James Gould Cozzens

James Gould Cozzens bigraphy, stories - Novelist, short story writer

James Gould Cozzens : biography

August 19, 1903 – August 9, 1978

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

He is often grouped today with his contemporaries John O’Hara and John P. Marquand, but his work is generally considered more challenging. Despite initial critical acclaim, his popularity came gradually. 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, "I can’t read ten pages of Steinbeck without throwing up."


Cozzens eschewed both fame and publicity, to the point that he publicly stated he would refuse a Nobel Prize when speculation that he was under consideration became prominent. In 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.

Short-story writer and critic Patrick J. Murphy wroteMurphy, Patrick J. (2004) that Cozzens’ responses during the interview were verbalizations of his writing style: often tongue-in-cheek, 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 picked up by acerbic 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 painted Cozzens as a hardcore political and religious conservative, though he was never politically minded nor strongly 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 in 1968 by critics (in particular John Updike) of his final book, Morning, Noon, and Night, written for a youthful audience that had no interest in structured, complex style or themes that favored the notion of societal stability.

As a result, sales of all his books suffered, and Cozzens has virtually disappeared from the American literary scene; he remains, however, fairly well known among those familiar with the literary criticism of George Steiner, John Derbyshire, and Matthew Bruccoli, all of whom have described his work in laudatory tones.


  • Bruccoli, Matthew J. (1983) James Gould Cozzens, A Life Apart. Harcourt Brace. ISBN 0151460485.
  • . September 2, 1957. TIME.

Style and themes

Philosophical in nature, his novels take place over 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 central figures in 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, U.S. Army Air Forces Colonel 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 at the same time attempting to reconcile these with the emotional demands of their personal lives, usually by compromising their principles. In almost every instance they are also archetypes of persons he observed in his own experience.