About James Gould Cozzens, II
James Gould Cozzens (August 19, 1903 – August 9, 1978) was an American novelist.
He is often grouped today with his contemporaries John O'Hara and John P. Marquand, but his work is generally considered more challenging. Despite initial critical acclaim, his popularity came gradually. Cozzens was a critic of modernism, and he was quoted in a featured article in Time as saying, "I can't read ten pages of Steinbeck without throwing up."
Born in Chicago, Illinois, he grew up on Staten Island. His father, Henry William Cozzens Jr., who died when Cozzens was 17, was an affluent businessman and the grandson of a governor of Rhode Island, William C. Cozzens. His Canadian mother, Mary Bertha Wood, came from a family of Connecticut tories who left for Nova Scotia following the American Revolution. Cozzens grew up in the same privileged lifestyle that formed the background of his most acclaimed works.
An Episcopalian, Cozzens attended the Episcopal Kent School in Connecticut from 1916 to 1922, and after graduation went to Harvard University for two years, where he published his first novel, Confusion, in 1924. A few months later, ill and in debt, he withdrew from school and moved to New Brunswick, where he wrote a second novel, Michael Scarlett. Neither book sold well nor was widely read, and to sustain himself, Cozzens went to Cuba to teach children of American residents, and there began to write short stories and gather material, which eventually became Cock Pit (1928) and The Son of Perdition (1929). After a year he accompanied his mother to Europe, where he tutored a young polio victim in order to earn money.
He met Sylvia Bernice Baumgarten, a literary agent with Brandt & Kirkpatrick, whom he married at city hall in New York City on December 27, 1927, and who successfully edited and marketed his books. She was his apparent antithesis — Jewish and a liberal Democrat — but their marriage lasted successfully until both died in 1978. Except for military service during World War II, the Cozzenses lived in semi-seclusion near Lambertville, New Jersey and shied away from all but local contact. Other early novels include S.S. San Pedro (1931), The Last Adam (1933), and Castaway (1934).
Cozzens received O. Henry Awards for his short stories "A Farewell to Cuba" (1931) and "Total Stranger", published in The Saturday Evening Post on February 15, 1936, then went on to author two more highly regarded novels, Ask Me Tomorrow (1941), and The Just and the Unjust (1942).
During World War II, Cozzens served in the U.S. Army Air Forces, at first updating manuals, then in the USAAF Office of Information Services, a liaison and "information clearinghouse" between the military and the civilian press. One of the functions of his office was in controlling news, and it became Cozzens’ job to defuse situations potentially embarrassing to the Chief of the Army Air Forces, Gen. Henry H. Arnold. In the course of his job he became arguably the best informed officer of any rank and service in the nation, a major by the end of the war. These experiences formed the basis of his 1948 novel Guard of Honor, which won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize.
His 1957 novel By Love Possessed became a surprise runaway hit, with 34 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list, reaching Number One on September 22, 1957, three weeks after its release. (It was also the top-selling novel of 1957. See List of 1957 bestsellers.) The novel was also very loosely adapted into a film in 1961 starring Lana Turner.
In 1958, he relocated to another country home near Williamstown, Massachusetts. From 1960 to 1966 Cozzens was on the Harvard Board of Overseers' Visiting Committee for the English Department. His last novel, Morning, Noon and Night, was published in 1968 but sold poorly.
James and Bernice Cozzens spent their last years in relative obscurity in Martin County, Florida, where they lived in Rio, but used a Stuart post office box as their address. She died on January 30, 1978. Suffering from spinal cancer, he died of pneumonia on August 9, 1978, at Martin Memorial Hospital in Stuart.
Style and themes
Philosophical in nature, his novels take place over the course of just a few days, exhibit little action, and explore a variety of concepts such as love, duty, racial sensitivities, and the law. Cozzens' novels disregarded modernist literary trends, and are characterized by the use of often unfamiliar, archaic words, traditional literary structures, and conservative themes. As a result many contemporary critics regarded his work as old-fashioned or moralistic, and he was viciously attacked as a reactionary by his harshest critics.
