Cozzens, James Gould 1903–
An American Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Cozzens is best known for By Love Possessed. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12.)
A deep skepticism about the human enterprise pervades James Gould Cozzens' By Love Possessed. I think the relief of receiving this brilliantly controlled, mature work of craftsmanship in the midst of the deluge of fictional slop may have caused many readers to fail to perceive its reservations about the human creature. This element markedly defines or limits the kind of impact the novel has. By Love Possessed interests intellectually, fascinates, and evokes admiration for its mastery of technique, but it does not move us deeply or stir the emotions powerfully. We are not intimately involved. It is written with detachment and read with detachment.
Edmund Fuller, in his Man in Modern Fiction: Some Minority Opinions on Contemporary American Writing (© 1958 by Edmund Fuller; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1958, pp. 16-17.
Can anybody … really question the theme—or the moral—of By Love Possessed? It is a graceful sermon on, and a hard rebuke to, the present age of emotionalism and hysteria, of commercialized or supernatural panaceas, of false education and slippery success. From the vantage point of old-fashioned American small-town society—the "best we have produced"—the novel shows up, quite brilliantly, the whole contemporary drift….
Once we have escaped from the magic of the novel's craftsmanship, indeed, we have an increasing sense of disappointment, of inadequacy, almost of sterility. It is a good novel, but it is not a great novel, because all the great novels, whatever their type or genre, increase our sense of life, and this one, in a very curious way, decreases it. It is a contractive, not an expansive document; and one almost suspects that beneath its measured harmony lies an anguished, perhaps a morbid or neurotic fear of life. It is not only that Mr. Cozzens' conservatism, high-minded as it is, cuts him off from things, that his ascetic temperament leads him to scholarly rather than to profound conclusions, that his dedication to his craft (and to reason) is at the expense of experience itself. There is something else. What?
In his previous work there has always been a certain lack of primary feeling; he is a cold writer who has needed a recharge, say, of human sympathy. To a certain degree By Love Possessed is probably the attempt to get at just this issue in his work and career—but an attempt which, rather than enlarging the writer's capacity to feel, simply confirms his prejudice against feeling. It is a treatise on the different kinds of love—parental, oedipal, sibling, self-love or vanity, religious, sexual. But why is it that all these types of love are only destructive and never even momentarily rewarding?… [What] Mr. Cozzens does not seem to understand, for all his classical lore, is that the Goddess of Love, whatever her cruel demands on her afflicted subjects, is also the Goddess of Life.
Maxwell Geismar, "By Cozzens Possessed" (reprinted by permission of Hill & Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux; © 1958 by Maxwell Geismar), in his American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity, Hill & Wang, 1958, pp. 145-50.
Until Cozzens wrote By Love Possessed , one had not associated his novels with either love or sex. He is pre-eminently the novelist of man in society, of man as a member of an organization, of man, indeed, seen under the aspect of his vocation or profession. He is concerned with what is possible for a man to do...
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in a given context of place and time. He is not only anti-sentimental, he is anti-romantic. His characteristic spokesmen are middle-aged men who have seen much of the world and have learnt from experience that frustration is the inevitable lot and that man cannot do what he wants but only what circumstances—the nature of society, the constitution of human institutions and the clash of interests all about him—allow him to do….
Cozzens, outside of By Love Possessed, is the least sensational of novelists. He builds up his picture of society by a patient accumulation of detail and conceives his characters solidly, without apparent subtlety; but they are there in three dimensions and can, as it were, be walked round. He is excellent with professional men, with men who, by the very nature of their work, are conscious of obligations to a code of professional behaviour. It is almost entirely a man's world that he creates. His deficiencies are obvious; they can be summed up in the complete absence in his work of anything that can be called poetry. His view of life, it must be admitted, is daunting: his awareness of the limits imposed on man's freedom to act, both by the nature of society and by human nature as Cozzens sees it, leads him to a deep conservatism. But he has expressed his view in three or four novels whose scope goes far beyond that of practically all his contemporaries in English and American fiction, novels rooted as deeply as O'Hara's in the close and dispassionate scrutiny of the actual.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 185-87.
From the beginning Cozzens has not tried to conceal his belief that the majority of people are stupid and incompetent, and he has written almost exclusively about men and women who are superior in one way or another to the masses. The only important exception is Mr. Lecky in Castaway, who may be regarded as a common man; but his incompetence is one of the major themes of the book. (p. 27)
Even for Cozzens, By Love Possessed is a remarkably complicated novel, and he has handled the complications with fine craftsmanship, playing one theme against another in the most elaborate and effective kind of counterpoint…. Even in the texture of the writing Cozzens goes beyond what he had done before. He has always written with complete clarity and with none of the sloppiness so often associated with what is called "the common style." Here he has developed a more elaborate prose, and, though he sometimes gets tangled up in his extremely involved sentences, he often achieves poetic power. He has endowed his principal characters with great articulateness, and, though the dialogue is no more realistic than Henry James's, he persuades us to accept it. A richness of literary allusions widens the implications of the writing, and an unobtrusive, uninsistent use of symbols points to deeper meanings. (pp. 34-5)
Except for his early romantic novels and the experimental Castaway, Cozzens has stayed within the bounds of the traditional social novel. Like Jane Austen, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, and Edith Wharton, he takes the social structure for granted, neither attacking nor defending the status quo. As a true conservative, he does not believe that whatever is is right, but he is convinced that, people being what they are, any change is likely to be a change for the worse. In any case he is not much interested in society as such but as a frame within which individuals perform their roles. Recognizing that man is a gregarious animal, he believes that men reveal themselves most fully in society. (p. 36)
All his major characters and most of his minor ones are quite Anglo-Saxon Protestants…. If Cozzens manages to create a more or less homogeneous society, such as he needs for the sake of the kind of novel he wants to write, he does so by thrusting away from him large segments of the American people. Cozzens has to believe, as he does believe, that the people he writes about are the people who, in broad social and moral terms, most deserve his attention…. Cozzens has only contempt for radicals and reformers. (p. 38)
Cozzens has made the traditional novel an effective medium for the expression of his vision of life. That other novelists, with other methods and other aims, have made revelations about the human condition that seem more valuable to some of us than anything we find in his work should not persuade us to underestimate the substance and validity of what he has done. (p. 45)
Granville Hicks, in his James Gould Cozzens ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 58), University of Minnesota Press, © 1966 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).
[Cozzens] is a skillful realist whose comparatively small output for a career of forty-five years ranges expertly over American life, especially life in the professions of medicine, the clergy, law, the military, and of Americans abroad. Guard of Honor (1948) is perhaps the most convincing novel of World War II; The Just and the Unjust (1942) was years ahead of the vogue for courtroom fiction. The fantasy Castaway (1934) was a brilliant fluke. And now in Morning Noon and Night, college faculty life and the peculiarly modern field of management consulting are set forth….
As usual, [Morning Noon and Night] is devoid of fashionable causes and sentiments—not Freudian, not Marxist; no Negroes; not much hope, little sympathy; pain is bearable, often self-caused; youth is not glorious but is the hobbledehoy, inept, snobbish—self-deceiving above all—and vanity is everywhere. If there are no appealing characters in the book, the cause is the method of narration…. Ordinarily, a Cozzens novel has a classical brevity of time, but the unity of this rambling nonsequential narrative is the outlook of dour age. The past is reinterpreted with such relativity of viewpoint and value that Cozzens' expected values of reason, responsibility, and stoicism do not appear.
Edward Krickel, "Cozzens and Saroyan: A Look at Two Reputations," in Georgia Review, Fall, 1970, pp. 281-96.