The reason that the neglected American novelist James Gould Cozzens (1903-1978) finds a resonance with Mockingbird has to do with his observations on human nature — he believed in Original Sin — and with his unforgettable, discomfiting descriptions of reality, things as they are, De rerum natura.
Moreover, Cozzens had an archaeological personal link with the Episcopal Church: its outward life, its inward life, its rectors and its wardens, its original constituency and its continuing adaptations, its historic strengths and repeating weaknesses. Cozzens was “P.E.” (“Protestant Episcopal”, which is old lingo for Low Church but not necessarily Evangelical) and also agnostic on the question of God. If you can believe it, that was a common breed in the Episcopal Church of yore. He had attended Kent School in Connecticut under the celebrated headmastership of Father Sill, a determined High Churchman who was also a wise understander of boys — basically a remarkable teacher and good priest. Father Sill, together with Cozzens’ mother and father’s active, sincere churchmanship, made the Episcopal Church figure strongly in Cozzens life and books. No Evangelical and no Anglo-Catholic, no Liberal either, this writer had years and years’ opportunity to just see. He looked, with his dark and perceptive, open eyes; and took inner notes, in detail, concerning daily chapel services at Kent; Sunday by Sunday Morning Prayer in his parents’ church on Staten Island, a year of living in the vicarage of the downtown mission of the parish of St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowerie after he left Harvard (he had already published a novel while he was an undergraduate there), and correspondence with any number of Episcopal clergy and laymen as time passed. Interestingly, when he retired to Florida in the 1970s and he and his wife down-sized their life, he retained his subscriptions to The Anglican Digest and The Living Church.
But Episcopal-Church business aside — and it is not uninteresting, if only as a chronicle of one aspect of mid-20th Century American cultural and religious history — he wrote a book published in 1936 entitled Men and Brethren. The title derives from Acts 2:37: “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
Men and Brethren tells the story of an Episcopal minister serving on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He is a good man, an urbane, intellectual, and also completely committed man, who is going full tilt within an active and demanding parish ministry. The Reverend Mr. Cudlipp — in those days, we are talking the early 1930s, Episcopal clergy were almost always called ‘Mister’ (like in the Navy — think Mr. Roberts) — is Vicar of St. Ambrose Chapel, a ‘mission station” in what is now still sometimes called ‘Yorkville’ on the Upper East Side, of a more prestigious parish, Holy Innocents, which is four or five blocks over, to the west. Holy Innocents is meant to represent ‘a combination of St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue and St. Bartholomew’s, Park Avenue‘; while St. Ambrose represents a church like Holy Trinity, in its original ‘mission’ foundation. Mr. Cudlipp, in other words, is pastoring a church for the poor and needy, while Dr. Lamb, Rector of Holy Innocents, is ministering to the wealthier residents of the city.
Cozzens tells the engrossing story of 24 hours in the life of Mr. Cudlipp, as he counsels a woman expecting the child of a man who is not her husband and who, the woman, already has two small children by that husband in their ‘happy home’, an affluent, loveless apartment on Park Avenue; as he deals with a persistent and unstable homeless person, in whose case he makes a serious error, which is both not his fault and is his fault; as he ministers to an impoverished dying woman, with an impossible alcoholic husband, and a very ‘flip’ doctor, who detests ‘WASPs’; as he shelters a woman who fears her show-business husband’s alcoholic abuse; as he fends off political attacks both from the Rector of his sponsoring (i.e., salary paying) parish, Holy Innocents, and from his militantly High-Church bishop uptown, who would use any opportunity he could to get Mr. Cudlipp out of the Diocese. And so it goes, and so it goes, and so it goes, and so it goes (Nick Lowe).
