From a discussion begun on another blog. . . .
WHEN SOMEONE STARTS talking about "middlebrow" writers, it means they're not thinking, but are regurgitating what was on the blackboard in English 545.
"Middlebrow" comes from 1950's critic Dwight MacDonald, who famously attacked author James Gould Cozzens in an essay called "By Cozzens Possessed." His is the received wisdom which you've been parroting. The Cozzens reputation was established at that time, hardened into concrete, allowing those who came later, such as yourselves, to not have to think. You can simply click to the "Received Wisdom" page, under "C."
Yep, there it is! "Cozzens." "Middlebrow." "By Love Possessed." Terrible writer! It says so, right there. There on the screen.
Under "R" we find the much praised innovative postmodernist "Robbe-Grillet." No mention of the stuff of literature about his work-- like striking characters, stories, insights-- because the stuff of literature is missing. He's a great writer because he is, that's why.
Could the Received Wisdom ever be wrong?
I mean, the professor, the blackboard at the university. He told me. . . .
I read Cozzens's Guard of Honor as long ago as when I read Robbe-Grillet. Yet I recall nothing of the latter's work-- not an incident-- while moments from Cozzen's great novel are planted in my memory. ("Great" meaning largeness of scope and mind.) A novel is ultimately about moments, and how we arrive at them. For "Guard" it's finally about the last moment, when brash-but-inept young General Beal and his mentor-sidekick Colonel Ross watch a large American bomber plane ascend into the sky. We feel everything which has transpired on all the many previous pages. The two men are satisfied because they've kept the whole shithouse of their very large Army Air Force base together for another day, despite incompetency and mishap, and mishap and incompetency.
For them, it's a triumph. For the reader it's a bigger moment. We're experiencing one of the great moments of American literature-- the first recognition of the birth of American Empire. The end of World War II was the point in time when the American civilization irrevocably changed. No writer other than Cozzens so well captured that transcendent birth-moment; for him and his two characters, a glorious moment. (For us, living under the George W. Bush regime, likely less glorious.)
In back of that moment, in the body of the novel, Cozzens has captured the American system's staggering venality and corruption, but also its unstoppable unthinking strength. America has been about business and organization. We've won wars not because we had braver soldiers, but because we had larger organizations. We've steamrolled the entire world by our energy, our products, our gift for organization: our mindless progress. As the novel shows, right and truth are subordinated to the needs of the organization. It's been the American way.
The happenings of later decades are prefigured in the happenings of Cozzens's story. You want the Sixties? You have the roots of the Sixties in the nascent rebellion by the black officers on base, and in the presence of two young white officers-- a liberal and a radical-- whose actions old Colonel Ross has to pre-empt if he's to save his dynamic but immature general. Society-- even the society of an army air force base; center of the Beast-- is a powder keg.
The amazing thing about the novel is that Cozzens, uber-conservative though he is, tackles questions of racism and class. He depicts the hierarchy of American society in a way no established novelist will even attempt to do today. (Though the hierarchy today is more pronounced; the gaps between classes greater than they were in his time.) The depiction is of a piece with the novelist's essential honesty.
Few American novels have been more ambitious-- or more successful in realizing that ambition. If "Guard" is not a great novel, then there are no great novels; there are no standards, no artistic values, and words like "great" have lost all meaning.
Given that a Robbe-Grillet is raised on a pedestal while Cozzens is demeaned, this is the situation of American criticism today-- a mindset which must be overturned if we're to begin our American literary Golden Age.
(Next: two more parts to this, including a discussion of Cozzens and Beethoven. Stay tuned.)