James Gould Cozzens

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 977

The carefully crafted novels of James Gould Cozzens (CUHZ-uhnz) marked a course for twentieth century American fiction against which the novels of his contemporaries continue to be judged. Cozzens was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1903, the only child of Henry William and Bertha Wood Cozzens; he spent his childhood on Staten Island, New York, and later at the Kent School in Connecticut. His first published work, at age seventeen, was an article in the Atlantic Monthly on preparatory school student government. He entered Harvard University in 1922 and there was encouraged in his writing by the poet Robert Hillyer, an instructor in English. While a freshman, he wrote his first novel, Confusion, concerning the effect of excessive cultivation on a beautiful French girl. It was published in 1924, when he was twenty-one years old. Unable to cope with his situation as an undergraduate celebrity, he rusticated himself to Nova Scotia, where he wrote his second book, Michael Scarlett, a historical novel about William Shakespeare’s England. He then went to Cuba, where he tutored the children of the American operators of a Cuban sugar plantation. This experience provided the background for two other novels, Cock Pit and The Son of Perdition. All four of these youthful novels Cozzens later dismissed as inferior work. In December, 1927, he married Sylvia Bernice Baumgarten, a successful literary agent.

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With S.S. San Pedro, Cozzens began to give evidence of his mature manner. A short novel based on accounts of the sinking of the British steamer Vestris in 1928, S.S. San Pedro was a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and thus brought Cozzens a wider readership. In his next novel, The Last Adam, also a Book-of-the-Month Club choice, Cozzens established the direction which most of his later novels were to take. Published in England as A Cure of Flesh and made into a film with Will Rogers, it is set in a small Connecticut town. The chief character, a physician, is forced to confront the conflict between the tight, restrictive code of the town and his own professional and moral imperatives. Such a fictional situation enabled Cozzens to describe with particular detail the technical circumstances of a professional as he interacts with a variety of people in a circumscribed society. The prose is clear, careful, and unobtrusive, and the interrelationships of the characters are skillfully drawn. These characteristics were continued in Men and Brethren (the profession studied is now that of the clergy, particularly the liberal Episcopalian clergy) and in The Just and the Unjust. The latter, which treats the ethical and legal aspects of a murder trial, was a highly acclaimed best-seller which brought Cozzens into prominence as a leading American novelist. The short novel Castaway appeared in 1934. In this fantasy, a man finds himself alone in a large department store after some imaginary disaster has destroyed a major city. Despite his sudden access to every material resource he might have once desired, he finds himself unable to cope with his isolation and the limitations of his inner resources. This brief work represents Cozzens’s only excursion into the experiments with fictional forms and techniques which other writers of the time were essaying.

In fact, Cozzens was almost unique among important writers of his generation in not developing new fictional forms, in not adopting the themes of alienation and rebellion of the Lost Generation, and in not being swept up into the social and political causes and controversies of the Depression years. In 1933, he had moved with his wife to a farm near Lambertville, New Jersey, where he scrupulously avoided contacts with the press, with writers’ organizations, and with political manifestos. When he sought modern models he found them in Aldous Huxley, John Galsworthy, and Somerset Maugham; he worked in a tradition of the social novel identified with Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Edith Wharton.

During World War II, Cozzens served as an Air Force officer, writing training manuals, technical articles, and speeches. His intimate knowledge of military command decisions provided the material for Guard of Honor, a novel focused on the racial tensions in a southern air base. It won for him the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 1949.

With the publication of By Love Possessed in 1957, Cozzens’s career reached a turning point. This novel, although his most ambitious, with the manipulation of multiple layers of action in a restricted time frame and an opulent style, repeated his familiar themes of the conflicts of reason and passion, duty and expediency, authority and liberty. In various editions, several million copies were sold, and it was awarded the Howells Medal by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1960. Nevertheless, some critics who saw in the book a mirror of the aesthetic and social conservatism of the 1950’s praised or attacked the book and its reception as representative of the times. Cozzens collected his generally undistinguished short stories in 1964 and in 1968 published his thirteenth and last novel, Morning, Noon, and Night, in which the chief character offers comments on writing which are close to Cozzens’s own views. Until his death in 1978, he remained in seclusion.

Cozzens’s career was marked by early minor successes; by steady development as a literary craftsman of intelligent, complex novels read enthusiastically by a small group of devoted readers; and finally by the writing of a very popular novel which brought to him a wide readership and prominent critical attention. In his best works (The Last Adam, The Just and the Unjust, Guard of Honor, and By Love Possessed), he demonstrates the continued viability of the kind of novel which analyzed middle-class society dispassionately, without a program for its reform. His novels revealed no innovations in fictional technique, he eschewed both the sensational and the sentimental, and he was aggressively contemptuous of literary fashions. Nevertheless, his best novels stand as major accomplishments of twentieth century fiction.

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