Cozzens, James Gould (Vol. 4)
Cozzens, James Gould 1903–
Cozzens, an American Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, writes fiction characterized by careful craftsmanship about the relationship between men and society. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Cozzens began his career with several pieces of juvenilia and then wrote two short works, S.S. San Pedro and Castaway, both of which are livelier in technique and less stagnant in moral assumption than his later books….
After these experiments Cozzens turns to what might as well be called his dominant manner. He now becomes a quite conventional novelist, either uninterested in or unable to use the twentieth century advances in techniques; he strives for and often achieves a strong, efficient but rather flavorless style. It is a decent, workmanlike style, neither exalted nor corrupt, and generally most useful when approaching the tone of anonymous objectivity. It serves far better for locating objects in the external world than for projecting a vision of life through accumulation of metaphor or nuances of inflation. Ithis a style, in short, that is likely to reassure people who find modern literature bewildering.
Structurally, Cozzens worked out a scheme that does represent a certain deviation from—though hardly an improvement upon—the conventional novel. What seems particularly to interest him as a writer is the weight of social and moral pressures that a community brings to bear upon one of its significant members, generally a professional man who both leads and serves it. It is this idea of friction that is central to Cozzens' work, far more so than the patterns of drama or the risks of tragedy. As a result he does not generally use plot in his novels, at least in the traditional sense of a coherent action moving through time and guided toward climax and resolution. Instead, he concentrates on the moment before climax. We are brought very quickly to this moment and then are stopped for a series of dogged investigations of group after group, representative figure after figure, as each of these impinges on the protagonist and multiplies the pressures to which he is subject. Meanwhile the action, to the extent that there is one, hangs suspended, waiting for Cozzens to amass the necessary data that might have come more dramatically and organically through a use of plot….
The leading characters … are frequently sentimentalized, not through the usual identification with suffering and sensitiveness, but through a perverse admiration for their ordinariness of spirit, their rudeness of manner, and their contempt for tenderness of feeling. When Hemingway struts about to show how tough he is, he usually irritates us with his need for wearing a silly mask; when Cozzens tries to show how hard-bitten and illiberal his attitudes are, he can be very convincing.
Irving Howe, "By Love Possessed" (copyright © 1958 by Harrison-Blaine, Inc.; reprinted by permission), in The Critic As Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 167-80.
The most alarming literary news in years is the enormous success of James Gould Cozzens' By Love Possessed. It sold 170,000 copies in the first six weeks of publication—more than all eleven of the author's previous novels put together….
There's nothing new in all this—after all, something has to be the No. 1 Best-Seller at any given moment. What is new appears if one considers Grace Metalious' Peyton Place, which was at the top for a full year, before By Love Possessed displaced it. Peyton Place is a familiar kind of best-seller, a pedestrian job, an artifact rather than a work of art (putting it mildly) that owes its popularity to nothing more subtle than a remarkably heavy charge of Sex…. But Cozzens is not of the company of Kathleen Winsor, Edna Ferber, Daphne Du Maurier, Lloyd C. Douglas, and other such humble, though well-paid, artisans. Nor can he be "placed" at the middle level of best-sellerdom, that of writers like Herman Wouk, John Hersey, and Irwin Shaw, nor even (perhaps) on the empyrean heights occupied by Marquand and Steinbeck. He is a "serious" writer, and never more serious than in this book. That so uncompromising a work, written in prose of an artificiality and complexity that approaches the impenetrable—indeed often achieves it—that this should have become what the publishers gloatingly call "a run-away best-seller" is something new….
The requirements of the mass market explain a good deal of bad writing today. But Cozzens here isn't writing down, he is obviously giving it the works: By Love Possessed is his bid for immortality. It is Literature or it is nothing. Unfortunately, none of the reviewers have seriously considered the second alternative…. This sincere enthusiasm for a mediocre work is more damaging to literary standards than any amount of cynical ballyhoo. One can guard against the Philistines outside the gates. It is when they get into the Ivory Tower that they are dangerous….
Perhaps we should now take a look at what Cozzens has to say in By Love Possessed, and how he says it. The normative hero is Arthur Winner, a reputable, middle-aged lawyer and family man who is exposed, during the two days and nights covered by the action, to a variety of unsettling experiences, which stimulate in him some even more unnerving memories. Winner is presented as a good man—kind, reasonable, sensitive, decent—and so he is taken by the reviewers: "The grandest moral vision in all Cozzens' work—a passionately good, passionately religious, yet wholly secular man, whose very failures are only bad dreams," as one wrote…. Passion seems to me just what is most obviously missing in Arthur Winner; he's about as passionate as a bowl of oatmeal.
