The greying, handsome man, a novelist by trade, sat in a New Jersey inn, talking amiably with two companions and sipping his favorite drink, an ice-cold, bone-dry martini with lemon peel. An animated party of four came in and sat down at the next table. The handsome man shifted uneasily. Beads of sweat pebbled his forehead as he stole a shy half-glance at the strangers. Abruptly, like a swimmer surfacing for a gasp of air, he got up, grabbed his drink and pivoted toward an untenanted dining area in the rear, taking his tablemates in tow with the muttered words: "Let's eat in the back and get away from these people."
James Gould Cozzens, 54, whose latest novel, By Love Possessed, is published this week, has spent much of his life getting away from people. He is the Garbo of U.S. letters. He devoutly wishes to be left alone, and critics and readers alike have obliged him to the point of neglect. After a writing span of more than three decades, during which he produced an even dozen novels, Cozzens is the least known and least discussed of major American novelists. Any two people, on discovering that they are both Cozzens fans, are apt to hail each other fervently, like members of a secret society.
Yet four of Cozzens' books have carried at least one mark of popular recognitionselection by the Book-of-the-Month Club: S. S. San Pedro (1931), The Last Adam (1933), The Just and the Unjust (1942), and now By Love Possessed. Still another novel, Guard of Honor, won the Pulitzer Prize for 1948. Nevertheless, the hardcover sales of all Cozzens' books combined (140,000) lag well behind that current dreary splash in a small-town sex sump, Peyton Place (250,000 copies). The interior decorators of U.S. lettersthe little-magazine critics whose favorite furniture is the pigeonholefind that Cozzens fits no recent fictional compartments, and usually pretend that he does not exist. This is particularly puzzling because no U.S. writer has rooted his novels more solidly in the American scene than Cozzens, or has more painstakingly portrayed the complex professional strongholds of a complex countrymedicine, the clergy, the law, the military.
The Man in Gloves. Some of the neglect may be traced to the man himself. "I'm a hermit and I have no friends," says Cozzens candidly. 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 farm near Lambertville, N.J. (pop. 5,000). It is 17 years since he and his wife saw a movie, more than 20 since they went to the theater, to a concert or an art gallery. Years sometimes elapse between dinner guests.