James Gould Cozzens 1903–1978
American novelist and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Cozzens's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 4, and 11.
Cozzens is best known for insightful tales about the more or less privileged lives led by White Anglo-Saxon Protestant American professional men. Philosophical in approach, Cozzens's novels utilize little action but explore a wide range of ideas, including love, duty, and the law. Cozzens eschewed the modernist literary trends of his time, deliberately employing unfamiliar, archaic words, traditional literary structures, and moralistic Puritan themes; these choices caused many critics to regard his work as old-fashioned.
Cozzens was born in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up on Staten Island, New York. His father was a businessman whose ancestors include the Civil War-era governor of Rhode Island. His mother's family consisted of aristocratic Connecticut royalists who moved to Nova Scotia during the American revolt. Raised in an upper-class environment, Cozzens was educated at the Kent Academy Episcopal prep school and at Harvard University, which he left after his Sophomore year and the successful publication of his first novel Confusion (1924). While living in Canada he completed the historical romance, Michael Scarlett (1925), then taught school in Cuba and tutored in Europe. Following his marriage to Sylvia Bernice Baumgarten, he and his wife settled in Lambertville, New Jersey, where he wrote the remainder of his books and short stories. Although Cozzens initially received favorable critical acclaim for his writings and the Pulitzer prize for Guard of Honor in 1948, the literary community and reading public largely neglected his works.
Cozzens's novels—such as Men and Brethren (1936), The Just and the Unjust (1942), Guard of Honor (1948), and By Love Possessed (1957)—explore the moral conduct and self-disciplined lives of professional people, and span no more than a few days. Cozzens's central characters are almost always respected professionals, such as Dr. George Bull in The Last Adam (1933); Ernest Cudlipp, the Episcopal priest in Men and Brethren; Major General Beal, the commanding officer of a Florida military base in Guard of Honor; Abner Coates, the assistant district attorney in The Just and the Unjust; and Arthur Winner, the town lawyer in By Love Possessed. Typical of Cozzens's style is the philosophical analysis of his protagonist's motivations. For example, the complexities of love and the tragedy of despair are explored in Confusion, in which Cerise D'Atree falls in love with Blair Broughton who dies in a car crash. That a doctor's medical responsibilities will ultimately guide his thoughts and actions is pivotal to the plot of The Last Adam, in which Dr. Bull works to curb a typhoid epidemic. In By Love Possessed Cozzens returns to the themes of love, passion, and reason in a story that follows a lawyer as he prepares to defend a young man falsely accused of rape. The story also explores the attorney's struggle with personal relationships and love. Law and its limitations, on the other hand, are the focus of The Just and the Unjust, in which the ideals of democratic justice are manipulated by the personal and social concerns of the people involved in a murder trial. In Guard of Honor duty and integrity are the principle elements examined in a story about a Major General who achieves an overseas command with the help of his friends and his unswerving dedication to the military.
Most critics readily acknowledge Cozzens's structural clarity, facility with language, and his ability to create well-defined plots and characters. They also note the thoroughness of his research on such subjects as the law for The Just and the Unjust and Elizabethan history for Michael Scarlett. Some, however, fault his writing style as old-fashioned and aloof, citing, for example, his traditional approach to narrative, at times pompous vocabulary, conservative ideology, and a focus on wealthy professionals that appears elitist. Furthermore, a few commentators characterize his works as too philosophical and self-indulgent in their presentation of themes, suggesting that Cozzens's characters exist primarily to express his own views. Some also identify anti-semitic and racially biased themes in such works as By Love Possessed. Still, Cozzens's works continue to provoke admiration and controversy among critics.