He is, in fact, a prig. His responses to the many appeals made to him in the course of the story—he's always on top, handing down advice and help, a great temptation to priggishness—while decent enough in form ("genteel") are in reality ungenerous and self-protective…. That he is right in each case … is beside the point. A prig is one who delights in demonstrating his superiority on small occasions, and it is precisely when he has a good case that he rises to the depths of prigocity.
Although Winner behaves like a prig, he is not meant to be one, if only because the main theme of the novel, the moral testing and education of a good man, would then collapse, and the philosophical tragedy that Cozzens has tried to write would have to be recast in a satiric if not a downright farcical mode. Here as elsewhere, the author is guilty of the unforgivable novelistic sin: he is unaware of the real nature of his characters, that is, the words and actions he gives them lead the reader to other conclusions than those intended by the author.
His characters often speak brutally, for example, not because they are supposed to be brutes, but because their creator apparently thinks this is the way men talk. An elderly lawyer, civilly asked by a client to make some changes in the investment of her trust funds, replies, "You're getting senile, Maud. Try not to be more of a fool than you can help." A doctor, presented as a gentleman, meets the wife of a friend at a party and, no dialogue or motivation given before, opens up: "What's your trouble, baby? Or can I guess?… Tell Pappy how many periods you've missed…. You know as well as I do you're one of those girls who only has to look at him to get herself knocked up." She leaves the room "indignantly" (the adverb implies she's a mite touchy). No reason is given for any of these onslaughts, aside from the fact that all [the] recipients are women; this seems to be Cozzens' idea of manly straight-from-the-shoulder talk. Curious. Curious, too, Winner's pooh-poohing attitude when he is appealed to by the feminine victims. For Winner, too, is something of a brute, without his creator suspecting it….
This leads us, in a way, to sex. The crucial episode, the one that more than any other shakes Winner's faith in himself and in the uprightness of his life, is something that happened years before the action begins and that keeps coming back into his mind: his affair with Marjorie, the wife of his close friend and law partner, Julius Penrose…. At no time is love or even lust involved: "Far from coveting his neighbor's wife, he rather disliked her, found her more unattractive than not." The only reason given for Winner's reaction to Marjorie is that she was there. Like that mountain climber….
The formula for a best-seller now includes a minimum of "outspoken" descriptions of sexual activities, and By Love Possessed doesn't skimp here. Its inventory includes rape, seduction, marital and extra-marital intercourse, with touches of sadism, lesbianism, onanism, and homosexuality. By Sex Possessed would be a more accurate title. There is very little love, which the author presents as at best a confusing and chancey business, to be patiently endured, like the weather…. The Chattanooga Times wonderfully summed up the theme as "the situation of rational man beset by passion," adding: "Cozzens regards each form of love as a threat to Arthur Winner's power to reason, to his ability to live life with meaning."… [But] love, even passion, is not an extraneous monkey wrench thrown into the machinery of life, but rather a prime mover which may burst everything apart but which must function if there is to be any motion at all. This is, at any rate, how the makers of our literature, from Homer to Tolstoy, Proust, and James, have treated the theme; Cozzens' efficiency-expert approach (Gumming Up the Works) is echt-American but creatively impoverishing….
[Perhaps] the real title should be By Reason Possessed. I have the impression that Cozzens is as suspicious of sex as of love. Most of the sexual encounters he conscientiously describes are either fatuous (Winner and his first bride), sordid (Ralph and Veronica), or disgusting (Winner and Marjorie). Far worse—from a sales viewpoint—they are written in his customary turgid and inexpressive style. Take, for example, the two pages (264-5) on Winner's lovemaking with his second wife, the most concrete description of the sexual act in the book and also the only place sex is presented, as one might say, positively. This passage sounds partly like a tongue-tied Dr. Johnson: "the disposings of accustomed practice, the preparations of purpose and consent, the familiar mute motions of furtherance." But mostly like a Fortune description of an industrial process: "thrilling thuds of his heart…. moist manipulative reception…. the mutual heat of pumped bloods…. the thoroughgoing, deepening, widening work of their connection…. the deep muscle groups, come to their vertex, were in a flash convulsed."