Oh, and I almost forget to mention: Mr. Cudlipp has to find the right, immediate pastoral solution to a seminary friend of his who is an Episcopal monk and has gotten himself into serious trouble; as well as answer to one of his assisting clergy who is a Socialist and radical (and loveable), as well as to the other curate, who is Evangelical but unkempt in his personal habits and a dispirited preacher. (There is a funny internal monologue given to Mr. Cudlipp, as he reads the pathetic first draft of this man’s sermon for Sunday morning, on the Miraculous Draught of Fishes. The sermon is so bad that all the Vicar can actually say to Mr. Johnston, his well-meaning bedraggled ‘older’ assistant is, “I think it’s fine”.)
Anyone who has served in the parish ministry, or on a vestry or parish council, or has been close to an overworked regular pastor, will read Men and Brethren with identification and also probably some discomfort. Cozzens knows what he is talking about. He is talking about me, about us, and about lot of people we have known.
I recommend this book. It portrays the way it was, and about 65% the way it is still, and by that I mean the ‘inner game of tennis’ involved in daily, local, cumulative ministry. When at a certain point, holding a fistful of noted-down phone messages, all of which represent problems the poor Vicar is going to have to tackle, it reads like the life of every busy rector I have ever known.
Yet there is more to Men and Brethren than the resonance. The book is about sainthood, the book is about compromise, the book is about grace, and the book is about calling.
The book is about sainthood because it offers two credible saints, Mr. Johnston, the burned-out, sincere, clumsy Evangelical; and Father Willever, the resentful, passionate, wayward Anglo-Catholic. Both men are very flawed and both men could do a lot of good. Moreover, it may be that Cozzens wants us to understand that the real saint of the book is unsentimental Mr. Cudlipp.
The book is about compromise because Mr. Cudlipp has to compromise on two important points in order to keep his job. He is threatened by the Rector, and indirectly the Bishop, and back-peddles in order to continue to do the good he is doing. This is a somewhat controversial point the book makes, and you will have to decide what you think about it. But it is not the first time clergy have had to concede something perhaps secondary in order to gain something perhaps primary.
The book is about grace because Mr. Cudlipp is all about grace. He stumbles once, seriously, in his overly suave handling of a difficult former parishioner — he is not suave enough, you could almost say. But he at the core all about grace. This is especially true in his handling of assisting clergy and in the unsentimental means he proposes to save a very convinced straying wife. The story of Mrs. Binney is probably the key to the book. It is certainly the relationship in which the Vicar is most honestly able to express his ideas about calling, his calling.
The book finally is about calling. At one point, Mr. Cudlipp’s young curate, Mr. Quinn, asks him, “How do you stand this? Everyone is always imposing on you.” Good question! Men and Brethren is James Cozzens’s attempt to answer that question from the point of view of The Rev. Mr. Cudlipp, Vicar of St. Ambrose Chapel, Manhattan.
The novel is not completely convincing. The author was in his early 30s when he wrote it, and this shows a little, especially when the story becomes fevered, and perhaps over-filled with incident. Yet it tells the truth about an awful lot of what we do, what pastors, ministers, and priests actually do, or try to do; and also fail to do.
I recommend Men and Brethren to the readers of Mockingbird. Yes, it is somewhat the child of its era, pre-World War II New York in the relatively privileged context of the Episcopal churches there that were almost all quite strong once. But the question the book raises, addressed to Christian workers of every stripe, is: ‘what shall we do’ to serve our call? That question will never date. And the novelist himself tells a gripping, searing story with much insight about the way things really are in church.
For your information, the book was reprinted in 1989 by Elephant Paperbacks of Chicago, and is available from Amazon.
Finally, so you don’t think I am the only one who thinks this book is worth reading, here are squibs from two contemporary reviews of Men and Brethren:
“A brilliantly integrated and authentic characterization… Mr. Cozzens deserves almost special praise for creating a clergyman as real as Ernest Cudlipp.” (The Nation)
“The plot is so suave and sophisticated as to be completely beguiling. Cudlipp himself, no matter how much you may dislike him, and perhaps because of that dislike, is virulantly alive.” (The New York Times)
For Your Best Life Now, then, here it is: Behold! Men and Brethren.