MATTHEW J. Bruccoli, in this interesting and argumentative biography, wants to dust off the reputation of James Gould Cozzens, whom he calls "the least read and the least regarded major American novelist." Bruccoli's subtitle, "A Life Apart," is significant. Readers won't find here the stuff of legend, the grand romantic act, the bath in the Plaza fountain, the running of the bulls in Pamplona. This is the record of a writer who was a loner.

Born in 1903, Cozzens was the child of modestly well-to- do parents and the bearer of an old Newport name--a forebear had been Civil War governor of Rhode Island. He attended Kent School, dropped out of Harvard after two years, and floundered around trying to write. By 1927, he was in New York City where he met and married Bernice Baumgarten, a young woman on her way up at Brandt & Brandt, the big literary agency. "Mother almost died when I married a Jew," Cozzens said years later, in one of those unguarded remarks for which he was notorious. Their marriage lasted 51 years; and when Bernice died in 1978, Cozzens followed her into the grave six months later. The mainly unfavorable critical opinion of his novels embittered his final years.

The early novels appeared at intervals--among them: S.S. San Pedro (1931), a spare tale of a doomed ship; The Last Adam (1933), the chronicle of a small Connecticut town and an elderly doctor in a typhoid epidemic; Castaway (1934), in which the sole survivor of an unspecified but vast civic catastrophe is marooned in a big-city department store; and The Just and the Unjust (1942), a duel of lawyers in a murder trial. These are all accomplished works that record a writer's progress in his craft. Their modest success, along with Bernice's success as an agent, enabled the couple to buy an old stone house on 125 acres near Lambertville, New Jersey, in that gracious enclave of wealth and privilege that surrounds Princeton.

After Pearl Harbor, Cozzens enlisted in the Army Air Force and rose to the rank of major, serving as a flack in Washington for General Hap Arnold, the Air Force chief of staff. This assignment, providing as it did an enviable roost for an observant writer in the headquarters of a far- flung military service in time of war, furnished the experience for Guard of Honor, published in 1948.

Although it has been hailed as the greatest novel of World War II, Guard of Honor is not really a war novel at all, its action taking place at a Florida airfield far from combat. Much of it reads like a military training manual. Nevertheless, in its masterly depiction of the trivialness of military life, in the interplay of personality among men organized in hierarchical ranks, and in the character of Colonel Ross, a judge in civilian life and now an older man among boys, who believes that "the Nature of Things abhors a drawn line and loves hodgepodge, resists consistency and despises drama; that the operation of man is habit, and the habit of habit is inertia." Guard of Honor is Cozzens' finest work.

Bruccoli has many interesting things to say about the genesis of this novel. One of its central incidents, when some young black pilots try to crash the the base's segregated officers' club, was suggested to him by a waiter at Harvey's restaurant (Washington oldtimers will remember the splendors of its former premises on Connecticut Avenue). Some of the principal characters are modeled on actual historical personages: the dashing General Bus Beal, a sort of Steve Canyon, I-can-fly-by-the-seat-of-my- pants pilot, was suggested by General Lauris Norstad, later a NATO commander-in-chief, while the character of General Nichols, the deputy chief of staff who has been sent to check on Beal, was partially based on General Hoyt Vandenberg, a postwar Air Force chief of staff. (It is simply astonishing that this novel, with its powerful racist subplot and opportunities for character acting, has not been made into a film; more than anything, it would bring Cozzens to new attention.)

Guard of Honor won Cozzens a Pulitzer prize. He spent the next eight years writing his most ambitious novel, By Love Possessed. This tale of small-town wrongdoing appeared in 1957 and was Cozzens' outstanding commercial success, selling over 3 million copies in its various editions. It also dug the grave of his reputation as a serious writer.

Anyone old enough to remember an "I Like Ike" button may remember By Love Possessed, which offered rape, bastardy, fornication, and adultery to the subscribers of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Brendan Gill pulled out all the stops for it in The New Yorker: "No American novelist of the twentieth century has attempted more than Mr. Cozzens attempts in the course of this long and bold and delicate book, which, despite its length, one reads through at headlong speed and is then angry with oneself for having reached the end so precipitately."

By Love Possessed was racy stuff for the '50s, though the actual carnality was framed by pages of lawyer-talk and drowned in overlays of very ornate prose, as in "the incontinent instant brought to pass, no sooner his the very article, his uttermost, the stand-and-deliver of the undone flesh, the tottered senses' outgiving of astoundment." The pretentious prose style easily lent itself to parody, and Dwight MacDonald was quick to take advantage in a famous Commentary review titled "By Cozzens Possessed." Re-reading the novel today, one can admire some quite beautiful set-pieces of description and still choke on the turgid language. By Love Possessed is notta masterpiece or even a first-rate novel of the second rank like John P. Marquand's Point of No Return.

If Cozzens' "big" novel fails as a work of art, how can he be the underrated major novelist of Bruccoli's assertion? According to Bruccoli, Cozzens has fallen victim to a cabal of left-wing critics. His work is "inimical to the academic temperament" and Cozzens himself was a novelist of manners who alienated and infuriated liberals, "the most vocal portion of the intellectual hegemony." This is not altogether true: plenty of serious critics, at least some of them liberals, admired Cozzens, among them, Bernard DeVoto, John Fischer, and Stanley Edgar Hyman. It is perfectly true, however, that Cozzens was very much at odds with the egalitarian spirit of the age, and his contemptuous private opinions reflected themselves in stereotypical and biased portraits of blacks, Jews, and Catholics in By Love Possessed.

In later life the prickly Cozzens saw himself as the hermit of Lambertville, the solitary artist striving away while lesser writers made headlines. Earlier, Cozzens had been a gregarious enough fellow, always hopping over the Delaware to Doylestown in Bucks County to associate with his lawyer cronies. He was quick enough to accept, when it was offered, an honorary degree from Harvard, and he let himself be the subject of a Time cover story. He is still remembered in Princeton for discoursing knowledgeably at dinner parties about growing roses, a favorite hobby.

Even readers of Cozzens disagree about his merits. The truth is he was lucky enough to write two or three good novels. He was not a major writer because he was too reticent about his inner life; he never tried the "absolute identification of life with literature, in the name of precision of feeling"--what Alfred Kazin calls the hallmark of the great moderns. In the end, even Bruccoli seems to hedge his claim of Cozzens' worth: a curiously worded coda says, "Such was the life of James Gould Cozzens . . . whose dedication to the craft of literature was uncontaminated by fashions. His novels have a safe place of proper stature among the sound achievements in American literature."