May 10, 2010

It’s always stimulating to discover a quality writer you didn’t know before. For a conservative, it’s doubly stimulating if the discoveree is of the same persuasion. And in an age when the middlebrow novel is as close to extinction as…well, as the Book of the Month Club, a conservative middlebrow novelist is water in the desert, even if the author in question has been dead for 32 years.

This all started with an offhand comment in my own recent book where I grumble about the death of literature. To illustrate my point I tally the numbers of novelists who made the cover of Time magazine, decade by decade back to the beginning of Time (March 3, 1923).

For the 1950s I count seven: Boris Pasternak, James Cozzens (no, me neither), Herman Wouk, André Malraux, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Cary, and Graham Greene…

That sly parenthesis moved one reader to email in plaintively: “Is James Gould Cozzens really so completely forgotten?”

Well, not by me: as the parenthesis indicated, I had never heard of him. You can’t forget what you never knew. I am shameless in my ignorance, too. No, that’s not Brit-lit snobbery, though there certainly is, or was, such a thing. (Evelyn Waugh: “Is he [Edmund Wilson] an American?” Interviewer: “Yes.” Waugh: “I don’t think what they have to say is of much interest, do you?”) In the literature of countries other than his own, only the most precociously bookish young person gets very far beyond a few marked classics; and when no longer young, who that is not a literary professional has the time?

I might have carried my ignorance to the grave had not an American friend, at almost precisely the same time as that reader email came in, mentioned Cozzens in a conversation about the recent scandals in the Catholic Church. He recommended Cozzens’ 1936 novel Men and Brethren in this context, and on general literary grounds. I promptly ordered a copy and have just finished it.

Men and Brethren is a clergyman novel, the principal character an Episcopal minister in 1930s New York City. This got my attention right away. Inexplicably for an unbeliever, I enjoy clerical novels. The gold standard here is Trollope, but there have been others. Some years ago I got hooked on the Catholic novelist J.F. Powers, whose stories mostly concern the priesthood. When Powers died in 1999, I was just finishing a very pleasurable romp through his œuvre (which is not bulky: two novels, three short story collections). I had actually written a letter of appreciation to him after reading Morte D’Urban, and received a friendly response—possibly the last thing he wrote. Further back, I had laughed with the rest of novel-reading England at Auberon Waugh’s Consider the Lilies, though all I can recall of it now is a scene in which the clergyman protagonist gets stuck on the roof of his house.

“Cozzens came through as a conservative pessimist with the cool, unillusioned view of human nature I find strongly appealing—as in Somerset Maugham, or indeed Trollope. There is no trace of sentimentality, not even of the kind that hides itself behind literary tricks—fake irony or “colorful” minor characters.”

I thus started out well-disposed to the book. As I read on, my disposition only got better. Cozzens came through as a conservative pessimist with the cool, unillusioned view of human nature I find strongly appealing—as in Somerset Maugham, or indeed Trollope. There is no trace of sentimentality, not even of the kind that hides itself behind literary tricks—fake irony or “colorful” minor characters.

The world of the book—as much of the world as is visible in a story spanning twenty-four hours and a few New York City blocks—is a real one, faithfully drawn, though now as dead as the antebellum South. It is the world of the old WASP ascendancy. Yes, yes, I know: complacency, ethnic and religious snobbery, genteel antisemitism, racial condescension… We all know the charge sheet. That was America, though, and there were credits to go with the debits, most notably a strong sense of duty and responsibility.

Conflicts of duty—to his superiors, his flock, his Savior, his friends—dominate the actions of Ernest, the clerical protagonist in Men and Brethren. In one scene an upper-middle-class female parishioner, married with children, confesses she is pregnant by a feckless young writer. After talking her out of suicide, Ernest procures an abortion for her, considering that maintaining the integrity of her family is his primary duty to both Christ and the tribe. He tells her: “You were born with almost every good thing. There is invested in you the hope and faith of a decent, dutiful people for a future of decency and duty…”

An internet search has turned up some scattered biographical references to Cozzens, including the story behind that Time cover. They hold no surprises. Born in 1903, Cozzens was of old Anglo-Protestant stock on both sides—one great-grandfather was Governor of Rhode Island. At 24 he married his literary agent, who was a liberal Democrat, and Jewish—“Mother almost died.” The marriage, which was childless, lasted till his death 51 years later.

After service in WW2 Cozzens became an utter recluse, rarely straying from his farm in remotest New Jersey. Says the Time story: “Cozzens… has spent much of his life getting away from people… It is 17 years since he and his wife saw a movie… Years sometimes elapse between dinner guests…” He was frank about his prejudices and misanthropy. Since he seems never to have forced them on anyone, why should he not have been?

I suppose it is not very surprising that Cozzens is as out of favor as it is possible for a writer to be. Neither my excellent suburban library nor my local independent bookstore has any of his books, nor a biography. Yet Cozzens won a Pulitzer for Guard of Honor (1948) and was spoken of for a Nobel. By Love Possessed (1957) was a huge best-seller.

Here is an elegant, honest, fastidious writer, swept to oblivion by changing tastes, by a national turn to the sentimental narcissism he loathed. I have placed orders for both those books.


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