The reviewers think of Cozzens, as he does himself, as a cool, logical, unsentimental, and implacably deep thinker…. In reality, Cozzens is not so much cool as inhibited, not so much unsentimental as frightened by feeling; he is not logical at all, and his mind is shallow and muddy rather than clear and deep. I think Julius Penrose may fairly be taken as Cozzens' beau ideal of an intellectual, as Winner is his notion of a good man. If Penrose is meant to be taken ironically, if his pompous philosophizings are supposed to be burlesques, then the novel collapses at its center—leaving aside the fact they would be tedious as parodies—since it is Penrose who throughout the book guides Winner toward the solution of his problems. There's a Penrose in Homer, but he's not confused with Ulysses. His name is Nestor….
The three earlier Cozzens novels I've read, The Last Adam, The Just and the Unjust, and Guard of Honor, were written in a straightforward if commonplace style. But here Cozzens has tried to write Literature, to develop a complicated individual style, to convey deeper meanings than he has up to now attempted. Slimly endowed as either thinker or stylist, he has succeeded only in fuzzing it up, inverting the syntax, dragging in Latin-root polysyllables. Stylistically, By Love Possessed is a neo-Victorian cakewalk. [Footnote: "'Cakewalk': a form of entertainment among American Negroes in which a prize of a cake was given for the most accomplished steps and figures."] A cakewalk by a singularly awkward contestant. Confusing laboriousness with profundity, the reviewers have for the most part not detected the imposture….
Cozzens' style is a throwback to the palmiest days of 19th-century rhetoric, when a big Latin-root word was considered more elegant than a small Anglo-Saxon word. The long, patient uphill struggle of the last fifty years to bring the diction and rhythms of prose closer to those of the spoken language might never have existed so far as Cozzens is concerned. He doesn't even revert to the central tradition (Scott, Cooper, Bulwer-Lytton) but rather to the eccentric mode of the half-rebels against it (Carlyle, Meredith), who broke up the orderly platoons of gold-laced Latinisms into whimsically arranged squads, uniformed with equal artificiality but marching every which way as the author's wayward spirit moved them. Carlyle and Meredith are even less readable today than Scott and Cooper, whose prose at least inherited from the 18th century some structural backbone.
That a contemporary writer should spend eight years fabricating a pastiche in the manner of George Meredith could only happen in America, where isolation produces oddity….
How did it happen? Why did such a book impress the reviewers? We know whodunit, but what was the motive? Like other crimes, this one was a product of Conditions. The failure of literary judgment and of simple common sense shown in l'affaire Cozzens indicates a general lowering of standards. If this were all, if our reviewers just didn't know any better, then one would have to conclude we had quite lost our bearings. Luckily, there were other factors….
The … most important, I think, [was that it] is difficult for American reviewers to resist a long, ambitious novel; they are betrayed by the American admiration of size and scope, also by the American sense of good fellowship; they find it hard to say to the author, after all his work: "Sorry, but it's terrible." In Cozzens' case, it … would have meant that a lifetime of hard work in a good cause had ended in failure, which would have been un-American….
The other factor in the book's success is historical. It is [an] episode in The Middlebrow Counter-Revolution. In the 20's and 30's, the avantgarde intellectuals had it pretty much their way. In 1940, the counter-revolution was launched with Archibald MacLeish's essay, "The Irresponsibles," and Van Wyck Brooks's Hunter College talk, "On Literature Today," followed a year later by his "Primary Literature and Coterie Literature." The Brooks-MacLeish thesis was that the avantgarde had lost contact with the normal life of humanity and had become frozen in an attitude of destructive superiority; the moral consequences were perversity and snobbishness, the cultural consequences were negativism, eccentricity, and solipsism. [Footnote: "Brooks and MacLeish assumed it was good for writers to identify themselves with society because they assumed that society was healthy. But if society had been showing increasing symptoms of disease, then it was sensible of the avantgarde to isolate itself from the infection. Sensible or not, the gross empirical fact is that practically all the major art in every medium since 1850 has been produced by that avantgarde whose contemptuous rejection of bourgeois culture so infuriates the middlebrow."] The thesis was launched at the right moment. By 1940 the avantgarde had run out of gas—unfortunately no rear-guard filling stations have been opened up, either—while the country had become engaged in a world struggle for survival that made any radically dissident, skeptical attitude a luxury….
