1949 Pulitzer Prize Review: Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens

“Through the late afternoon they flew southeast, going home to Ocanara at about two hundred miles an hour” (opening lines).

Mired in inane military bureaucracy, Guard of Honor rounds out the 1940s for the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. Like many fellow sojourners on this journey, I found Guard of Honor to be a dreary slog. It takes place across three days in September 1943 at the Ocanara air base in Florida. The novel is divided into three chief sections: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Though there are numerous forgettable characters throughout the novel like Colonel “Pop” Mowbray, Brigadier General Joseph Josephson “Jo-Jo” Nichols, Captain Nathaniel Hicks, the former judge Colonel Norman Ross, Lt. Jim Edsell, Lt. Amanda Turck, and Captain Donald Andrews among many others, we might consider the novel’s protagonist to be Major General Ira “Bus” Beal, a 41-year-old two star general (the youngest general in the Army). At the outset, or for the first 100 pages of this 631-page doorstop of a book, we follow General Beal’s airplane as it transports a group of military personnel from Seller’s Field, Mississippi to Ocanara, Florida, but there is a mix-up and the plane accidentally crashes into another plane operated by an all “black bomber group.” This precipitates a fight between Lieutenant Colonel “Benny” Carricker who punches Lieutenant Willis, the African American pilot of the bomber. Racial animosities arise while the officers deliberate over policies, jurisdiction, legality, and who among them has authority to address this issue. The ensuing commotion is actually a nod to a true series of events –in April 1945, a group of African-American officers protested the segregation of the Air Force officer’s club facilities in Indiana, in an event which became known as the “Freeman Field Mutiny.” It is widely regarded as the chief impetus for the desegregation of the American military. The offending officers, many of whom were court-martialed, were only vindicated by the Air Force in 1995.

At any rate, the following passage in Guard of Honor details the moment of the plane crash, which is, in my view, sadly the most compelling part of the novel:

“Then they ran into something –not on the ground; they were as high as the great hangar roofs; overtaking the bomber, but still above and behind. They hit very hard with a bucking, buckling violence. One wing went down. The cabin roof became the side; the opposite wall became the ceiling; and from it, with a crashing slam, came Sergeant Pellerino, striking Nathaniel Hick’s potting table. In Nathaniel Hicks’s earphone a panicky voice was shrilling: “B-26 on runway; B-26 on runway! There is an airplane directly behind you. There is an airplane—” (83).

At any rate, as the novel drags on we are given a variety of reflections and reactions from a panoply of characters working within the Army Air Force Operations and Requirements Analysis Division (AFORAD) until on Friday during a training exercise, several parachute troopers accidentally land in a lake and, since they are bogged down by heavy equipment, they all tragically drown in the lake. Thus concludes this painfully monotonous tome. For all its faults, at least Guard of Honor reminds us of the multi-layered dimensions of war –it is often all too easy to dwell on battlefield heroics, while we often overlook the interpersonal and administrative dynamics which necessarily take place on the home front.

Needless to say, James Gould Cozzens remains a divisive writer, many of his books remain out of print today and his name sits squarely on the crowded, dusty shelf of Pulitzer Prize winners who have been mostly forgotten. Nevertheless, there is a small club of critics who still believe Cozzens is deserving of a critical reappraisal, even if he often drew the ire of his contemporaries in his own day (more on that below). Examples of his defenders include essayist Noel Perrin who deemed Guard of Honor “probably the best war novel of the twentieth century.” Orville Prescott, a former Pulitzer Jurist and writer for The New York Times said: “No other American novelist of our time writes with such profound understanding of the wellsprings of human character and of the social pressures that help to form it.” Brendan Gill of The New Yorker remarked: “Every page of Guard of Honor gives the impression of a writer at the very top of his powers setting out to accomplish nothing less than his masterwork.” Such glowing reviews force me to pause and ask myself, did I read the same novel as this trio?

One interesting fact I learned when researching this novel is that Cozzens had a working title for this novel entitled “The Tempest.” Also, he includes a quotation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the outset. It is taken from a scene in which Ariel calls Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian fools for thinking they can attack her anymore than they might pierce a gust of wind or the flow of water:

“I and my fellows
Are ministers of Fate: the elements,
Of whom your swords are temper’d, may as well
Wound the loud winds, or with bemock’d-at stabs
Kill the sill closing waters, as diminish
One dowle that’s in my plume: my fellow ministers
Are like invulnerable.”

On the 1949 Pulitzer Decision
The 1949 Fiction Jury consisted of David Appel, Frederic Babcock, and Joseph Henry Jackson. As far as I can tell, David Appel was a book editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer and he was the author of several children’s books; Frederic Babcock was a journalist and travel writer for The Chicago Tribune; and Joseph Henry Jackson was a longtime editor at The San Francisco Chronicle where he penned a daily column “A Bookman’s Notebook” and he also helmed a popular radio program entitled “The Reader’s Guide.”

Somehow this trio selected Guard of Honor instead of other vastly superior novels, such as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. At least during this year the Drama category made a more appropriate selection with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Who Is James Gould Cozzens?
James Gould Cozzens (1903-1978) was born in Chicago and grew up on Staten Island. His father was a prominent businessman and his grandfather was William C. Cozzens, former governor of Rhode Island. His mother’s lineage could be traced to pre-Revolutionary America (a family of Connecticut Tories). As such, Mr. Cozzens led a privileged life. He was apparently encouraged from an early age to become a writer by his doting mother who hoped to fulfill her own creative ambitions via her son. She also seems to have given her son such an inflated sense of himself that was often displayed in adulthood as arrogant indifference to the feelings and opinions of others.

