For a few years now, I have been working my way backwards through the oeuvre of one of the two great but now forgotten midcentury American authors, James Gould Cozzens. The other is John P Marquand, whose novels I’ve been reading in no particular order. What I admire about both writers is the match between theme and tone. The theme is the proper behavior for an educated American male, and the tone captures the unsentimental rigor with which both authors investigate this question. Their heroes have ideals that they know to be unattainable, but they reject the option of not pursuing them. Marquand’s central figures tend to be bankers or even writers. His heroine, Polly Fulton (B.F.’s Daughter, 1946), is the wealthy daughter of a self-made industrialist. Cozzens’s men — and in the later novels, they are all men — belong to professions, usually the law, but, in the case of Men and Brethren (1936), the central figure is an Episcopal vicar. With Cozzens, the rigor of inward disposition is matched by the rigor of practical discipline.
Also typical of a late Cozzens novel is the very tight schedule: the action must be accomplished within a short period of time. The action of By Love Possessed, Cozzens’s last big novel (1957) takes place within exactly forty-nine hours — a mantel clock chimes at the start and at the finish. Men and Brethren occurs within the space of about twenty-four, from late Friday afternoon to roughly the same time on Saturday. Matthew Bruccoli, Cozzens’s biography, points out that this was Cozzens’ first attempt at extremely short duration, and even remarks that Cozzens’ original plans were for a Friday-night story only. This is not too suggest that Men and Brethren is a long short story. If anything, it is a novel that is far too short; there is more in it than can be dealt with in a short story, much more. What saves the hectic novel from incoherence is the character of the vicar, Ernest Cudlipp.
One simplification — like most absences, it may go unnoticed by the reader — is that Cudlipp is neither seen in church nor visited by members of its concgretation. The reader is presumably familiar with church services and parishioners’ problems. What Cozzens wants to show is all the other troubles and obligations that confront the Vicar. The administration of St Ambrose Chapel presents some of these; others involve Cudlipp’s friends, his connection to most of whom is, or was, spiritual. (As to family, we hear of his “unyielding” father at the very end, but nothing else about his background.) St Ambrose is not a chapel in the dissenters’ sense, of course; it is a sideshow, old and grubby, of Holy Innocents, a flush parish that has, just in time for its centenary, built its third church, a “serene” building in the Byzantine style. The church and the chapel are only a few blocks apart in midtown Manhattan, but the course of those blocks stretches between neighborhoods of great economic difference. St Ambrose sits only a short distance from the noisy elevated train, and its mission is to bring Christ to working people who are underserved by all denominations save the Roman Catholic.
Another Episcopal church haunts the background. Years ago, Cudlipp was attached to St Matthew’s, further downtown. Run by a Dr Ogilvie, St Matthew’s is said to have been “a circus.” Cudlipp was allowed to conduct what seem to have been rather free-style vesper services that attracted large crowds, almost a thousand each week. There seems also to have been a clampdown by the diocese, with the implication that Cudlipp is still somewhat on probation and lucky to be the vicar of anything. This is one of the many rich veins of background that Cozzens would explore over the course of his later novels, but I have told you only a little less about it than can be learned from the novel itself. As it is, it suffices to buttress the portrait of Cudlipp’s character, which is engaged almost without interruption in the struggle to do his Christian duty. Indeed, the term “Christian duty” comes to seem almost oxymoronic.
Aside from the serious tensions between fitness — observing ecclesiastical terms and conditions — and charity (not to mention determining what charity really comes to), Cudlipp is confronted by a number of people who mean or have meant something to him but whose idea of self-determination entails some degree of physical self-abuse, either addiction or sex outside the rules. One of the principal secondary characters complains that she could never forgive herself, to which Cudlipp replies, “You can’t forgive yourself because you’re not entitled to forgive yourself.” For most of my lifetime, the Vicar’s comment would have been dismissed with shock or contempt, but a moment’s thought will remind us that the idea behind it is one of key points in twelve-step recovery. Whether we are to be forgiven by God or by our fellow man, we do not get to act as we please, or to decide unilaterally whether the benefits that we take for ourselves outweigh the burdens of others.
In solitary moments, Ernest Cudlipp is often unsure what to do, or what is right or prudent. In the heat of the moment, however, he is one of the most decisive men, and possibly the most decisive thinking men, to be met with in fiction.