Dark Days Past
After years of personal unrest, acclaimed historian Peter Cozzens finally found contentment after treated for bipolar disorder.
Earlier in his career, acclaimed author Peter Cozzens of Bethesda had no sense of time, often working for hours without a break. “I would lose myself entirely in the writing- almost as if that was where I was living, in that work. It possessed me,” Cozzens says.
Over the past 19 years, he has managed to publish 16 hefty volumes on 19th-century American history, working for the State Department nearly the entire time.
The prodigious output may have been a manifestation of the manic depression, or bipolar disorder, that the 51-year-old Cozzens was diagnosed with three years ago. He now wonders if the mania component of the disease could have generated the intense intellectual and artistic productivity needed to research and write his many books. It is a curious flip side to a serious mental illness.
For years, following a full day of work, Cozzens would return home most evenings to write four or five pages. On a typical weekend day, he wrote 15 to 20 pages. It is not an easy undertaking to methodically research and compose complex histories, but he was obsessed with each volume, producing a new work that averaged between 500 and 800 pages roughly every 18 months. After each book was completed, Cozzens experienced a kind of postpartum depression and anxiety about his next book.
Cozzens grew up outside Chicago, where his fascination with 19th century history, the Civil War in particular, emerged as soon as he learned to read. “I was somehow drawn to that subject,” he recalls. He haunted Chicago’s famed Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, generally considered to have one of the leading collections of Civil War material in the country. “He came in as a 15-year-old pisher (Yiddish for “young squirt”) and grew up to be a Civil War scholar,” says store owner Daniel Weinberg. Cozzens spent many hours in the bookstore, and admits to playing hooky from school on occasion to read volumes on the war instead.
Even in his teens, “Peter’s curiosity, his enthusiasm and the knowledge he had already gained were readily apparent. I knew it would be a lifelong enthusiasm, an obsession with history,” Weinberg says. At 17, Cozzens became one of the youngest members ever of The Civil War Round Table of Chicago, a discussion and lecture group founded in 1940. He even gave a talk to its members when he was a senior in high school.
Cozzens’ fascination with the Civil War waned during his years at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., where he attended on an ROTC scholarship. After graduating in 1979 with a degree in international relations, Cozzens went on to a four-year stint in the Army at Fort Stewart, Ga. It was during a leave to visit his family back in the Chicago area that his interest in American history was rekindled at his favorite bookstore. Cozzens says he began collecting historical books and “felt a strong desire to write on the subject I felt most comfortable with and most drawn to.”
While still in the Army, Cozzens pecked out a manuscript on a manual typewriter about the Battle of Stones River, one of the bloodiest conflicts of the Civil War. Most of the material was based on primary sources, including diaries, letters, memoirs, newspaper stories and regimental histories that Cozzens had found. Not knowing what to do with the finished work, he put it aside. A week after leaving the military, having already passed the Foreign Service exam in college, he took a job with the State Department. At 26, he was sent to the American Consulate in Costa Rica as a political affairs officer.
On a visit to his parents, Cozzens dropped by the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop. Weinberg, the shop’s owner, heard about Cozzens’ manuscript, asked to see it and was impressed. He submitted the manuscript to an acquaintance at the University of Illinois Press. Cozzens’ work remained untouched on a shelf for about a year before the editorial director finally read it. The manuscript was then forwarded to two well-known historians for review, and both recommended its publication.
No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River (University of Illinois Press, 1989) became a History Book Club bestseller as well as a Book of the Month Club pick in 1990. Almost 20,000 copies have been sold in hardcover and paperback, and both editions remain in print.
After finishing his two-year Foreign Service assignment in Costa Rica, Cozzens spent five years at the State Department, living in Alexandria, Va. It was at this point in his life when Cozzens realized that writing was his true passion. He took a year of unpaid leave to work on his second book, This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga (University of Illinois Press, 1992), and wrote 1,200 pages from beginning to end without editing or rewriting. “It consumed me-it was almost like it wrote itself, as if I had been there [at the battle site],”Cozzens recalls. The book received a favorable review in the Nov. 29, 1992, New York Times Book Review, which read in part: “Five hundred thirty-six pages of the two-day Battle of Chickamauga? Thanks to Mr. Cozzens’s bracing, vivid prose style and marvelous eye for personal detail, this reader hankered for even more.”
Though all of his books are about battles, Cozzens says he is fundamentally anti-war. “The concept of war is abhorrent,” he says. “What I try to do in my books is reveal the pure horror and silliness of the campaigns-the egos of the officers, the foibles of the generals. I don’t treat historical figures as icons or mythic characters. I look at their shortcomings as human beings.”
Book store owner Daniel Weinberg considers Cozzens to be one of the nation’s leading military historians. Cozzens has a fine narrative style, combined with research that academics trust, Weinberg explains.
Willis Regier, director of the University of Illinois Press in Champaign, Ill., which has published five of Cozzens’ books, says the author is “one of the elite Civil War historians in a dense and crowded field. There are only a few people who have managed to master all of the complexities of the subject-and he is one of them.” Gary W. Gallagher, a history professor at the University of Virginia, edited three of Cozzens’ books for The University of North Carolina Press. “There are very few people who write as well as Peter, and do the excellent research he brings to his work,” Gallagher says.
Married young, Cozzens and his first wife divorced in 1990. He largely blames his writing. “I may have devoted too much time to it,” he admits.