[There] is, in fact, a … pigeonhole for Cozzens: the Novel of Resignation. By Love Possessed is, philosophically, an inversion, almost a parody of a kind of story Tolstoy and other 19th-century Russian novelists used to tell: of a successful, self-satisfied hero who is led by experiences in "extreme situations" to see how artificial his life has been and who then rejects the conventional world and either dies or begins a new, more meaningful life. In the Novel of Resignation, the highest reach of enlightenment is to realize how awful the System is and yet to accept it on its own terms. Because otherwise there wouldn't be any System. Marquand invented the genre, Sloan Wilson carried it on in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, and Herman Wouk formulated it most unmistakably in The Caine Mutiny. Wouk's moral is that it is better to obey a lunatic, cowardly Captain Queeg, even if the result is disaster, than to follow the sensible advice of an officer of lower grade (who is pictured as a smooth-talking, destructive, cynical, irresponsible conniver—in short, an intellectual) and save the ship. Because otherwise there wouldn't be any U.S. navy. (If there were many Captain Queegs, there would't be a navy either, a difficulty Mr. Wouk seems not to have considered.) In short, the conventional world, the System, is confused with Life. And since Life is Like That, it is childish if not worse to insist on something better. This is typically American: either juvenile revolt or the immature acceptance of everything; there is no modulation, no development, merely the blank confrontation of untenable extremes; "maturity" means simply to replace wholesale revolt with wholesale acceptance….
From Winner's climactic six-page interior monologue that ends the book we can take three formulations that sum it up: (1) "Freedom is the knowledge of necessity." (2) "We are not children. In this life we cannot have everything for ourselves we might like to have." (3) "Victory is not in reaching certainties or solving mysteries; victory is in making do with uncertainties, in supporting mysteries."
But what is the reality behind these unexceptionable bits of philosophy? It is that Winner, for complicated pragmatic-sentimental reasons, decides to cover up an embezzlement he has just discovered, an embezzlement of trust funds by his venerable law partner, Noah Tuttle, and that he has been eased of his guilt toward his other partner, Julius Penrose, about his old affair with Marjorie, Penrose's wife….
In short, Ivan Ilyich feels free because he is compelled to reject his past as "not the right thing." Arthur Winner feels free because he is allowed to accept his past. (He is even thanked by his best friend for having concealed from him the fact that he had cuckolded him!) The last words of the book are Winner's, as he returns home: "I'm here." It's all right, nothing has to be changed: "I have the strength, the strength to, to—to endure more miseries," thinks Winner, gratefully….
It is as if Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich ended with the hero, after his atrocious sufferings, concluding that, as a high official of the Court of Justice, it was in the nature of things that he should die horribly of cancer, and that he must therefore bear his torment like a man (or rather like a cold, correct, respectable dignitary) as an example for the good of the service. In the actual story, however, he is driven by his "extreme situation" to reject his whole past way of life. Only when he is at last able to give up "the claim that his life had been good" can he experience, for the only time in his existence, anything significant: love (the young servant's gentle care) and then death.
But, as William Dean Howells memorably observed, "What the American reading public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending." And this Mr. Cozzens has dutifully supplied.
Dwight Macdonald, "By Cozzens Possessed" (abridged from Commentary, January, 1958, pp. 36-47; slightly revised for this reprinting by Dwight Macdonald and included here with his permission), in his Against the Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture (copyright by Dwight Macdonald), Random House, 1962, pp. 187-212.
[Men and Brethren, The Just and the Unjust, and By Love Possessed are all] novels … set in relatively small communities situated well off the beaten track, where progress is slow and change hardly distinguishable from decay. And because he sees such places for what they are, Cozzens explores a kind of American life which the ordinary run of novelists do not touch. The characters in [the first two of these three novels] and even more in By Love Possessed live in the unhappy assurance that almost any change that overtakes them will be for the worse, because their own status is entirely dependent upon, and identifiable with, the status quo….
Many of his critics have been distressed that Cozzens should feel, and reveal, sympathy for characters like Arthur Winner. I have to agree that there are times when I share their feeling. But just because of the relationship between Winner and his community, a good share of the critical disapproval is misplaced: the critic, who is a product of one kind of American culture, looks upon a character who is the product of another kind—and scorns the character when, if he could only see it, what really repels him is the other culture. Or, to return to an old refrain, things are not always seen clearest when seen from New York.
Such a fault in perspective seems to underlie the famous hatchet job by Dwight Macdonald called "By Cozzens Possessed"…. He is less a critic than a polygraph operating on the periphery of intellectual journalism….
