James Gould Cozzens at 109

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.

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James Gould Cozzens at 109

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