Aimez-Vous Brahmins?

Aimez-vous Brahmins? by Stanley Kauffmann 119

Pink Badge of Courage by Justin Kaplan 121

The Volunteer Fireman by Charles Nicol 123

Shoot-up in Detroit by Stephen Schlesinger 124

The Peripatetic Reviewer by Edward Weeks 127

The Revolt of the Composers by Carter Harman 129

Short Reviews: Records by Herbert Kupferberg 132

Short Reviews: Books by Phoebe Adams 134

by Stanley Kauffmann

James Gould Cozzens’ By Love Possessed, published in 1957, turned out to be the first of a peculiar series: a sequence of books by genuinely gifted Americans, each of which was an inferior work by the author — if not his worst — and each of which was the author’s biggest success. In the series I would include Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. In each case I got the feeling that, for varying lengths of time, a known talent had been denied adequate rewards, that groups of critics and other readers were waiting to make amends, and that they were not to be put off by any defects in the new work so long as it was big enough. (It’s difficult to shout “At last!” about a novella.) There were also at least two social reasons for this phenomenon. The widening maw of the mass media needs more and more material — cover stories, exciting reviews, TV symposiums; and, in the post-war years, the reading public has grown both in size and in cultural ambition, though not necessarily in taste.
Dwight Macdonald notes in Against the American Grain that he sent Cozzens a copy of his famous blast By Cozzens Possessed and that the author replied “he had become bored by the unanimous critical praise for By Love Possessed and found my ‘novel pronouncements’ an in-

Morning Noon and Night

by James Gould Cozzens (Harcourt, Brace & World, $5.95)

