Friday, August 19, 2011
Birthday Today - James Gould Cozzens
Almost completely forgotten, Cozzens, born today in 1903, was one of the great novelists of the mid-century, a writer of what I would call "high middlebrow" novels, novels that weren't experimental in form, but which told complex stories about serious themes that mattered to adults. His best works begin with The Just and the Unjust (1942), a novel about a young lawyer that uses the backdrop of a murder trial to examine the mores and relationships within a small town. It has the single wisest line I can remember from fiction, where the young lawyer is balking at having to seek the support of a somewhat shady businessman for election to DA, and the older man, the businessman, tells him, "you wouldn't worry so much about what people think about you, kid, if you realized that most of the time they aren't thinking about you."
After The Just and the Unjust, Cozzens, like most adult men, went into the service for World War II. Cozzens ended up writing (not surprisingly) for the Office of Information Services, digesting reports from the services and collating them (and censoring them) for distribution to the press. He ended the war as a major, then turned his wartime experiences into his best book, Guard of Honor, about an Army Air Corps base in 1944 in Alabama. It's the single best novel I've read about World War II, and deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 (over, I might add, Norman Mailer's more celebrated World War II book, The Naked and the Dead).
Cozzens last great book was the unfortunately titled By Love Possessed (1957), which landed him on the cover of Time, and was a huge bestseller. In it, he returns again to the subject of a small town lawyer, but this time his central character is a mature man dealing with weighty responsibilities, at work, at home, and in his community. It's a great book, and it's central character, Arthur Winner, is both very wise and very sad. I'd describe it as a great 19th century novel written with a 20th century sensibility about adult themes that mattered a great deal to the men and women who had lived through the hard times of the Great Depression and World War II.
Cozzens very soon fell out of favor -- his political conservatism led many left-wing critics to find reasons to revile him -- but the contrast of his adult themes (responsibility, judgment, prudence, decision-making in a contingent world, loyalty, family, child-rearing, marriage, death) with the silliness of much of the literature of the 1960s is stark. I like Cozzens a lot better, and believe he should be read much more widely. Unfortunately, with the left dominating the groves of academe, it's unlikely that he will be. (I taught Guard of Honor to a college class once; needless to say, they were too young to get it.)