- A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists 1854-1967
In this, her debut book, Harvard graduate Rachel Cohen weaves a literary tapestry encompassing the lives of 30 of America’s great writers, photographers and artists, into 36 distinct chapters. Part biography, part flight-of-fancy speculation, Cohen’s final product, complete with references, source material, and footnotes was 10 years in the making.
Clearly a great deal of thought went into how the 30 artists were chosen. Cohen speaks of choosing those who were born in America, lived in cities and who “spent quite a lot of their time visiting and talking.” She also chose people whose lives overlapped at some point or who stated that they were influenced by artists who had come before them. But perhaps her most important criteria is as she writes unabashedly in her introduction, “I wrote about people whose company I felt I had an instinct for.” So while there are no chapters on William Faulkner, Robert Frost, or Edith Wharton, the chapters – all essays unto themselves – do offer a glimpse into the lives of such luminaries as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Georgia O’Keefe, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, and Henry James to name but a few.
The book’s title comes from an essay written by Willa Cather regarding her own chance meeting with the 84-year-old niece of Gustave Flaubert, whom she met in a hotel in Provence in 1930. Writes Cohen, “When she found out who the lady was, Cather wrote, ‘I took one of her lovely hands and kissed it in homage to a great period.’”
In her introduction, Cohen writes of the 30 players, “They met in ordinary ways, a careful arrangement after long admiration, a friend’s casual introduction, or because they both just happened to be standing near the drinks… They talked to each other for a few hours or for forty years, and later it seemed to them impossible that they could have missed each other.” Thus Cohen paves the way for setting up a meeting in each chapter that did indeed take place between two or more historical figures. From there, though – and this is what makes Cohen’s book unique and indeed daring – is her decision to combine her methodical, analytical academic research with a novelist’s ultimate question: “What if?” And so, we are provided with a glimpse into the world of these great American artists spanning the civil war to the civil rights movement, and how they influenced not only each other, but an entire generation.
There are some critics who have argued that Cohen goes too far in her speculations, for example in the chapter on Willa Cather and Sarah Orne Jewett, Cohen writes that Cather’s literary path was shaped by the fact that she never met Henry James, yet there is no way to prove such a theory. Or that revealing that Henry James (in the opening chapter) feels a “persistent uneasiness” while having his portrait taken by Mathew Brady, is also impossible to deduce. Nevertheless, Cohen has so many delightful speculations that a few instances that cannot be substantiated seem to be minor quibbles when reading the book as a whole. To conjure up a picture of six-year-old Henry James eating ice-cream with his father on his way to having his portrait taken, is delightful; lifting a long-dead historical figure off the page and bringing him back to life.
Cohen’s gift lies in her ability to create three-dimensional lives from historical information. Additionally, we tend to approach literary greats with a sense of reverence and awe, forgetting that these people did not live in a vacuum, and that their greatest work was inspired and fueled by their interactions with other people. So to read speculative accounts (based on factual material) of Walt Whitman’s male lovers, or Charlie Chaplin’s obsessions, or Hart Crane’s final hours with Katharine Porter before his heartbreakingly poignant suicide, reminds us that these artists were indeed human.
At no point does Cohen attempt to pass off fact as fiction always stating where necessary ‘Suppose’, ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’, or ‘What if?’ On one level these short, succinct chapters give us a brief but intimate look into the lives of many of America’s literary greats – something few biographies manage to achieve. But on a much deeper level, the book is an insight into over a century’s worth of America’s social, political, and cultural heritage.
Each chapter also provides a photograph of the artist, and some chapters are devoted to the photographers themselves, including Mathew Brady, Edward Steichen, and Carl Van Vechten. Cohen also speculates on how the artist came to be posed “just so” and reveals intricate details down to the clothes they wore to the photo shoot, and the mood they were in at the time. The juxtaposition of the narrative chapters with their accompanying portraits reveals Cohen’s talent as both a contemplative and a visual artist.
As a writer who has been published in The New Yorker, and The Threepenny Review, it’s difficult to know whether Cohen’s next book will be an academic literary treatise or a novel. Because she certainly has it in her to write both.