WHEN IT WAS published thirty years ago, Majority writer James Gould Cozzens’ Guard of Honor received a few glowing reviews and won for its author a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. But it was not accorded a fraction of the acclaim and publicity lavished on two other novels of World War II published the same year — both by Jewish writers — Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions.
Reading the three books today, the discerning reader finds the latter two novels to be little more than crude morality plays, devoted in substantial measure to portraying Majority Americans and their institutions as malignantly fascistic. Turning to Guard of Honor, one finds a mature, complex and superbly designed work of a quality head and shoulders above most American fiction of the last three decades. The reader also notes that Cozzens (pictured) is a novelist — all too rare even among Majority writers — who believes our people’s character, traditions and institutions should be preserved and defended, not subjected to liberal-minority reconstruction.
A central strand in Guard of Honor is a racial episode at a Florida air base. A white pilot breaks the jaw of a black pilot whose panicky flying has nearly caused a midair collision. Some of the Negro’s fellow airmen, egged on by leftwing junior officers, attempt to make racial capital out of the incident at the expense of the war effort. But both black and white plotters are finessed and thwarted by the novel’s protagonist, Colonel Ross. A Northerner and a judge in civilian life, Ross is not without sympathy for Negroes. “Yet, instructed by experience” — and here Cozzens obviously speaks for himself — “Ross had a gloomy working knowledge of what to expect when your fellow man’s face was black.” Cozzens-Ross is something less than a racial chauvinist. “Every day the white man’s greed and folly proved that. . . he was not clever; he was not strong; he was not good; he was nobody’s born master. All he was, was, to a black man’s sorrow and his shame, a little too much for most black men.”
Cozzens is a social and political conservative — he once described himself as illiberal” — and Guard of Honor is a cogent dramatization of his views. From the literary standpoint, it is quite simply a major novel, masterfully crafted and engrossingly readable.
(Usually the most careful of writers, Cozzens lapses into anachronism when he pokes fun at the Negro penchant for bestowing the names of the famous on their offspring. A minor character in the novel, a Negro first sergeant, has the given names Charles Augustus Lindbergh — only some 16 years after the Lone Eagle’s flight made him a household name.)
The extent to which the lack of equalitarian sentiment in Guard of Honor hurt it with the critical fraternity cannot be gauged. But it is a fact that Cozzens, born in 1903, was an established novelist who had produced an important book that merited much more attention than it received.
Rather ingenuously the critic Malcolm Cowley, speaking in 1965, said the shameful neglect of Cozzens led to
a reviewer’s bad conscience, which was almost universal among the daily and weekly reviewers….They had all decided that Cozzens hadn’t had a square shake, that Guard of Honor was a much more important book than they had thought. …and that earlier books of his like The Just and the Unjust were important, too, and hadn’t been adequately recognized. So…it was easy to predict that the critics would try to atone for past errors in regard to Cozzens by reviewing his next book favorably.
Cowley was right. Cozzens’ next book By Love Possessed (1957) was indeed widely and favorably reviewed and became a popular success. Conscience may have played a part in the critical response, but the friendly notices were certainly not impeded by the fact that the novel is an indictment, though a reluctant and regretful one, of the Majority. In any case, the author’s season of glory was soon dimmed, and no doubt shortened, by a vicious Time cover story. Malcolm Cowley has described the process by which the Time article became a hatchet job:
Cozzens and the [Time] interviewer had a lot of drinks together. When the interviewer got back to New York, he said, “Well, I got an awful lot of stuff from Cozzens, but it’s not stuff we can print.” But there was a snide editor at Time, and he not only used the mean stuff that Cozzens had said between drinks, but he made it even worse. Cozzens had made a couple of cracks that sounded anti-Semitic. This was a very important point for its effect on later comments about the book.
Cowley does not elaborate on this last remark and we can only draw inferences. In By Love Possessed Cozzens depicts a Jewish lawyer turned Episcopalian. It is a detached, coolly objective portrait to which little exception can be taken. But to brand the author as privately anti-Jewish can serve the dual purpose of “proving” that the portrait is ipso facto anti-Semitic and warning all Majority novelists that they had better depict Jews in only the most flattering light. (Twenty years later, writers hardly need such warnings, since it is now an unwritten rule that minority characters be treated with a maximum of sympathy and a minimum of realism.)
The Cozzens case was further complicated, Cowley tells us, by the fact that the writer “has a Jewish wife to whom he has always been devoted.” This circumstance did not deter the Time editor, and when he “got done with rewriting the interview, it sounded as though Cozzens was being anti-Semitic even about his wife.”
Out of all this at least one thing is clear. Racial concerns were on Cozzens’ mind, for in By Love Possessed he gives them lucid and often eloquent expression. The book is a study of Majority decline, a decline the writer sees rooted in the failure of our professional castes, our leaders, to adhere to our best traditions of honor and reason. The novel’s leading figure is a middle-aged small-town lawyer and pillar of the community, Arthur Winner. The surname is ironic, for in the course of the three days covered in the book Winner must face the fact that he is a moral loser, a man whose integrity is fatally compromised. He has betrayed one law partner — and close friend — by committing adultery with the man’s wife. The third partner in the law firm has been secretly juggling trust funds, and to avoid ruin, Winner must become a party to embezzlement.