His prose is crafted meticulously and has an objective, clinical tone and subtle, dry humor. His work is at times complex, using multi-level layering and double voicing as narrative techniques for expressing viewpoint. The central figures in his books are primarily professional, middle-class white men — assistant district attorney Abner Coates in The Just and the Unjust, doctor George Bull in The Last Adam, Episcopal priest Ernest Cudlipp in Men and Brethren, U.S. Army Air Forces Colonel Norman Ross in Guard of Honor, and lawyer Arthur Winner in By Love Possessed, for example — who confront issues such as duty and ethics in their careers while at the same time attempting to reconcile these with the emotional demands of their personal lives, usually by compromising their principles. In almost every instance they are also archetypes of persons he observed in his own experience.
His biographer, Matthew Bruccoli, in describing the style of By Love Possessed, also identified characteristics of his mature works (particularly Guard of Honor), characteristics that reached their peak in the best-seller:
...long sentences, frequent use of parenthetical constructions, rhetorical questions, elaborate parallelism, inclusion of unfamiliar words, unacknowledged (classical) quotations, ironically intended word choices, a habit of following a formal statement with a clarifying or deflating colloquialism, polyptoton (repetition of a word in different cases and inflections, as in “result’s result”), inverted word order, double negatives, the custom of defining a word or providing alternatives for it, and periodic sentences in which the meaning becomes clear at the end. The effect of these conjoined elements can be a deliberate density of expression...
A famous quote said by James Cozzens was "I have no theme except that people get a very raw deal from life."
Cozzens eschewed both fame and publicity, to the point that he publicly stated he would refuse a Nobel Prize when speculation that he was under consideration became prominent. In 1957, however, he broke with his long-standing penchant for privacy (for which he was dubbed "the Garbo of U.S. letters" in the article that resulted) and granted Time magazine an interview, over the objections of his wife, as the basis for its cover article of September 2, 1957, marking the release of By Love Possessed, for which Cozzens had been nominated for a second Pulitzer.
Short-story writer and critic Patrick J. Murphy wrote that Cozzens' responses during the interview were verbalizations of his writing style: often tongue-in-cheek, using parody and sarcasm, quoting other works without attribution, and punctuated by laughter. As sometimes happened with his prose, this style did not translate well into print, and the results were further distorted because the information seemed to be gathered by one reporter but the article written by someone different.
An immediate barrage of readers' letters followed and were published, attacking Cozzens as being a snob, an elitist, anti-Catholic, racist and sexist -- criticisms that were soon picked up by acerbic critics including Irving Howe, Frederick Crews, and Dwight Macdonald. Cozzens also became a symbol of "The Establishment" and the antithesis of the growing counterculture of the 1960s because his works negatively portrayed or lampooned those against authority and "the system".
Detractors painted Cozzens as a hardcore political and religious conservative, though he was never politically minded nor strongly religious. His attempts to counter this incorrect image met with little success, and he soon forfeited whatever fan base he gained from By Love Possessed. His reputation was further lambasted in 1968 by critics (in particular John Updike) of his final book, Morning, Noon, and Night, written for a youthful audience that had no interest in structured, complex style or themes that favored the notion of societal stability.
As a result, sales of all his books suffered, and Cozzens has virtually disappeared from the American literary scene.
Works about James Gould Cozzens
The Novels of James Gould Cozzens Frederick Bracher, Harcourt Brace, 1959
James Gould Cozzens, A Time of War: Air Force Diaries and Pentagon Memos 1943–45 Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, Harvard University, 1984
James Gould Cozzens: A Descriptive Bibliography Matthew J. Bruccoli University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981
James Gould Cozzens: A Checklist Compiled by James B. Merriwether, Matthew J. Bruccoli and C.E. Frazer Clark, 1972
Cozzens (Writers and Critics) Desmond Ernest Stewart Maxwell, Oliver & Boyd, 1964