James Gould Cozzens' "Guard of Honor"
February 21, 2012 7:44 PM   Subscribe

Noel Perrin, "The Best American Novel about World War II": Guard of Honor is a classic (I think), but it is a hard one to put in an American literature course. Why? Because [James Gould] Cozzens was not a romantic. ... Its rightful place is as one of the greatest social novels ever written in America.

Cozzens came through as a conservative pessimist with the cool, unillusioned view of human nature I find strongly appealing—as in Somerset Maugham, or indeed Trollope. There is no trace of sentimentality, not even of the kind that hides itself behind literary tricks—fake irony or “colorful” minor characters. ... Here is an elegant, honest, fastidious writer, swept to oblivion by changing tastes, by a national turn to the sentimental narcissism he loathed.
posted by Trurl (15 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Is this [Amazon] the book you're talking about?
posted by neuron at 7:59 PM on February 21, 2012

'Tis. Though the Modern Library edition improves on that ghastly cover.
posted by Trurl at 8:03 PM on February 21, 2012

Slaughterhouse-Five may be many things, but sentimentally narcissistic it is not.

Catch-22 may be many things, but sentimentally narcissistic it is not.

The Second Scroll may be many things, but fake, ironic, sentimental, narcissistic or the least bit ephemeral, it is not. Not 'American', well, maybe.
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:14 PM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've always been partial to Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy, which follows 10 intersecting characters from 1939 to 1946 (most of the characters are American but there are two French Jews). I like Gone to Soldiers because, while it does follow some more typical war novel characters like a soldier, a spy and a code-breaker, it also follows less conventional characters like a romance novelist who is hired to write "women's stories" for magazines about the war effort and a woman who winds up training for the Women's Auxiliary for the Air Force.

The author also doesn't shy away from delving into the politics of the era, which I suspect is one reason the book has been overlooked.
posted by lunasol at 8:43 PM on February 21, 2012

and here, our heroic reviewer John Derbyshire, reviews Lolita.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:15 PM on February 21, 2012

The Naked and the Dead was one of the books that changed my life when I read it at 20.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:12 PM on February 21, 2012

Is Somerset Maugham even read anymore by anyone other than English Lit undergrads?
posted by KokuRyu at 10:14 PM on February 21, 2012

I read Cakes and Ale by Maugham about a year ago and am not an English Lit undergrad.
posted by Jahaza at 10:42 PM on February 21, 2012

I love Maugham.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:54 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not a romantic? The man was appalling. Dwight MacDonald did the classic hatchet job on his major work, but others couldn't stand him either
posted by IndigoJones at 5:48 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love that book by Perrin, A Reader's Delight. I got it as a gift many years ago and it's got some very good recommendations. The critic Terry Teachout is also high on Guard of Honor, which given his apparent political tendencies is probably not a recommendation for some. I thought the novel was good and probably unfairly neglected today, though I don't know that I would want to argue about whether it was The. Best. WWII. Novel. Ever.

Anyway, thanks for the post!
posted by chinston at 7:08 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

(MacDonald's review of By Love Possessed may be what put paid to Cozzen's being part of the canon. Interestingly, William F. Buckley hated the book as well.)
posted by IndigoJones at 8:24 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, if Buckley hated it, I am ordering it today and will no doubt enjoy it.
posted by holdkris99 at 10:02 AM on February 22, 2012

Cozzens at one time bestrode the literary world like a colossus, but who reads him now? Olds and graduate students.

Of the now-forgotten best sellers of that era, my money's on James T. Farrell and John O'Hara, both prolix and chewy writers who delved into human ick, but with more humor and compassion than Cozzens.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:32 AM on February 22, 2012

Also, Perrin (who died in 2004) spent the last 20 years of his career being a professional curmudgeon. He was a lovely man, though!
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:34 AM on February 22, 2012

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