Commentary Magazine

Article Preview

By Cozzens Possessed:
A Review of Reviews

- Abstract

The most alarming literary news in years is the enormous success of James Gould Cozzens’ By Love Possessed. It sold 170,000 copies in the first six weeks of publication—more than all eleven of the author’s previous novels put together. At this writing, it has been at the top of the best-seller lists for two months. Hollywood and the Reader’s Digest have paid $100,000 apiece for the privilege of wreaking their wills upon it. And the New Yorker published a cartoon—one matron to another: “I was looking forward to a few weeks of just doing nothing after Labor Day when along came James Gould Cozzens.”

There’s nothing new in all this—after all, something has to be the No. 1 Best-Seller at any given moment. What is new appears if one considers Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, which was at the top for a full year, before By Love Possessed displaced it. Peyton Place is a familiar kind of best-seller, a pedestrian job, an artifact rather than a work of art (putting it mildly) that owes its popularity to nothing more subtle than a remarkably heavy charge of Sex; perhaps its best-known predecessor is Forever Amber, fabricated a decade ago by another notably untalented lady. But Cozzens is not of the company of Kathleen Winsor, Edna Ferber, Daphne Du Maurier, Lloyd C. Douglas, and other such humble, though well-paid, artisans. Nor can he be “placed” at the middle level of best-sellerdom, that of writers like Herman Wouk, John Hersey, and Irwin Shaw, nor even (perhaps) on the empyrean heights occupied by Marquand and Stein-beck. He is a “serious” writer, and never more serious than in this book. That so uncompromising a work, written in prose of an artificiality and complexity that approaches the impenetrable—indeed often achieves it—that this should have become what the publishers gloatingly call “a runaway best-seller” is something new. How do those matrons cope with it, I wonder. Perhaps their very innocence in literary matters is a help—an Australian aboriginal would probably find Riders of the Purple Sage as hard to read as The Golden Bowl.

About the Author