attitude which, needless to say, didn’t survive the 1960’s. Sitting down and bawling about Mom and Dad and suburbia and bounds on behavior became the new thing. No wonder Cozzens’s reputation sank so quickly.

Irving Howe sneered in The New Republic in 1958 that Cozzens was a spokesman for “a civilization that finds its symbolic embodiment in Dwight David Eisenhower and its practical guide in John Foster Dulles.” Considering that Eisenhower’s kind of civilization has survived and prospered and Howe’s has fallen into History’s dust, kept alive only by irrational anti-Americanism, I’d say there are worse insults.

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