The complex ironies surrounding the life and literary career of James Gould Cozzens continue long after his death in 1978 as they seem more and more with each passing year to apply to the lives and literary careers of all serious American writers. Cozzens attempted to live a life apart from the doings and undoings of the literary world, an artist’s life, but the popular and critical success of his novel By Love Possessed (1957) plunged him unwillingly into the stew of literary politics and cast a shadow over his literary reputation. He was one of the first victims of the shift in American publishing and critical assessment away from the literary merit of works themselves and toward the transitory values of celebrity. The dark days of Cozzens’ last years become our own when chain bookstore shelves are stuffed with nonfiction nonbooks, romances, and fantasies, when novels have a shelf life of six weeks, and when it has become practically impossible to find the works of serious writers at all. It is, then, somehow appropriate that the year in which this very fine biography was published ended with Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1983) squatting toadishly at the top of an undistinguished best-seller list.
The story that Matthew Bruccoli tells in this fully researched and clearly written biography is really three stories: one, the relatively uneventful private life of an artist who lived apart, who did not socialize or participate in the literary scene, who did not seek adventure or travel the world, and who was involved very closely only with his wife and his work; the second, the development of Cozzens’ craft and art from florid romanticism through a period of solidly realistic “professional” novels to the remarkably complex and stylistically brilliant novels of his later years; and third, the shape of Cozzens’ literary career from brilliant boy novelist to reasonably successful craftsman to Pulitzer Prize-winner to best-seller and finally to silent victim of a literary reassessment.
James Gould Cozzens’ private life, although a quiet one, is not uninteresting. Born in Chicago in 1903 of a New England family, he began to write as a child and began to write seriously and to see himself as a writer while attending the Kent School in Connecticut. His years at Kent, as he recorded in a thorough and revealing diary, were marked by the usual turmoil of adolescence and the struggle of a bright and rebellious young man to both learn from and gain his independence from a brilliant and opinionated headmaster, the Reverend Frederick Herbert Sill. Kent and Cozzens’ rebellion from Kent very much made him the writer he became; for the rest of his life, he referred back to his Kent years and the values inculcated by Father Sill much more than he ever did to his time at Harvard. He began his first novel, Confusion (1924), while at Kent and set forth on his long literary career.
Confusion was published during Cozzens’ sophomore year at Harvard University and made him a central figure in a rather dandified literary crowd of undergraduates that included Dudley Fitts and the somewhat older Lucius Beebe. These friends, the rarefied Harvard atmosphere of the day, and Cozzens’ romantically overwritten first four novels are much of a piece. Even his leaving Harvard after his second year (never to return), months spent as a tutor in Cuba, and a year in Europe did not free him from either his personal or aesthetic romanticism. It took meeting, falling in love with, and marrying Bernice Baumgarten in 1927 for him to grow up in both his life and his art.
Bernice was at the center of the rest of Cozzens’ life. She was a literary agent, reputedly “the best agent in New York,” and she helped Cozzens shape both his style and his career. She supported him financially and emotionally, sacrificing herself in many ways to his talent but willingly and enthusiastically; their relationship, a very private one which remains private to them even after this thorough biography, is the clearly apparent key to Cozzens’ becoming a major American author.
During World War II, Cozzens was in the Army Air Corps, working mainly in the Office of Information Services (OIS) in the Pentagon in a job which “gave him access to virtually anything he wanted to see—bombing statistics, policy decisions, misconduct in high and low places, reports from the theaters of war, and matters such as the menstrual difficulties of women pilots.” Bruccoli concludes, and apparently quite correctly, that “Cozzens may well have been the best-informed officer in the Air Corps—certainly the best-informed officer below the high command.” The remarkable insight into and knowledgeability of command problems and decisions of Cozzens’ novel Guard of Honor (1948) are a direct result of his responsible position at OIS.
After the war, Cozzens returned to his writer’s life. The Pulitzer Prize which Guard of Honor received in 1949 changed his routine very little, but the extraordinary success of By Love Possessed in 1957 and the critical brouhaha that followed it did bring about a number of changes. The Cozzenses moved first to Virginia and then to Williamstown, Massachusetts, and...
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