teresting change.” If Cozzens was bored by praise and success last time, he is in for another attack of ennui, I would guess, with his new novel.
He was the first author in the “series,” and he is the first to produce another book (excepting Miss McCarthy’s excellent long pamphlet Vietnam). Morning Noon and Night will give Cozzens readers everything that the last book had in attitudes, style, and social locus. It will give them some novelty (for Cozzens) in form. For the first time he uses the first person, with the hero addressing the reader; for the first time, he uses a method of seemingly random memories instead of straight chronology. His hero is Henry Worthington, the sixtyish owner of a greatly successful firm of management consultants and the scion of a long line of New England professors, who tells us, in a number of what he calls “stage plays of memory,” who he is, where he came from, what he did, and — of course — how little he understands it all. Retrospect is by definition rueful, and if the narrator is drawn as a surviving patrician in a debased age, the Brahmin pathos of the closing pages is guaranteed in the opening.
Curriculum vitae, as Henry might say: He goes to Harvard, not the small college of which his father is president, takes an M.A. in literature, gets a job with a Boston bill collector, soon founds his own firm in New York, marries and has a daughter, is divorced and remarried and widowed, is a Pentagon officer in World War II (but keeps in touch with his business), and then returns to New York to make his company boom. By his move from his family’s academe to corporate counseling, he reflects the age’s shift. By his war service, he reflects his family’s continuity in America (grandfather and father were in wars). By his use of superior intelligence, he reflects a certain aristocracy even in the marketplace, and by his insistence on the inseparability of man and job, he reflects a refusal to distinguish sentimentally between the way a man makes a living and his “real" life. By his marital misadventures (and those of his twice-divorced daughter), he reflects changing moral standards. It is Cozzens going through his old material yet once more.
Those who found By Love Possessed profound, beautiful, knottily American, and attractively tinctured with Brahmin melancholy will regret only that Morning Noon and Night is somewhat shorter. They may wish the new book had more of a story; still, Cozzens is probably on his way to plaudit-boredom once again.
For myself, I disliked this novel very much, perhaps a little less than By Love Possessed but only because it is less ploddy in form and less doggedly Great. I will not belabor the well-beaten subject of Cozzens’ style; here is just one absolutely typical example:
Might not what (when I find out about it) I elect to see as compulsive non-volitional copulating on the spur of the moment with other men be better seen as proof that needs my wife had shown herself to feel when younger she still (and, past youth, maybe to a greater degree) feels, and I am no longer meeting them?
Cozzens is so strapped to this style that, having decided to use the first person, he was forced to give his hero an M.A. in literature. (From Harvard!) Since Cozzens now cannot or will not write any other way, he uses this device to justify his own verbal mazes in a keen-minded businessman, and to explain the incessant quotations and paraphrases — from Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, the Greek Anthology, Defoe, and numerous others, many of whom I doubtless missed. Traces of this crinkum-crankum style are discernible as long ago as S.S. San Pedro (1930). During the last twenty years, in which he has lived increasingly in isolation and has written only two novels, that style has proliferated in his work, as if the welding of thick syntactic intricacies had become for him the act of creation, as if ample quotation from dead authors proved the best kind of connection with life.
But there are other, and, I think, stronger reasons for disliking this book. First, as hinted above, the hero is a transparent fraud. There is no Henry Worthington, He is a hollow papier-mâché figure containing the author. We all know that every serious author uses himself to some extent in his fiction, but here it is not artistic transmutation, it is silly masquerade; and it leaves the novel without a center.
Second, there is a spuriously humble note of apology throughout the book. The epilogue consists mainly of apology, possibly meant to disarm critics. But Cozzens digresses continually through the book and ends almost every digression with an attempted justification. I think he takes these side trips — among others, expatiations on book publishing, theology, World War I draft practices, the self-help pamphlets peddled by Henry’s sleazy boss — because there is nothing really pressing him for utterance; but this persistent phony note of apology is somehow patronizing. It seems to say, “If I have deigned to write this, you can damned well read it.”
There are technical flaws. Cozzens writes detailed descriptions of settings in which relatively little happens. In a novel that affects casualness, he contrives mightily: there are a large number of deaths that alter his characters’ lives. Both of Henry’s parents die in a fire and leave him an estate, his second wife commits suicide (her first husband was killed in a car accident), his daughter’s two children are killed in a plane crash, so she is unencumbered, his first boss drops dead of a heart attack at a convenient moment, there is even a stranger in California who dies just in time to help him indirectly with a legacy. Henry may not have history on his side, but he certainly has Thanatos.
Then there is the recurrent subject of Cozzens’ view of sex. He hates it. There is no other way to state it. No other explanation will account for his repeated repelled descriptions of female genitals; for the joyless spastic mechanics that are his sole view of the sex act; for Henry’s sense of assault and enslavement, from his first seduction by an older woman to his own seduction of a wartime secretary. (He feels he has to marry the latter, and eventually she kills herself.) Possibly it is Cozzens’ single-mindedness about sex — what I would call his insensitivity — that permits him to Henry’s daughter tell her father length how she first achieved orgasm and how she once caught her mother and another man in flagrante.
But after the specifics of dislike have been noted, they must be posed against two factors: what Cozzens has been and what he is. He has been writing for almost fifty years (he was sixteen when he first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1919), and among the nine novels that he chooses to remember — he ignores the first four — some are memorable indeed. The Last Adam contains vivid portrait of a tough, somewhat curmudgeonly but staunch individualist. The Just and the Unjust the best American novel about law and justice that I know. Guard Honor, though hellishly overlong, a good use of the military as a paradigm of social hierarchies and power dispensation.
What he has become in his last two novels is thus all the sadder. He was always a conservative — literary, social, and political—and, as such, was a valuable element in the American compound. But his conservatism has degenerated into truculence, misanthropy, and artistic self-indulgence. It is exactly as what he wants to be, a champion of conservatism, that he has become weakest. His explicit comments on social deterioration are usually trite. Here he is, in this new novel, speaking of the magazines in which Henry’s first boss advertised:
They were monthly — some semimonthly — magazines of cheapest possible manufacture. Bearing names like Snappy Stories, an impressive flood of them then met the reading needs of those for whom reading was a chore (the flood would finally dry up with the advent of “comics” where looking at pictures reduced the reading labor to a minimum).
This is on a level with Cozzens’ idea of merit, which is to give AngloSaxon names to characters he admires and to call a shyster Garesche and an abortionist Skorupski. Cozzens’ conservatism, now superficial and anachronistic, merely laments the end of Anglo-Saxon dominance in America, a purely tribal dominance. (He claims no special intellectual or other qualities for Henry’s forebears — usually quite the reverse.) He portrays with oblique cynicism the replacement of the standards of family and club and tradition by those of money-acquisition. He does not acknowledge that his lamented caste system was only a different money system in disguise, since America has never had a true social aristocracy, which requires a foundation stone of royalty. He is so unobservant of the play of powers in our time that he is unable to supply what might be a really useful conservative tension in literature and life view.
To compare this book with the work of a true and great conservative novelist like Wyndham Lewis is out of the question. To compare it with Marquand, which is more reasonable, is only to make the best Marquand look better. Such novels as The Late George Apley, H. M. Pulham, Esquire, and Wickford Point earn their tweedy rue by the pathos of men who want to live but who are having difficulty in changing with the times. Morning Noon and Night is the work of a man who not only hates modern changes but convinces us that he would probably have hated life at any time and who imagines a kind of Augustan grandeur in himself for hating it. Because he poses an incompletely seen present against a romanticized past, his intended Götterdämmerung becomes a very Kleine Nachtmusik. But his thin patricianism may again flatter those who need easy social superiorities, whatever their own backgrounds, and the blatant “literariness” of his prose may again convince them that they are on Parnassus, no matter how little they enjoy it. Weight machines that tell your fortune usually have cards reading: “You are more sensitive and refined than others know.” One of those cards costs a penny; this book costs $5.95, but it lasts longer.