James Gould Cozzens Cozzens, James Gould (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cozzens, James Gould 1903–1978

An American novelist, short story writer, and editor, Cozzens is known for his moralistic novels of man in society. He rejected sentimentality and romanticism in favor of a more severe realism, but has been criticized for the haughtiness of his upper-class conservatism. Howard Nemerov has called his style the "work of a mind whose cold temper and grim austerity and firm conviction of despair makes existentialists look somewhat cozy and Rotarian, if not evangelical." Cozzens won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for Guard of Honor, and has also received the O. Henry Award. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 81-84.)

Stanley Edgar Hyman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[There are a half-dozen themes basic to Cozzens' writing which unite his disparate works.] Perhaps the most important of them is the concept of "earned" morality, the discovery of a moral principle through suffering on its behalf. As early as Confusion, Cozzens has one of the characters say:

Despite all teaching there must come an instance in every person's life when such a truth is proved or disproved in such a way as to be convincing, or it is never honestly believed.

(pp. 480-81)

Cozzens' second theme, and a rather more Christian one that seems at times to run almost directly counter to the Stoicism of the first, is the radical imperfectability of man. This emerges sharply in The Last Adam, which celebrates a doctor who is lazy, irresponsible, bigoted, self-indulgent, lecherous, arrogant, and at most points pretty well uncontaminated by the Hippocratic ideal. The book defends him in the only terms possible, that he is human, and concludes in the last paragraph by raising him to a kind of Adamic principle…. (p. 481)

Sometimes, as in Colonel Ross's soliloquies in Guard of Honor, this doctrine becomes a defense of mediocrity and an acceptance of imperfection, the need to compromise theory to fit facts; sometimes, as in Abner's realizations in The Just and the Unjust, it is compromise with the sinful world, politics and even life as "the art of the possible" (a phrase quoted repeatedly in Guard of Honor). At one extreme, this acceptance of the old Adam leads to the view of men as simply brutes…. At the other extreme it sees a kind of triumphant Good Life in being human…. (p. 482)

Another theme basic to Cozzens' work is that of power and authority. Many of his characters play God, and manipulate the lives of others with a visible or invisible omnipotence…. [Frequently] this all-powerful authority is a parent…. In opposition to these God-figures, and perhaps equally symbols of the parent, there are Devil-figures in a number of the books…. [Their] powers differ from these of the God-figures in that the latter gain their authority through controlling men; the former through controlling Fate. (pp. 482-83)

A subsidiary theme here is chance and luck, which are very important in Cozzens' cosmology…. Frequently this chance or luck involves heavy irony: the San Pedro is lost because the one ship that passes her, an obscure sugar tramp from Cuba … has no wireless…. (pp. 483-84)

A number of lesser related themes recur throughout Cozzens' work. One of them is the impulse to self-hurt or self-destruction, what Freud implied in "the death-wish."… Many of Cozzens' characters show some of the symptoms. At the same time, in direct opposition to this, Cozzens is concerned with a kind of survival-instinct, what Freud sometimes called "Eros" or "the life-wish."… [The] tragedy in The Son of Perdition and S. S. San Pedro is that everyone seems to have lost it. Even though this impulse and these survivors are presented as generally admirable, the concurrent old age seems to affect Cozzens with horror. He feels the passage of time almost obsessively, a thing symbolized in at least two books by a sweep-secondhand racing around a watch…. By way of resistance to this [bitterness about age], there is a frenzy of physical action in the books…. (pp. 484-85)

Obviously, not many of these themes have the cheery comfort traditionally associated with best-sellers, and the question of Cozzens' popularity with a mass audience becomes something of a problem. The factor that comes to mind first is that although Cozzens employs a modern sensibility, his works are not modern novels. They remain apparently unaffected by the revolution in fiction that Joyce, Gide, and Kafka inaugurated in the twentieth century, and Stendhal, Melville, and Dostoyevsky anticipated in the nineteenth. (Castaway, which is quite possibly influenced by Kafka, is the one exception here.) Cozzens professes to despise his contemporaries, and … claims that with a few unnamed exceptions none of them can write, and that his models remain Shakespeare, Swift, Steele, Gibbon, Jane Austen, and Hazlitt. His literary aim, he adds, is "to recreate or retell," not to shape and transform experience. He thus ranges himself in the realist or naturalist tradition, with such contemporary writers as Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy…. And yet here he does not quite fit into any group. His work has an imagination and a brilliance far removed from the plodding dullness of [Virginia] Woolf's butts, and it is distinguished from the work of the American naturalist novelists—the Dreisers, Farrells, and Halpers—by being written rather than hacked out of the corpse of language.

One of the ingredients of Cozzens' popularity, and a thing that may suggest more fruitful comparisons, is his work's reliance on technical knowledge, its heavily...