Amid the din of applause raised by the reviewers of the dailies and weeklies, who gave By Love Possessed something more than its full meed, Macdonald raised the always relevant question about the emperor's clothes. The book was, he declared, a dismal swamp of clumsy and pretentious writing. He was not the only one to say so, of course, but he was easily the most vociferous, and he quoted samples until his point was made beyond cavil—as well as beyond endurance. He was right. When writing is bad there should always be someone ready to say—perhaps to shout—that it is nothing short of terrible. There should also be someone, of course, to ask whether, in a long novel, bad writing makes a really momentous difference….
[It] is clear in his article that Macdonald's violence was also stirred by the feeling that this novel had been written for "middlebrows," and that its commercial success was a middlebrow phenomenon….
What Macdonald forgot is that by right of birth the novel is blatantly middlebrow anyhow. It became respectable only when the Industrial Revolution brought forward a new class with money to buy books, leisure to read them, and too little old-fashioned classical education to support prejudices in taste….
What Macdonald was getting at was that the whole system of values in By Love Possessed, those a man like Arthur Winner, Jr. would live by, are also such as the middlebrow would hold and as would appeal to middlebrow readers. No doubt he is right again. But again he is somewhat beside the point. The charge brought against any novel of embodying the wrong values makes sense only so long as the tone of the book remains immediately contemporary; as soon as history moves forward enough so that there is no longer a conflict between the code which the novelist treats as valid and some other code which is held by a considerable number of the novelist's fellow-citizens, the whole criticism evaporates….
A good part of the code by which men like Arthur Winner live would seem laudable by any standard: there is nothing wrong that I can see with, for instance, responsibility and loyalty—both of which mean a great deal to Winner, and never more than when events make it difficult for him to know where his responsibilities and loyalties really lie. But I want to grant Macdonald his due, and recognize in Cozzens' characters a certain stuffiness. The rest of the point is that this stuffiness—make it even a Philistine stuffiness, though I doubt that the qualifier is fully justified—is not the whole story, and that a critical perspective which sees it loom so large is one which lets it mask such qualities as Cozzens, as novelist, really possesses….
Cozzens' principal distinction, which has made him an increasingly better novelist from year to year and in Guard of Honor makes him excellent, lies in his having the imagination to place in the very center of a novel a mature man capable of accepting the responsibilities of his age and experience. Taken by and large, the world of the serious American novel is rarely a country for old men….
Cozzens' evident ability to understand characters as being molded by profession, and to see the world as such characters see it, is just about unique in American writing….
There would seem to be a very visible connection between the presence in Cozzens' novels of such professional characters, these older and more experienced men, and his deep interest in the kind of community he so often writes about. Such communities are where such men are to be found most easily, and where they stand out the best….
Just to see the world through the eyes of an older man opens a fresh set of perspectives, and these perspectives function in By Love Possessed—whatever the book's other defects—as much as they do in Guard of Honor.
W. M. Frohock, "Cozzens and His Critics: A Problem in Perspective," in his Strangers to This Ground, Southern Methodist University Press, 1961, pp. 63-83.
One of the most distinguished of contemporary American social novelists is James Gould Cozzens, more impressive and more politically engaged than Marquand, but, like him, seized with the passion to record. Cozzens did his best work of that kind in his days of comparative obscurity before the publication of By Love Possessed (1957)…. By any reasonable standards, Cozzens is an important novelist, even if he is unlikely ever to write a great book….
Certainly Guard of Honor is characterized by an attempt, akin to that made in many other American novels, to create a social world through profusion and precision of detailed notation. The attempt succeeds to a remarkable degree, and Guard of Honor remains not only Cozzens's outstanding achievement but one of the finest novels to appear in America since the end of the Second World War.
Michael Millgate, "James Gould Cozzens" (© 1964 by Michael Millgate), in his American Social Fiction: James to Cozzens, Oliver & Boyd, 1964, pp. 181-94.
The work of Cozzens suggests certain generalizations on the relation of characterization to such elements as description, interior monologue, and auctorial commentary….
