Children and Others
Sometimes a Great Notion
James Gould Cozzens’s serious critical reputation has been shaky since the publication of By Love Possessed in 1957 and this collection of seventeen stories, many published in Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post during the 1930s, will do nothing to strengthen it. He does not know much about how to secure the effects of economy and epiphany characteristic of the modern short story since Chekhov; the writing is as stiff and flat as a board; the backward-looking, fine-old-American-family prejudices are harder to ignore in a brief tale than in a long novel, possibly because in the former each sentence has to do more work.
He writes badly: that is, with a very uncertain grasp of either English or American prose idiom and syntax, and he tends to sound facetious when he probably doesn’t intend to. Describing his mother’s sex life a narrator speaks of her as a woman
very little constrained in acting out her part of woman as regularly as she and the night and the double bed gave rise to fresh urgence [sic] in the doctor to play the man.
Perhaps the intention was to suggest a decent reserve in combination with some affectionate irony. The actual effect achieved is something altogether different. And yet the story from which the passage is excerpted, “Eyes to See,” is the best in the book. A prep-school boy comes home to attend his mother’s funeral and meets Cousin Eben, a bearded man whose father had led a utopian sect in upstate New York which practiced a form of free love for unexceptionable religious reasons. Lying in bed that night after the funeral the boy hears Eben and his wife making love in the next bedroom. Grief, a sense of the strangeness of one side of his familial tradition, a powerful upsurge of sexual feeling come together in the boy’s consciousness and provide a genuine illumination for him and for the reader.
More often in Children and Others Cozzens settles for conventional middleclass reticence and threadbare pieties. The pieties are particularly evident in a set of stories about life in a Connecticut private school during and shortly after the first World War. The place is modeled on the worser kind of small English public school, with a fatuous headmaster who goes by the name of Pater, a set of prefects who carry sticks and are permitted to beat the smaller boys for infractions of school discipline, and an elaborate mystique of big games and football heroes. The tendency of the stories as a group is to support the authoritarianism of the institution on the ground that it is a good thing for boys in the long run. This tendency, unfortunately, leads to some embarrassing truisms which happen not to be true. For instance:
Real rebels are rarely anything but second-rate outside their rebellion: the drain of time and temper is ruinous to any other accomplishment.
Cozzens has been described by one critic as “a novelist of intellect …