James Gould Cozzens

James Gould Cozzens (August 19, 1903 – August 9, 1978) was an American novelist and short story writer.

James Gould Cozzens
Born(1903-08-19)August 19, 1903
Chicago, Illinois, United States
DiedAugust 9, 1978(1978-08-09) (aged 74)
Stuart, Florida, United States
Notable worksGuard of Honor
By Love Possessed

He drew critical acclaim early, but did not achieve popularity until well into his career. Some of his later works were controversial among critics.

Today he is often grouped with his contemporaries John O'Hara and John P. Marquand, but his work is generally considered more challenging. His biographer Matthew Bruccoli, in describing the style of the best seller By Love Possessed, noted the following qualities in Cozzens' prose:

... 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 ...

Cozzens was a critic of modernism, and of realism more leftist than his own, and he was quoted in a featured article in Time as saying (perhaps somewhat in jest), "I can't read ten pages of Steinbeck without throwing up."

Biographical background

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 William C. Cozzens, a governor of Rhode Island. His 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 Confusion, his first novel, in 1924. A few months later, ill and in debt, he withdrew from school and moved to New Brunswick, where he wrote Michael Scarlett, a second novel. Neither book sold well or 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. They had no children. 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.[1] 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 wrote 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's job to defuse situations potentially embarrassing to Gen. Henry H. Arnold, the chief of the Army Air Forces. In the course of his job, he became arguably the best informed officer of any rank and service in the U.S., and he had achieved the rank of major by the time he was discharged at 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 success, with 34 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list, rating #1 on September 22, 1957, three weeks after its release. It was also the top-selling novel of 1957. The novel was also very loosely adapted into a movie in 1961. By that time, however, a hostile review of the novel which Dwight Macdonald wrote for Commentary Magazine had already effectively ruined Cozzens's literary career, and few of his later works either received similar critical acclaim or achieved comparable best-seller status.

During 1958, he relocated to another country home near Williamstown, Massachusetts. Cozzens was on the Harvard Board of Overseers's Visiting Committee for the English Department from 1960 to 1966. His last novel, Morning, Noon and Night, was published in 1968, but it 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. After Bernice's death in January 1978, Cozzens's health deteriorated rapidly. He died on August 9, 1978 of complications from spinal cancer and pneumonia, 10 days short of his 74th birthday.

Style and themes

Philosophical in nature, his novels take place during 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 main characters of 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, Col. 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 attempting to reconcile these principles with the emotional demands of their personal lives, usually by compromising their principles. In almost every instance, they are based on persons he observed in his own experience.

Cozzens once said, "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 stated publicly he would refuse a Nobel Prize when speculation that he was being considered for one became prominent. During 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 (he had already won the Pulitzer for "Guard of Honor" in 1949).

Short story writer and critic Patrick J. Murphy wrote[2] that Cozzens' responses during the interview were verbalizations of his writing style: often 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 used by 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 described Cozzens as a hardcore political and religious conservative; in fact, he was largely apolitical and not particularly 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 during 1968 by critics (in particular John Updike) of his final book, Morning, Noon, and Night, which had a nearly unreadable style (even by the author's usual standards) and a protagonist that was not interesting or compelling.

As a result, sales of all his books suffered, and Cozzens has become virtually unknown to the general public; he remains, however, fairly well known among those familiar with the literary criticism of George Steiner,[3] John Derbyshire, and Matthew Bruccoli, all of whom have praised his work.

Selected works

  • 1924 Confusion
  • 1925 Michael Scarlett
  • 1928 Cock Pit
  • 1929 The Son of Perdition
  • 1931 S.S. San Pedro
  • 1933 The Last Adam
  • 1933 A Cure of Flesh
  • 1934 Castaway
  • 1936 Men and Brethren
  • 1940 Ask Me Tomorrow
  • 1942 The Just and the Unjust
  • 1948 Guard of Honor
  • 1957 By Love Possessed
  • 1964 Children and Others, a volume of short stories
  • 1968 Morning, Noon, and Night (Harcourt Trade Publishers).
  • 1976 A Rope for Doctor Webster

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.


  1. Staff. "The Hermit of Lambertville", Time (magazine), September 2, 1957, accessed April 29, 2007. "For almost a quarter-century, except for a three-year stint writing manuals and speeches in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Cozzens has not stirred much beyond the neighborhood of his fieldstone house and 124-acre (0.50 km2) farm near Lambertville, N.J. (pop. 5,000)."
  2. Murphy, Patrick J. (2004) ""The Price of Fame: Two Instructive Accounts"". Archived from the original on November 9, 2004. Retrieved 2012-12-22.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  3. Saari, Jon (October 28, 1984). "Letter to the Editor". New York Times.


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