Just Representations

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

ph_0111207074-Cozzens.jpg James Gould Cozzens Published by Salem Press, Inc.

On the occasion of James Gould Cozzens’ seventy-fifth birthday, Matthew J. Bruccoli has edited “an introduction for new readers of his [Cozzens’] works and an omnibus for the initiated.” Samplings from the novelist’s work, chosen by the editor and approved by Cozzens, include Ask Me Tomorrow in its entirety; excerpts from six other postapprenticeship novels; three short stories; six previously uncollected essays; and “Some Putative Facts of Hard Record,” from his 1923 diary. The selections are arranged for reading in conjunction with the essays and reviews contributed by George Garrett, Jerome Weidman, Noel Perrin, Frederick Bracher, Brendan Gill, and Richard M. Ludwig. Particularly appropriate is the epigraph, a quotation from Samuel Johnson used by Cozzens in Morning Noon and Night: “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.”

Editor Bruccoli’s Introduction is a biographical sketch and a comprehensive résumé of Cozzens’ literary career, which officially began in March, 1920, with the publication of “A Democratic School” by the Atlantic Monthly. Described by Bruccoli as an “uneven” student, Cozzens decided early to become a professional writer. While he was at Harvard, he wrote his first novel, Confusion, published in 1924. This event caused considerable excitement in Boston, and the young student-author was persuaded to make several public appearances—all time-consuming an unsatisfactory from Cozzens’ viewpoint. Finding himself in difficulty at Harvard, he took a leave of absence and never returned to complete his course work.

With his formal education at an end, Cozzens, who never at a loss for inspiration and material, continued to write. Part of his income was derived from other more ordinary jobs, however, including teaching, tutoring, editing, and library work. More and more he became fascinated with the idea of writing about the professional people in American society. Three years after he left Harvard, Cozzens married Bernice Baumgarten, who was his literary agent and to whom Just Representations is dedicated.

Bruccoli, in his concise review of Cozzens’ work, pays tribute to the writer’s dedication to his craft and to his uncompromising pursuit of excellence in his work. Since the Harvard days, Cozzens has never sought publicity, has never embraced social or political causes, and has been too absorbed in his profession to become involved with other activities which do not interest him. “His refusal to make concessions to inattentive readers” has been offered as one reason for Cozzens’ failure to attract the readership his work deserves. In commenting on this idea, Bruccoli praises the clarity and dignity of Cozzens’ style and defends his judicious use of uncommon words, his concise sentence structure, and his meaningful literary allusions, open or concealed. Bruccoli, like Cozzens himself, objects to categorizing the novelist as a conservative, an aristocrat, and a classicist. Rather, Cozzens insists that “he tries only to render life and people accurately as he sees them.” Bruccoli adds that Cozzens respects intelligence, firmness, and self-discipline.

Excerpts from the 1923 diary and additional notes included in a letter from the author to Bruccoli are part of the front matter. Diary entries provide an insight into the mind of a fledgling genius frustrated at being at once student and author. His inner conflict is apparent.

Ask Me Tomorrow, subtitled The Pleasant Comedy of Young Fortunatus, published in 1940 and reprinted in toto, reflects Cozzens’ own experiences as a tutor in 1926-1927. His student was a young American boy and the job afforded the tutor an opportunity to travel in Europe. As Bruccoli explains, Francis, the sensitive tutor and hero, is also becoming educated even as he tutors Walter in academic subjects. Fate plays a big part in the development of the plot, but Francis’ own vanities must be recognized and tempered. The petulant, self-centered young man portrayed at the beginning matures in the course of events until he can accept a change in fortune with grace and be sincerely sympathetic with Mrs. Cunningham and her problems.

The variety of material in the Cozzens canon is discussed in “Whatever Wishful Thinking You May Wish: The Example of James Gould Cozzens,” by George Garrett, teacher and author of The Death of the Fox. One reason college teachers do not use Cozzens’ major novels, Garrett believes, is that college students are incapable of dealing with the form and content, and teachers find it difficult to bridge the gap between Cozzens and his potential youthful audience. Another reason is that “most professors hate the professionals.” Cozzens, unequaled in his ability to portray doctors, lawyers, military men, and the clergy, has consistently declined to let politics influence his writing, whereas “for a very long time and dominantly so since World War II, in politics the Academy has been a sort of sacred grove, strongly dedicated to the Left.”

Cozzens’ so-called “professional” novels include six mature works: The Last Adam (1933); Men and Brethren (1936); The Just and the Unjust (1942); Guard of Honor (1948); By Love Possessed (1957); and Morning Noon and Night (1968). Most of the central characters in these books are mature men who believe in their chosen...

(The entire section is 2258 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Booklist. LXXV, September, 1, 1978, p. 26.

Choice. XV, January, 1979, p. 1515.

Library Journal. CIII, September 15, 1978, p. 1766.

National Review. XXX, December 8, 1978, p. 1552.

New York Times Book Review. August 6, 1978, p. 10.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LV, Winter, 1979, p. 18.