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Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

By Love Possessed … is a masterpiece. It is the author's masterpiece, which in the case of Mr. Cozzens is saying a good deal, yet it would be saying too little not to add at once that By Love Possessed would be almost anybody's masterpiece. No American novelist of the twentieth century has attempted more than Mr. Cozzens attempts in the course of this long and bold and delicate book, which, despite its length, one reads through at headlong speed and is then angry with oneself for having reached the end of so precipitately. No other American novelist of this century could bring to such a task the resources of intelligence, literary technique, and knowledge of the intricate, more or less sorry ways of the world that Mr. Cozzens commands. If he had failed, the very ruin of his work might have served as the occasion for grateful thanks and—like that beautiful failure Tender Is the Night…. But Mr. Cozzens is at every point far from failing. He has been superbly ambitious and has superbly realized his ambitions. Rarely seeming to exert himself, only once showing signs of strain, he has performed the sleight of hand that all writers dream of and that few have the discipline and energy, let alone the talent, to accomplish—that of arresting and rendering the surface of life (oh, yes! this is precisely how it looks) and at the same time revealing in undiminished contrariety the flow of things beneath the surface (but this, alas, is how it is). Like all the supremely satisfying novels, By Love Possessed contrives to let us recognize the truth not only of what we have experienced as individuals but of what we have not; it radically alters and enlarges us even as it gives delight. An immense achievement, and if Mr. Cozzens isn't practically beside himself with relief and pride at having brought it off, then...

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Frederick Bracher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The eight novels published [between 1931 and 1939] include at least four that are of major importance by any set of standards, and taken as a whole the Cozzens novels constitute a record of continuing achievement matched in our time only by Faulkner and Hemingway. (p. 5)

Though full of ideas, the novels present no ideology. At a time when violent social conflicts might seem to force a writer to consider the dynamics and direction of American society and to take a firm stand on one side or another, Cozzens has remained a spectator rather than a partisan…. Cozzens' thinking is empirical and eclectic; he follows his sense of experienced reality rather than any abstract pattern of ideas. Accordingly,...

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John Chamberlain

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Ask Me Tomorrow" is definitely not in the mode of Compton Mackenzie's "Sinister Street" or Fitzgerald's "This Side of Paradise," the two youthful "quest" novels that were so widely imitated in the interwar period. The Cozzens portrait of the writer as a young man is tenderly ironic; the author applies the same objective criteria in looking at himself as he does when looking at others. Incidentally, "Ask Me Tomorrow" is a perfect depiction of the Europe that traveling Americans knew when the dollar was a dollar….

As Cozzens grew older, he "saw the stout, stubborn will … gaining impressive victories." He also came at a later age to realize "how temporary are the patterns and the point one can impose on life." In "By Love Possessed," written when Cozzens was 54, the diminished future that must come to all aging dukes who attempt to control life is a matter for cosmic irony. Arthur Winner, the small-town lawyer who turned down the offer of a judgeship in his 50's on the ground that middle age was not a time for new beginnings, has been compelled by a series of shattering experiences to realize that it was an illusion to believe "power really matters." But he fought a good fight, and that is what counts in the making of character.

In his preference for responsible individuals Cozzens was something of an anomaly among the major novelists of his period. Hemingway preferred the character who made his separate peace. Fitzgerald gloried in the romanticism of defeat. Farrell's Studs Lonigan welches on his idea of being strong and tough and the real stuff. One has to go back to Willa Cather's generation to find "ordering characters" to match those of the big Cozzens novels. (p. 11)

John Chamberlain, "Writer of Character," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 6, 1978, pp. 10-11.

Matthew J. Bruccoli

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Though over-written and perhaps pretentious, Confusion [Cozzens's first novel] introduced the search for values or standards of conduct that would characterize all of Cozzens's work….

Michael Scarlett showed what would be the mark of Cozzens's fiction: his ability to treat a subject with authority, for the novel manifests a knowledge of Elizabethan literature and society remarkable in a twenty-two-year-old Harvard drop-out. (p. xii)

Cozzens's first three novels developed superior young figures who need an occupation worthy of their abilities; however, Cock Pit was the first novel in which he used material he knew from experience and observation. It established...

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Noel Perrin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The dominant theme in James Gould Cozzen's novels is that of order imposed on a meaningless world—or, rather, that of order being maintained, and even occasionally extended….

It is always a comparative handful of men whom Cozzens shows as holding society together and keeping it orderly: the few adults of his novels, as opposed to the many children.

The best and smartest of these grown-ups operate somewhat the way Shakespeare's dukes do in the late comedies. That is, they are the centers of their societies, and not merely in some social sense, but truly in the middle, so that most information passes through them, and most connections are made by them. (p. 278)


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