James Gould Cozzens Critical Essays

James Gould Cozzens Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although most of the stories collected in Children and Others were originally published between 1930 and 1937, three of them—including James Gould Cozzens’s best, “Eyes to See”—were first published as late as 1964. This fact suggests that his continuing interest in and developing mastery of the short-story form complements and illuminates his career-long devotion to the novel.

Of the five sections into which the collection is divided, the first two, “Child’s Play” and “Away at School,” containing ten stories between them, are perceptive recollections of childhood experiences. Although Cozzens is rigorously impersonal in his fiction, readers may be pardoned for imagining that one of the children of his title is the young Cozzens. We see a little boy turned in on his own imaginative self, and later a student at Durham (modeled on the Kent School, which Cozzens attended)—precocious, self-conscious, and at times frightened. The third section, “War Between the States,” is composed of two Civil War stories. In the late 1930’s, Cozzens assembled material for a Civil War novel but found that he could not write it, and perhaps in the stories the reader sees something of what that novel might have been. The fourth section, “Love and Kisses,” with four stories, examines the complexity of inexorably changing relations between men and women. The seventeenth, last, and longest story, “Eyes to See,” written in 1963, is Cozzens at his distilled best and hence deserves somewhat more extended consideration than its predecessors.

“Total Stranger”

“Total Stranger,” from part 1, which received the O. Henry Memorial Award for the best story of 1936, develops—with typical indirection and understated humor—the process by which a boy begins to see his father in an entirely new light. John is being driven back to his New England prep school by his father, who is distinctly dissatisfied with his son’s undistinguished academic performance there, and who does not accept the boy’s self-serving explanations and ill-constructed defenses. John has never had trouble getting around his mother; with his father, however, who is authoritative, competent, and always right, it is a different matter.

They stop for the night at a bad but conveniently located hotel and there encounter, by chance, a “total stranger,” a Mrs. Prentice. John finds her notably attractive and shortly discovers that the two adults know each other well from years before. John is curious and confused; Mrs. Prentice seems to know or remember an altogether different man, yet she says to his father, “Will, you haven’t changed a bit!” Words such as “strange,” “bewildering,” and “astonishment” register the boy’s evolving perception of his father and realization, finally, that before he himself had been born, before his father had known his mother, before Mrs. Prentice had met Mr. Prentice, the two of them had been in love. Leaving the next morning, John says, “Somehow it all fitted together. I could feel that.”

In literal fact, it is Mrs. Prentice who is to the boy a “total stranger”; metaphorically and more important, however, it is his father—or much of his father’s life—which John has never before glimpsed. What John sees and hears and intuits of his father and Mrs. Prentice might have evoked alarm, contempt, amusement, or jealousy. That the chance meeting with the stranger in fact strengthens the boy’s love and admiration for his father is apparent in the story’s last line, in which John confesses that he never did do much better at school, but that “that year and the year following, I would occasionally try to, for I thought it would please my father.”

“Farewell to Cuba”

“Farewell to Cuba,” a second prize O. Henry Award winner in 1931, is set in Havana and focuses on Martin Gibbs, an American bank employee who is planning to leave the island the next day with Celia after twenty-two years’ residence. Cozzens, who lived in Cuba in the 1920’s, makes the island atmosphere an almost tangible force in the drama, with its heat, humidity, smells, noise, and the loneliness. Life there has worn Martin out and he is getting old, yet—much as he wants to—he is afraid to leave. He has always been a resident alien, and now, he feels, he is about to desert into the unknown. He wonders both how he can do it and how he can not do it.

Up in their hot, airless hotel room, Martin tries to comfort Celia. At least they have some money, he tells her. She is haggard, sick, drenched with sweat, and unable to eat. She is trying to rest, perhaps to sleep. Tomorrow, he assures her, they will be gone, heading North. At Celia’s urging, and over his protestation that he will stay with her, Martin spends his last night with three old friends—Joe Carriker, a car dealer, George Biehl, a banker, and Homer Loran, a newspaper publisher. He has always had a good time with them, Martin reflects, even though he cannot really see much point in it, since he expects never to...

(The entire section is 2082 words.)