Where the plot is, as Aristotle said, "of a certain magnitude,"… [the] speculations of the characters, being tied to the plot, bring richness and fullness to the situations in which they make their crucial decisions. The reason for this fact is that everything depends upon what the character's thoughts are about. If he thinks in circles about everything—about the plight of the world and his disbelief, for example—he comes out a shadow; the ideas are there, but they are not meaningfully his. He could talk forever in this vein without taking on personal form and meaning. But if what the character thinks about is always related to the decisions he will face, if it fills out the body of ideas and intentions that he will bring to the decision, then it will continually enrich the characterization.
This latter is what happens through By Love Possessed and the other fine novels by Cozzens. Arthur Winner has a very elaborate mind; it is full of ideas, opinions, information, poems, passages of Shakespeare. As he moves through his eventful weekend he is turning these ideas over and over, and they are comments on the situations, on his part in them, and on the values and the goals that he will bring to his decisions. Thus they constitute a rich body of self; they make a rounded, integrated man who is known in far greater detail than one might know his own illustrious uncle. The rhythms of his thought reflect the rhythms of his town, the flow of the life all around him, the give and take of his intercourse with a score of people. The whole complex of what he thinks, how he thinks, and how he acts makes for an extraordinarily rich characterization. The "rhythms of his thought," which come out in a style that has been strenuously condemned as needlessly involuted and difficult, embody the intercourse between the hero and the whole life of the town; they make his relation a felt, an almost physical sensation to the receptive reader.
Rhythm of thought, action, speculation, and final decision, then, conspire to bring out the idea that bursts at the end of this remarkable novel. The action is tremendously exciting, the style is compelling, the theme is profoundly rooted in the study of man in society. Woven into this rich and beautiful texture, characterization is as full and satisfying as one might think possible.
Charles Child Walcutt, in his Man's Changing Mask: Modes and Methods of Characterization in Fiction (© 1966, University of Minnesota), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1966, pp. 285-86.
Cozzens has never participated in the literary politics and public-relations activities to which most writers devote a good deal of their energy; in any event, his views would, as it amuses him to recognize, make him ineligible…. He thinks the whole bag of tricks about the alienation of the artist and intellectual in America is absurd and that, if anything, such people get more attention than they deserve….
But unlike most writers of his period, Cozzens feels a strong obligation to see the world for what it is: not to be content with it, but to recognize its nature and its strength….
Cozzens has paid a price for his independence. For years he was the most unpublicized writer of anything like his talent in America, and when, with the publication of By Love Possessed, it looked for a moment as if he might get the recognition he deserved, Dwight Macdonald, the ablest critic of his kind in New York, made a carefully planned attack on Cozzens that undoubtedly damaged his reputation. From Mr. Macdonald's point of view, it was a wise move; Cozzens' novels represent a conception of experience that is a danger to what Mr. Macdonald cares about….
Cozzens' respect for life as it is gives him an exceptional interest in the actual world. This interest ranges all the way from his pleasure in the ingenious organization of things like department stores and air force bases to his almost anthropological curiosity about the customary life of social institutions like the small town or of professions like the law and medicine. He has a deep respect for men who can function effectively in the world, whether they are skilled mechanics or talented pilots, able generals or smart judges, and this respect, because it is not dictated by a theory, is without condescension. Both The Just and the Unjust (1942) and By Love Possessed (1957) are legally impeccable novels about the law; the hero of The Last Adam (1933) is a doctor, and the hero of Men and Brethren (1936) is a priest. Three of these four novels show a fascinated intimacy with the social life of the American small town. Guard of Honor (1948) is a novel about life on an Army Air Force Base during the war; no one has ever been able to find a flaw in its minutely detailed account of that life.
Because of this respect for the actual world, Cozzens represents it with a fullness and a lack of distortion by self-interest very unusual in American literature. He is himself a man of very considerable intelligence; the actions of his novels are bathed in a glow of brilliant good sense that is a continuous pleasure, and the intellectual powers of his clever characters are actually demonstrated in his novels, not, as is so often the case in novels, merely asserted to exist. At the same time his respect for the actual world will not let him distort what it is in order to convince us that it can—or at least ought to—be what he would like it to be, though the temptation to do so must attack him as often as it does any intelligent man. He can see as quickly as anyone how raw the deal most people get from life is, but he never allows himself to forget that "life is what life is." Cozzens confronts squarely the rawness of the deal that drives the subjective novelists to a defiance of life itself. He knows as well as Melville and Faulkner how strong the passions of the heart are. But since he never loses sight of the simple, obvious fact that life is what life is, he is always conscious that it is not what these passions so often convince men it is, or may be. To him their effect on men is a kind of possession—in the sense of being influenced to the point of madness….
