Jonathan Franzen's splash of success with his novel Freedom is reminiscent of the attention given upper-class author James Gould Cozzens in 1957 upon the publication of his novel By Love Possessed. Like Franzen, Cozzens wrote a big book and was given the vaunted Time magazine cover, which was possibly worth more than it is now. The novel went to the top of the best seller list. 53 years later, Cozzens and his ambitious book are all but forgotten. In truth, the book wasn't all that good, albeit better than most novels published now.
The difference between Cozzens then, and Franzen today, is that James Gould Cozzens had already written a great novel, Guard of Honor, about the politics and personalities on a U.S. Air Force base during World War II.
What should we expect from a Great American Novel? Surely that its underlying theme be America itself; that the artwork display a knowledge of how this great civilization we're privileged to live in operates. America is the mightiest civilization in human history. How did it become that? What makes it that? These are questions which need to be asked and answered.
American power, wealth, and influence come from the attitude of those who've led America and those who've worked for it on its many levels. They come from American ability at organization. This gave America its ability to outproduce any society that's been known, gave the nation its unstoppable power. We've been the better developed bee hive.
Guard of Honor is one of the few novels written about America which implicitly understood this. America's story is a story of work. It's about bureaucracy, which so dominates our activities and our thoughts. Cozzens, in using the Air Force as his focus, gets to the heart of the creation of American empire. He wrote at the dawn of that empire. Its last scene, of a General and his aide watching a mighty "flying fortress" rising into the nighttime air, expresses that sudden role. The Air Force has been the major expression of American influence the past 70 years. It has bombed countries at will, unopposed, to enforce Pax Americana. It delivered in 1945 the atomic bomb upon the world.
Before the war Cozzens had been, like Franzen, virtually a hermit-- though as far as I know he never watched birds! The war brought out more of Cozzens' talents, putting his creative and analytical mind to use.
Cozzens served in the USAAF Office of Information Services. "One of his functions was in controlling news, and it became Cozzens' job to defuse situations potentially embarrassing to the Chief of the Army Air Forces, Gen. Henry H. Arnold. In the course of his job he became arguably the best informed officer of any rank and service in the nation, a major by the end of the war."
Cozzens was yanked from his complacent station and thrust into the middle of the System's most active and cutting edge service. He was given several hectic years observing the hive and its workers and leaders up close-- then put that experience into a book. He knew his subject as thoroughly as Herman Melville knew whaling and ships.
There've been few great American novels because the novelist needs to be more than a writer. He needs to be both extrovert and introvert to create such a thing, to use both sides of his brain, the practical and the artistic. Scott Fitzgerald came close with "Gatsby" in portraying a different kind of American from Cozzens' Air Force officers. He was portraying a different era of American history, that of the freebooting roughnecked business pioneer, the dreams of empire and success. Cozzens wrote about the realization of the dream on a massive scale. Fitzgerald might have written a great novel with his last book, had he lived longer. He was writing about an industry from the inside-- an industry whose function was the creation of dreams. But he didn't live long enough.
Being from the more affluent parts of a society need not be a handicap to understanding that society. Properly utilized, it might be a benefit. In the 19th century aristocrats were involved in running society at the highest levels. Many put the insights and experiences gained to use in their works.
The Great American Novelist, should such an animal truly come our way, would have to at some point in his life be truly involved in the muck and fire of the Machine, amid its gears, feeling its furnace heat, hearing up close its chaotic clashing gear noise. It's not something which can be gained by watching birds in a backyard or by viewing media events on TV.