(5 of 10)
All of this has been plotted with such skill that the tantalizing question arises why this good novel never becomes the great novel it intermittently promises to be. One drawback is the style. Cozzens has always favored a glass-pane purity that does not intrude between reader and story. This time the glass is frosted with parenthetical clauses, humpbacked syntax, Jamesian involutions. Faulknerian meanderings. Cozzens, the man in gloves who likes to put the distance that lends disenchantment between himself and his characters, is so coolly the observer here that he puts the reader at a double distance, watching Cozzens watch his characters. Pity, which is Cozzens' mode of compassion, is too condescending a virtue to replace the needed fellow-suffering identification with the book's creatures. Finally. people analyzed as relentlessly as Cozzens analyzes his tend to become transparent; the Ahabs and Karamazovs of fiction survive because they are strangely opaque.
None of these shortcomings will keep By Love Possessed from being the best American novel of the year, or alter the fact that it is well worth reading. It is an education to know Arthur Winner, an education into which Novelist Cozzens has poured everything that 54 years of life have taught and made of him.
Writing for Mother. The education of James Gould Cozzens began with a baptism of family pride so drenching as to turn Cozzens into a lifetime "natural-born snob." Born in 1903 in a place he would not have chosen ("Whoever was born in Chicago? It used to embarrass me like hell at school''). Cozzens was an only child. Young Jim grew up in Staten Island at St. Austin's Place, "which was quite nice thenwoods and fields." Before that, the Cozzens clan were New-porters. Cozzens' great-grandfather was mayor of Newport and governor of Rhode Island during the Civil War. His mother's ancestors were Connecticut Tories who fled to Nova Scotia during the American Revolution. Says Cozzens: "They felt they were high quality because they hadn't given in. They inculcated this feeling in me, so, to tell the truth, I still feel I'm better than other people."
Jimmy attended Staten Island Academy: "The public school was full of kids with dirty germs; naturally, Mother wouldn't dream of having me go there." A classmate remembers Jimmy as "a frail little boy in short pants and blue serge suits who was smart as a whip. He never played marbles or tops or touch football. He would stand and watch. At noon we would play softball in the alley, and when we went in after lunch, we would be sweaty and dirty and rumpled. But there was our Jimmy, all neat and clean and full of answers. He would gladden the heart of any mother."
Mrs. Cozzens was something of a stage mother. Says Cozzens' maternal uncle: "She started training him from the time he was old enough to think. I believe she would have liked to write herself, but didn't feel she had the ability, and decided he was going to do it for her. Whenever they went anywhere, his mother would get him to write it downsort of a little essay about whatever they did or saw. I don't think he ever had anything on his mind except writing."