Faced by [the] absence of the familiar, fashionable devices for giving novels a range and depth of subjective reality, critics are inclined to jump to the conclusion that Cozzens' novels have no subtlety. Unprepared for the different kind of subtlety the novelist of objective reality is concerned with, they simply miss the beautiful, intricate pattern that makes every one of the minutely observed realistic events in Cozzens' novels contribute to his meaning, to his vision of what life is, without the help of any distortion of objective reality or any special rhetorical appeal.
For a writer like this, one of the most attractive qualities in men is their ability to take pleasure in what life offers them, their natural responsiveness to the drama that is always a part of the ordinary business of life. His novels are full of attractively unintellectual—though often quite impressively talented—men of action (a very rare kind of character in modern fiction) who take an amusingly unliterary delight in such things….
For anyone not blinded by the spectacular achievements of the great, impassioned idealists who have written many of the twentieth century's best novels, Cozzens' achievement must have a special interest, precisely because he does realize with astonishing insight and intelligence an aspect of our experience that has almost disappeared from serious fiction and that confronts us in his novels like a new discovery. In order to do so he has recreated the full-scale realistic novel—the kind that deals with the manners, not of a limited class and kind of people, but a whole society—for a culture that has scarcely ever seen itself before in that undistorting mirror.
Arthur Mizener, "James Gould Cozzens: 'Guard of Honor'," in his Twelve Great American Novels (copyright © 1967 by Arthur Mizener; reprinted by arrangement with The New American Library, Inc., New York, New York), New American Library, 1967, pp. 160-76.
[Morning, Noon and Night (Cozzens' thirteenth novel] although he no longer acknowledges the first four) represents no shift from his central thematic concern: man must live in uncertainty and pretend to the world that he does not. The prose style here represents a partial retreat from some of the pseudobaroque extravagances of "By Love Possessed," and can in part be explained by the narrator and central figure, an aging and successful management consultant. Like the heroes of Cozzens' last half-dozen novels, Henry Worthington is a successful professional man, skeptical in temper, resentful of human appetites, and determined to be free of illusion. But, like the others, he is victimized by an anti-romantic sentimentality, a self-indulgence in Psalmist pithiness or classical wisdom updated. Worthington's heavy allusions come mostly from the seventeenth century—the King James Bible, Bacon, Shakespeare—and reflect, of course, Cozzens' own tastes. But the allusions only underline the odd and smug consolation that Cozzens and his heroes feel they deserve for lives of seeming self-abnegation.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, Winter, 1969, p. xiv.
Far from being a "researched" novel, Guard of Honor owes its distinction from other novels of America's war to Cozzens's espousal of the virtue in old-fashioned virtue—principles, ability, self-control, measure. The moral law—not handed down from on high but won by stoic upperclass Protestants through long practice in the values necessary to survival (and by putting down darker, more hysterical races)—was more urgent than any inflamed insistence on equality…. [His] belief in "society," the country, the air force, is the reason for Cozzens's almost provocative illiberalism, and still reflects the dominating ethical point of view that novels of social rivalry used to take in America….
No Cozzens protagonist will stand up any longer to the New Disorder. The center will not hold. But possibly a minutely organized, well-made novel may? Guard of Honor offers in structure and style the vision of a moral intactness that the chosen few have lost in everything but memory. An old-fashioned solidly worked up novel set up against a bad time and getting worse! But in By Love Possessed (1957) the neutral, self-satisfied irony of Cozzens's usual style has been replaced by the effort to contain Cozzens's own disarray….
Cozzens had always made a cult of "the man of reason" and obviously felt himself to be one, perhaps the last one, in American writing, for most of which his contempt is notorious. But it is the fate of a "man of reason" to be utterly surprised, like Arthur Winner Sr., in the face of death. Trying to remain in urbane perfect control, the style of By Love Possessed strains itself into a complicatedness that reflects Cozzens's loss of respect for his own class. Cozzens had always been a dry, close, methodical and unpretentious writer. The law was his great love and each novel competently closed in on itself as evidence. Now the style broke down, tried to conceal Cozzens's conflict by unnatural fussiness. A world is supposed to have died. After discovering Noah's peculations, Arthur Winner Jr. says out loud—"I am a man alone." But perhaps that was only Cozzens himself. The "well-made" novel has not survived the shapely class distinctions on which it modeled itself.
Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 99-104.