Mr. Cozzens was raised in an Episcopalian family, he attended Harvard University (though never graduated), and published his first novel while in school (Confusion in 1924), but he soon fell ill and indebted. Mr. Cozzens then traveled around the world working as a tutor in Cuba and in Europe, all the while writing short stories. He served in the army during Word War II where in his unique role he became a central hub of news and information, especially any potentially damaging intel on General Henry H. Arnold. Mr. Cozzens achieved the rank of major by the time was discharged at the war’s end.

He married Sylvia Bernice Baumgarten, a literary agent with Brandt & Kirkpatrick. In many ways she was Mr. Cozzens’s opposite –a Jewish liberal democrat who was committed to pursuing a better world. Regarding his feelings at the time of his marriage, Mr. Cozzens later scoffed to a Time Magazine reporter that he supposed ”sex entered into it. After all, what’s a woman for?” Nevertheless, it was a successful marriage that lasted until both died, though they never had any children. The Cozzens’s lived entirely secluded lives split between country home in Williamstown, Massachusetts; Lambertville, New Jersey; and eventually Martin County, Florida. Throughout his life, Mr. Cozzens was depressive and reclusive, sticking to a rigid schedule of writing within his home. He was dubbed “the Garbo of U.S. letters” and “the hermit of Lambertville.” He was by all accounts a misanthropic hermit –despising sentimentality, as well as modern liberalism and egalitarianism, and his comments often drew negative press coverage. He once remarked of a liberal friend, ”Oh, he’s one of those fellows that want(s) equality for Indians,” and on the race issue he said, ”I like anybody if he’s a nice guy, but I’ve never met many Negroes who were nice guys.” His remarks, perhaps intended to be darkly humorous, were often met with disdain. Many of his contemporary writers discarded Cozzens’s books, Faulkner apparently brushed off Cozzens while John Updike excoriated his final novel Morning, Noon and Night for being essentially unreadable. Cozzens responded in kind: “The Old Man and the Sea could have run in Little Folks magazine. Under the rough exterior of Hemingway, he’s just a great big bleeding heart. Sinclair Lewis was a crypto-sentimentalist and a slovenly writer who managed a slight falsification of life in order to move the reader. Faulkner falsified life for dramatic effect. It’s sentimentality disguised by the corncob. I can’t read ten pages of Steinbeck without throwing up. I couldn’t read the proletarian crap that came out in the ’30s; again you had sentimentalism—the poor oppressed workers.” He granted a rare and controversial Time Magazine interview which essentially tanked whatever favorability remained of Cozzens’s public persona. While there is much fluff in the interview, I was paticularly struck by Mr. Cozzens’s writer’s routine (quote below):

“A typical day in the Cozzens’ Lambertville house (bought in 1933, but soon to be abandoned because Cozzens fears that impending power lines will spoil his valley view) unreels with near monastic austerity. Daily except Sunday Cozzens rises at 5:15 a.m., brews a pot of tea for himself and fixes coffee for Bernice, who gets up at 5:45. In his 1957 station wagon he drives Bernice to the Trenton station for an early train to Manhattan, then returns for a breakfast of scrambled eggs, orange juice and milk. He works from 8 to noon (he is a two-finger typist). Says Cozzens, who spent eight years on By Love Possessed: “For every three pages I write, I throw away two. On a good day, I get two pages done.” After lunch (with two martinis) he naps for an hour, putters around in the flower garden (he tends the roses), and reads until he picks up Bernice at the station. After dinner Cozzens goes to his study, “where I meditate and put on a rubber tire with three bottles of beer.” Cozzens’ sole hobby is a pop record collection, vintage 1920 to 1927—Al Jolson, Paul Whiteman—which he plays by the hour on his hi-fi set. “Most of the time I just sit picking my nose and thinking.”

After winning the Pulitzer in 1949 for Guard of Honor, he was nominated again for By Love Possessed (1957), his strongest popular success. It was a traditionalist novel which offered a series of reflections on small-town life by a 49 year old attorney. It won the William Dean Howells Medal, an award granted every five years by the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1925-Present). It was also was made into a Hollywood movie in 1961 starring Lana Turner. However, the book drew the wrath of liberal critics, such as Dwight Macdonald in Commentary and Irving Howe in The New Republic. They critiqued it for being long and dense but also for certain social and political attitudes it apparently espoused. In his now infamous essay, ”By Cozzens Possessed,” Macdonald accused Cozzens of being anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic and anti-Black, as well as priggish in his treatment of sex and brutal in his portrayal of women. The essay became an infamous document in the history of critical demolition.

In his later years, Mr. Cozzens served on an advisory board at his alma mater Harvard and was granted an honorary doctorate in 1952. His notebooks during this period reveal a man struggling with acute depression and suicide. Both he and his wife died in 1978. The late Matthew J. Bruccoli, a professor at the University of South Carolina and leading expert on the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and John O’Hara, became an official biographer of Mr. Cozzens and one of his most ardent defenders in academia.

Cozzens, James Gould. Guard of Honor. Harcourt, Brace. And Company, NY, 1948 (first edition).

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

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