So Cozzens, at the end of his leave of absence from the State Department, decided to tailor his day job to suit his writing needs by getting off the fast-track career path in the Foreign Service. He changed to consular work with more regular office hours and fewer reports to write. In 1991, he was assigned a two-year position at the American Embassy in Lima, Peru. With just a 10-minute commute to work, he found that he had more time for his own writing. But Lima was under siege by members of the Shining Path, a terrorist group, with nightly bombings, dusk-to-dawn curfews and frequent power outages. There was even a terrorist attack outside his own apartment building, which shattered the windows in his bedroom. Luckily, Cozzens had left the apartment just moments earlier to walk his dog.
A year later in 1994, Cozzens was back at the State Department in Washington, D.C. Then 37, he was diagnosed with severe clinical depression and hospitalized for a short time. He attributed the illness to a combination of traumatic experiences in Peru and the extraordinary amount of time he spent writing. After recovering with the help of medication, Cozzens took several posts in Mexico and Central America. In 1996, he met and married his second wife, a Mexican woman. They divorced in 2005, in part, he says, because of his dedication to writing and failure to pay more attention to the relationship. Just after the divorce, Cozzens’ mother died. They had been very close, and Cozzens wound up suffering another bout of severe depression. He also was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Cozzens struggled with a deep sense of despair and a lack of self-worth, and he wondered if he could overcome his illness.
Two years ago, Cozzens was named office director for Western Hemisphere affairs in the Bureau of International Information Programs at the State Department in Washington, D.C., where he has remained. Today, with the help of medications, Cozzens’ condition is largely stable and he is trying to live a more balanced life with the help of his third wife, Antonia Feldman, 53. The couple married in October and live in North Bethesda.
Cozzens does his writing in the walkout basement level of his town house. The cozy space is lined with antique barrister bookcases filled with rare books, including first-edition personal narratives of the Civil War. A Civil War officer’s sword rests on the mantel next to a cannonball that Cozzens found on the ground in Monterrey, Mexico, at the site of the 1847 Battle of Buena Vista in the U.S.-Mexican War. Red velvet drapes line the windows, Oriental rugs cover the dark wood floor, and framed period photographs and original illustrations created for his books hang on the walls. It could be the study of a 19th century gentleman.
Cozzens plans to retire from the State Department in three years to write full time, and he may even try his hand at a Civil War novel. “I will look at it as a 9 to 5 job-it won’t consume the rest of my life,” he says. His current book, Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign (The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), was completed two years ago and published recently; his next manuscript- on the second Shenandoah battle in 1864-is not due to the publisher for seven years, a conscious decision on Cozzens’ part. “It was just too much; too heavy a pace to sustain,” he says.
Regular exercise has become a crucial component in Cozzens’ control of his illness, and it led to a chance encounter in 2006 at the Washington Sports Club in Bethesda. He and an attractive woman with short, dark hair were working out on adjacent exercise equipment. She was Antonia Feldman, and she advised him how to breathe while doing crunches. He tried her approach and liked it. “I was intrigued,” he recalls. That first meeting foreshadowed their relationship. Feldman has been able to show Cozzens how to do just what she first suggested: to take a deep breath and slow down the pace of his life.
After their initial exchange, the two went out for a drink. Cozzens says he was taken by Feldman’s warm personality and the “incredible breadths of her interests.” They spent a good part of the evening talking about Russian literature, a great love of hers.
“What really intrigued me was when he told me he had written 16 books,” she says. “I know what diplomatic life entails- packing bags, moving, dealing with new cultures and new languages.” But then she adds, smiling at her husband, “I tried to not show how impressed I was.” Feldman, who works for an international consulting firm in Arlington, Va., has a passion for the healing arts. She is a certified yoga instructor, Reiki master and hypnotherapist, and she has brought these soothing elements into her new husband’s life.
Born in Spain and raised in France, Feldman has a degree in linguistics from the Sorbonne in Paris and has worked as both an interpreter and a translator. The mother of two grown children, she was formerly married to an American diplomat and understands the upheaval of living in a variety of foreign places. She has lived in the Washington, D.C., area for the past 23 years, including 15 in Bethesda.
“Antonia is a very kind and sympathetic person who has given tremendous stability to my life,” Cozzens says. “Her positive, serene outlook on life was just what the doctor ordered.” Feldman recalls being shocked that “this brilliant man with all his accomplishments had doubts about himself-it was part of the condition,” she says. “It’s chemical; it’s not him.”
Feldman says she “started reading tremendously” and educated herself [about bipolar disorder].”I had never really dealt with this-I had misperceptions about it,” she says.
Together, they discovered that they had the ability to live with the disorder, and not in fear of it. Cozzens has come to realize that his illness doesn’t define him. “It’s a part of me and always will be,” he says, “but with medication and faith in yourself-and someone who has faith in you-you can accept it and manage it.
“[The diagnosis] has given me a clearer direction-the need for a more balanced life. Despite my love for writing, it’s better kept in moderation,” Cozzens explains. For now, he doesn’t miss the frantic pace, adding, “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life-I’ve found my soul mate.”
Cozzens is looking forward to writing articles for historical magazines-one every three months or so, “a nice, moderate, easy pace,” he says. The medications have impacted neither the quality of his writing nor his ability to write, he says. But the frenetic, intense need to write is gone. For Peter Cozzens, the darkest days may be behind him.
Lisa Braun-Kenigsberg lives in Potomac.