James Gould Cozzens Cozzens, James Gould (Vol. 92) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major 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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Confusion (novel) 1924
Michael Scarlett: A History (novel) 1925
Cock Pit (novel) 1928
The Son of Perdition (novel) 1929
S. S. San Pedro (novel) 1931
The Last Adam (novel) 1933
Castaway (novel) 1934
Men and Brethren (novel) 1936
Ask Me Tomorrow (novel) 1940
The Just and the Unjust (novel) 1942
Guard of Honor (novel) 1948
By Love Possessed (novel) 1957
Children and Others (short stories) 1964
Morning Noon and Night (novel) 1968
A Flower in Her Hair (novel) 1974
A Rope for Dr. Webster (novel) 1976
Just Representations: A James Gould Cozzens Reader (fiction and nonfiction) 1978
Selected Notebooks: 1960–1967 (memoirs) 1984

∗This work contains the novel Ask Me Tomorrow, excerpts from six other novels, short stories, essays, letters, reviews, and critical essays on Cozzens's work.

†This work was edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli.

George J. Becker (review date June 1949)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Men at War," in Commentary, Vol. 7, No. 6, June, 1949, pp. 608-09.

[Becker is an educator and author whose books include Paris and the Arts, 1851–1896 (1971) and Master European Realists of the Nineteenth Century (1982). In the following review of Guard of Honor, he contends that while the military detail is authentic, the plot is weak and lacks objectivity and balance in its view of military life.]

The slice of life or the cross-section has been used by novelists to give a balanced and objective view of a world too often subject to distortion because of faulty vision or special pleading. James Gould Cozzens, in his Pulitzer Prize novel, [Guard of Honor], uses the technique with skill and urbanity. Yet his very success brings the value of the device into question.

For millions of us, civilian as well as military combatants, the most abiding memory of the late war is of the gigantic and often apparently chaotic organizations of which we were a part. As sprawling army bases and posts rose in brick and concrete almost overnight, teapot tempests and departmental intrigues and jealousies loomed larger on the immediate horizon than the landing on Okinawa or the crossing of the Rhine. Conduct of the war, like that of any enterprise, depended on the nature and interplay of personalities. A fumbler in uniform was a fumbler still, raised even to a higher power.

What Mr. Cozzens gives us is the shock and pleasure of recognition. A score or more of representative people at a great army air base at Ocanara, Florida, live through forty-eight hours and 631 pages of a purely local crisis. For a time it is in question whether Major General Beal, commander of the base, will display the powers of judgment and stability to enable him in an administrative position to continue the rapid rise he has made as a "flying general." If it is less by intelligence than by his ability to inspire the intelligent devotion of...

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Martin Price (review date Autumn 1957)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In the Fielding Country: Some Recent Fiction," in Yale Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 7, Autumn, 1957, pp. 143-56.

[Price is an educator and author whose books include The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century (1973) and Forms of Life: Character and Moral Imagination in the Novel (1983). In the excerpt below, he praises By Love Possessed for its literary complexity and thorough presentation of the law, but faults the novel for its "tidy" picture of life and the insufficient development of the main character.]

In its length, in its mannerisms, in its carefully "researched" presentation of a small town law firm, [By Love Possessed] bespeaks...

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Benjamin De Mott (essay date Winter 1957)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cozzens and Others," in The Hudson Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, Winter, 1957, pp. 620-26.

[De Mott is an educator and novelist whose books include The Body's Cage (1959) and A Married Man (1968). In the excerpt, below, he faults Cozzens's novels for their overemphasis on professionalism and duty, their conventional plots, and a disregard for character development.]

… Cozzens is capable on occasion of making his reader feel perceptive, aware of the difference between fantasy and fact and interested in their relationships, experienced enough to know that there is not so much elegance and order in life that anyone will be harmed by another glance at...

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Richard G. Stern (review date Winter 1958)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Perverse Fiction," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XX, No. 1, Winter, 1958, pp. 140-44.

[Stern is an educator, critic, novelist, and short story writer whose books include Golk (1960) and Collected Stories (1988). In the following unfavorable review of By Love Possessed, Stern faults the novel's structure, literary style, and character development.]

The form of James Cozzens' latest novel is that of The Ambassadors: the book is organized around a central consciousness, an intelligent, middle-aged man who participates more or less directly in actions the evaluation of which leads to revaluation of his own experience and principles. A...

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Frederick Bracher (essay date 1959)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Style and Structure," in The Novels of James Gould Cozzens, Harcourt, 1959, pp. 49-76.

[In the following excerpt, Bracher explores Cozzens's use of description, alliteration, poetry quotes, and characters.]

Until 1957, reviewers and the few critics who wrote of him at all were almost unanimous in praise of the lucid precision of Cozzens' style, and Bernard De Voto after the publication of Guard of Honor concluded that the author's reputation would rest largely on his technical achievements as a writer. This prediction seemed reasonably safe until the appearance of By Love Possessed, in which the occasional idiosyncrasies of Cozzens' basically...

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The Times Literary Supplement (review date 6 May 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Artless and the Arch," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3297, May 6, 1965, p. 356.

[In the following review of Children and Others, the critic lauds Cozzens's ability to present the complexities of growing up.]

[On] the evidence provided by the seventeen [stories] in Children and Others, Mr. Cozzens is probably at his happiest when working on a large canvas. "Eyes to See," the last story in the collection, is much the longest—more of a novella, really than a short story—and much the best. A fifteen-year-old boy is called home from school by his mother's sudden death, and, as the families gather for the funeral, Mr. Cozzens sets out...

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John Brooks (review date 25 August 1968)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The I in Henry Dodd Worthington," in The New York Times Book Review, August 25, 1968, pp. 3, 33.