Like Colonel Ross in Guard of Honor, Julius Penrose, the crippled partner whom Winner has cuckolded, is a prototypical man of reason who serves as Cozzens’ Majority spokesman. Sparing no one (himself included), he gives a clear and unblinking assessment of his circle’s moral decline. And he makes absolutely explicit the book’s subsidiary theme — the double standards obtaining in religious, ethnic and racial debates.
I’ll confess I wonder why the only people who may be openly criticized, found fault with, and spoken ill of, are those of white, Protestant, and more or less Nordic extraction. I, it seems, am game and fair game for everybody…Nobody writes the papers threateningly when I’m decried or disparaged. I don’t say this is unreasonable. I myself have no wish to abridge any man’s right not to like me if he so chooses. Only, in my bewildered way, I keep thinking there ought to be a turnabout. There isn’t! Not only may each bumptious Catholic freely rate and abuse me if I reflect in the least on his faith; but each self-pitying Jew, each sulking Negro, need only holler that he’s caught me not loving him as much as he loves himself, and a rabble of professional friends of man, social-worker liberals, and practitioners of universal brotherhood — the whole national horde of nuts and queers — will come at a run to hang me by the neck until I learn to love.
The somewhat ornate prose of By Love Possessed is not to every reader’s taste. Nor is the 570-page book free of some overly protracted passages. But it is an absorbing, beautifully structured work — Malcolm Cowley rightly deemed Cozzens “the best architect in contemporary fiction” — and it offers a host of insights as to how the Majority reached its present pass.
Cozzens’ next novel, and the last to be published, was Morning Noon and Night (1968). It is, for him, a relatively slack and plotless work which takes the form of the reminiscences and reflections of an elderly management consultant. The acid comments on literary and wartime politics shed light on the corruption of both. Perhaps of greater interest is the consultant’s recounting of his scholar grandfather’s battle with the Freudians. In a monograph pointing out the flaws in Freudian psychology, the scholar had noted that Freud and his disciples “were almost to a man of Jewish extraction”; he had then gone on to observe that Freudian theory was “distincitvely Jewish.”
The scholar’s remarks make him the target of hysterical vituperation in liberal journals and in letters to the editor “which bore mostly Jewish names.”
I find diatribes like these [writes the consultant] of special interest. Their methodology is by and large one of misrepresentation, and for this purpose a good deal of recourse is had to quotings out of context. …Wonderful to observe are the twists of sense and even total reversals of meaning to be effected….simply through deleting….When excerpts from pieces published by my grandfather were subjected to nice work of this kind I think no one reading the results would deny that as a writer he comes out sounding less than literate, and as a thinker a perfect fool. …
Quite unconscious of having written anything derogatory about their ‘religion,’ or of Jews as a race, he could miss the meaning of venom that said so clearly here was no technical argument over disputed psychological hypotheses …. He had assigned them by implication at least a difference, indicated that he thought of them as another breed, not like himself and his fellow gentiles. He touches a very sore spot.
Any reader aware that Cozzens in his work “touches some very sore spots” strongly suspects that the novelist deals here with his own adversaries and not those of a fictional grandfather.
A recent and representative example of the ostensibly disinterested treatment Cozzens receives at the hands of minority critics is the section Alfred Kazin allots to the novelist in Bright Book of Life (1973). Cozzens’ portion is a mixture one part negative literary criticism, one part racial quotes out of context, and one part complacent satisfaction at “the peevishness of the WASP at bay.” (Kazin’s latest book is the autobiographical New York Jew, the title of which, as they said a few years back, lets it all hang out.)
James Gould Cozzens has given us a body of first-rate work distinguished by craftsmanship and high intelligence. His books, especially Guard of Honor, deserve far more readers than they have. But so long as our culture is shaped and our taste dictated by liberal-minority commissars, Cozzens and Majority novelists like him are going to be on the short end of the critic’s stick. When the Hatfields are in command, there is small profit in praising the McGoys.
Note: Cozzens, who died last August, is on an impressive roster of Majority writers who have been in various ways attracted to Jewish women. Jack London collaborated on a book with a young Russian Jewess and was for a brief spell in love with her. Thomas Wolfe had a long, stormy affair with Aline Bernstein, a New York theatrical designer nearly old enough to be his mother. Ernest Hemingway began as a disciple of Gertrude Stein. Curiously, enough, or perhaps not so curiously, given the volatile chemistry of human feeling, these four writers also have in common a high degree of race consciousness and pronounced ethnocentric views.
Worthy of mention too are a pair of Majority writers who started in pulp fiction but eventually became cult figures. H. P. Lovecraft, a recluse and eccentric famous for his tales of horror, was a thoroughgoing anti-Semite, but nevertheless married a Jewish woman. Whodunit writer Dashiell Hammett entered into a close, 30-year relationship with the Stalinist playwright, movie hack and memoirist Lillian Hellman. Within a short time he had ceased writing and ultimately gave himself up to alcoholism and communism.
In a forthcoming issue of Instauration we will further explore the subject of Jewish wives or mistresses of noted non-Jews authors, writers, composers, politicians, scientists and social scientists.
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Source: Instauration magazine, December 1978