James Gould Cozzens, perhaps America’s best forgotten novelist, was born 109 years ago today in Chicago. The excellence of at least three of his novels, Castaway (1934), The Just and the Unjust (1942), and especially Guard of Honor (1948), is not diminished by the fact that most contemporary readers will remember Cozzens, if at all, from Dwight Macdonald’s infamous COMMENTARY essay “By Cozzens Possessed,” the deadliest critical hit job in history. Ironically enough, COMMENTARY was also the venue in which Joseph Epstein sought, a quarter center later, to resuscitate Cozzens’s reputation:
The more impressive of Cozzens’s novels fall well outside the mainstream of modernist fiction. He does not go in for wild invention. In a mature James Gould Cozzens novel a cause has effects, effects ignite further causes, which in turn light up other effects. If you happen to believe that this is how life works—as, it happens, I do—then James Gould Cozzens may be for you. If you don’t, then perhaps you would do better to consider the problems of modern reading in the novels of Italo Calvino or set off on a tour of ancient Egypt with Norman Mailer.
Not a stirring recommendation. As Epstein himself might have said it otherwise, “One cheer for Cozzens!” The resuscitation failed.
I have a soft spot for Cozzens, because he is indirectly guilty for my own choice of a literary career. As a kid, I was mockingly called “the family lawyer,” because I would argue the case of my younger brother and sisters when they got in trouble. I must have been in the sixth grade — I hadn’t yet gone on to junior high school — when I decided that maybe my parents were right about me, after all. I wrote to the Harvard Law School for advice. In reply, I received a reading list. On it was Cozzens’s The Just and the Unjust, a novel about a murder trial that focused almost exclusively (almost exhaustively) on the lawyers. Their work, I mean — not their personalities and back stories and romances. The novel spans just three days, but it is crowded with the effort involved in prosecuting, defending, and judging a case. By the end, the main character — an assistant district attorney — is deeply tired, “not physically in a way to make him sleepy, but in the protracted drain of nervous energy.” That really was Cozzens’s subject: how men and women drain themselves with rewarding work. I could see why Harvard Law had recommended the novel: no better account of a lawyer’s day-to-day responsibilities could be imagined. But I preferred the accounting to the responsibilities.
Castaway is a puzzling and suspenseful tale of a man trapped in a deserted modern department store. Cozzens begins by quoting from Robinson Crusoe, and in similar fashion, his hero must carve out an existence on an island of commerce, which contains little to sustain a human life. Guard of Honor is Cozzens’s masterpiece. The sociologist Robert A. Nisbet once told the New York Times, when asked to name the postwar books most likely to achieve literary immortality, that Lolita and Guard of Honor both express “something distinctive and important about our age.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a World War II novel, but a novel about the war behind the lines. It examines the effects of integration upon the U.S. Army Air Force over just 48 hours at a base in Florida. It is not a novel of combat, but of professionalism: the USAAF officers in the novel are at work, on problems serious and trivial.
“There are two species of novelist,” as my friend William Giraldi says in this morning’s New York Times Book Review: “one writes as if the world is a known locale that requires dutiful reporting, the other as if the world has yet to be made.” Cozzens belongs to the league of the former — the meticulous realists — but he makes you realize that a “known locale” is not really known after all, because really knowing it requires a protracted drain of nervous energy.