[Brooks was an American critic, novelist and journalist. In the following review of Morning Noon and Night, he examines the novel's structure, Puritan themes, eccentric prose style, and plot.]

In 1957, when James Gould Cozzens' By Love Possessed finally appeared, nine years after his last previous novel, Guard of Honor, it was instantly pronounced a masterwork by critical and popular acclaim and, an almost incredibly short time thereafter, it was dismissed (by what eventually came to be at least general critical assent) as a fake masterwork. On...

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John Updike (review date 2 November 1968)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Indifference," in Picked-Up Pieces, Alfred A. Knopf, 1976, pp. 416-22.

[Updike is a prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, critic, short story writer, essayist, poet, and dramatist. In the review below, originally published November 2, 1968, in The New Yorker, he faults Morning Noon and Night for its stuffy, tedious, pessimistic, and pedantic style.]

Beginning, forty years ago, with a style of sober purity, James Gould Cozzens has purposefully evolved a prose unique in its mannered ugliness, a monstrous mix of Sir Thomas Browne, legalese, and Best-Remembered Quotations. The opening chapter of his new novel, Morning Noon and...

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The Times Literary Supplement (review date 30 January 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ponderosity," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3492, January 30, 1969, p. 116.

[In the following negative review of Morning Noon and Night, the critic contends that Cozzens's attempt to expose "the reality beneath pretension" is undermined by a ponderous prose style.]

The narrator of Mr. Cozzens's new novel [Morning Noon and Night] is Henry (Hank) Dodd Worthington, the sexagenarian founder and head of H.W. Associates, a firm of industrial management consultants preeminent in that field. The novel is presented in the form of a meditation on his life, or lives, and those of his ancestors, an inquiry that may be meaningful to others in so far...

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James A. Epperson (review date 8 December 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Eclipse," in National Review, Vol. XXX, December 8, 1978, pp. 1552-54.

[In the following review of Just Representations, Epperson examines Cozzens's career, his fall from critical esteem, and argues that his work has significant literary merit.]

Only twenty years ago, any list of our top-ranking novelists would surely have included the name of James Gould Cozzens. His short stories and novels had won prizes and critical attention. Six of his books had been selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club. By Love Possessed (1957) received all the acclaim a writer could hope for: commercial success as a best-seller, condensation in the Reader's...

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Robert Scholes (essay date 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Moral Realism: The Development of an Attitude," in James Gould Cozzens: New Acquist of True Experience, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, Southern Illinois University Press, 1979, pp. 44-62.

[Scholes is an educator and author of several books on literature, including Elements of Fiction (1968) and Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English (1985). In the following essay, he discusses the evolution of Cozzens's literary style and his rejection of romanticism in favor of moral realism.]

The following quotations may be read as a dialogue. The first speaker is a young man in a novel of 1929. The second is an old man in a novel of 1942....

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Colin S. Cass (essay date Fall 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cozzens's Debt to Thomas Dekker in Ask Me Tomorrow," in Markham Review, Vol. 11, Fall, 1981, pp. 11-16.

[In the essay below, Cass compares the characters and themes of Cozzens's Ask Me Tomorrow with Thomas Dekker's play, The Pleasant Comedie of Old Fortunatus (1599), contending that the play provided the basis for Cozzens's story.]

When James Gould Cozzens finished his ninth novel, he wanted to call it "Young Fortunatus," but Alfred Harcourt dissuaded him "on the reasonable grounds that since he had never [sic] heard of Old Fortunatus most other readers wouldn't have, and might wonder, irked, what the hell I meant. The book didn't...

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Irving Malin (essay date Winter 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Education of Francis Ellery," in John O'Hara Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2, Winter, 1981, pp. 32-8.

[Malin is an educator and critic whose books include William Faulkner: An Interpretation (1957) and Isaac Bashevis Singer (1972). In the following essay, he examines the character development of Francis Ellery in Ask Me Tomorrow.]

In Just Representations, a James Gould Cozzens reader, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, there is only one novel reprinted. This novel is Ask Me Tomorrow, first published in 1940. Bruccoli notes in his introduction that the novel is "uncharacteristically personal, drawing on Cozzens's experiences as a tutor in...

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Terry Teachout (review date 28 February 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Selected Notebooks: 1960–1967, in National Review, Vol. XXXVIII, February 28, 1986, pp. 60-1.

[Teachout is an American musician, editor, and essayist, whose books include Beyond the Boom: New Voices on American Life, Politics, and Culture (1990) and Under Midwestern Eyes: Memories of a Lapsed Missourian (1991). In the review below, he favorably assesses Notebooks as a valuable introduction to Cozzens's reflections on literature.]

Matthew Bruccoli's 1983 biography James Gould Cozzens: A Life Apart contained a lengthy appendix of excerpts from a set of notebooks Cozzens began keeping three years after the...

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Richard A. Posner (essay date 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Reflection of Law in Literature: 'Legal' Novels by Cozzens, Twain, and Camus," in Law and Literature: A Misunderstood Relation, Harvard University Press, 1988, pp. 79-88.

[Posner is a lawyer and author of several books, including The Economics of Justice (1981) and The Problems of Jurisprudence (1990). In the following excerpt, he contends that The Just and the Unjust is not about the law, rather it is a story about the rite-of-passage of a young man.]

… I begin in low key with a work that after more than forty years seems on its way to being recognized as a minor classic—James Gould Cozzens's novel The Just and the Unjust,...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bruccoli, Matthew J. James Gould Cozzens: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981, 193 p.

Extensive bibliography of Cozzens's writings, including related literary criticism, reviews, and biographical books and pamphlets about the author.


Broccoli, Matthew J. James Gould Cozzens: A Life Apart. New York: Harcourt, 1983, 343 p.

Examines Cozzens's life and works.


Chamberlain, John. "Writer of Character." New York Times...

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