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MARCH 15, 2004

Friends by Chance

A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists,

By Rachel Cohen

(Random House, 342 pp., $25.95)

Click here to purchase the book.If snakes, as Emily Dickinson once said, prefer a boggy acre,
American literary biography must be crawling with them. Size counts
in American biography; wade in for twenty pages and you sink to
your knees. The English do it differently and better. English
biography, like so much else in contemporary British intellectual
life, is an invention of Bloomsbury. Lytton Strachey's Eminent
Victorians swept like a dry wind through what Virginia Woolf called
the "parti-colored, hybrid, monstrous" two-volume Victorian lives.
The traits we associate with Bloomsbury's "new biography"--an
amused curiosity about the ties between private and public
behavior, an approach to individual temperament informed but not
infested by Freudian ideas, a dryness of tone more given to irony
than enthusiasm--remain characteristic of the best English
biographies. Bloomsbury owed much to French writers--Flaubert,
Stendhal, and Proust--though not to French biographers. The French
do not really do biography; it barely exists as a serious genre in
France, but they do autobiography, which as a modern genre
Montaigne and Rousseau pretty much invented, with extraordinary

Modernism never really happened to American literary biography. You
would have to go back far, to Henry James's incisive Hawthorne in
1879, for something comparable to Strachey. It is a book best known
for James's claim that a biography of Hawthorne is all but
impossible, not only because so little happened in Hawthorne's
quiet life but because so little could happen in a land so sketchy,
so lacking in "complex social machinery," as the United States of
Hawthorne's time. Perhaps Hawthorne came too early to be a
significant influence. James's own later biography of the sculptor
William Wetmore Storey is more a loose collection of documents with
commentary than a book--precisely the kind of baggy, respectful
volume that Strachey set out to destroy. And James's life of his
brother William, as Rachel Cohen reminds us in her new book, turned
into an account of his own childhood and family instead, Notes of a
Son and Brother.

In retrospect, James's shift from biography to autobiography seems
symptomatic of the best American writing. Henry Adams (who wrote
dutiful short lives of Albert Gallatin and George Cabot Lodge)
could have been a brilliant biographer of his illustrious friends
John Hay or Clarence King; but he wrote a brilliant autobiography
instead, and so did Gertrude Stein, though his is in the third
person while hers is a first-person autobiography of someone else,
her companion, Alice B. Toklas. American literature, like French
literature, can boast magnificent examples of autobiography,
beginning with Benjamin Franklin and John Woolman and including
such more or less real-life adventures as Typee, Walden, The
Country of the Pointed Firs, and The Armies of the Night. But in
the matter of literary biography, one sees the wisdom of the editors
of the Library of America in excluding it altogether from our
American Pliade. English professors will continue to mention
reverently Leon Edel's multi-volume Henry James and Richard
Ellmann's James Joyce as monuments--and monuments they are, stately
and a bit lifeless on the shelf.

To achieve something new in literary biography, American biographers
have had to school themselves in the methods of Bloomsbury, as
Janet Malcolm has done to excellent effect in The Silent Woman, or
to revisit the sources of whatever we have of a native tradition,
as Jean Strouse and Louis Menand and Nicholas Delbanco, among
others, have done. For all of these writers, and for Bloomsbury,
too, the example of Henry James looms large, as both a theorist of
biography in fiction such as The Aspern Papers and as the writer in
our literature who has gone most deeply into the interconnectedness
of human lives. It is not an accident that many of our most
interesting biographers now eschew the single life, and insist
instead on the relational aspect of lives lived-- that we are who
we know and love and befriend and betray. (This insight is hardly
new--there are classical precedents--but it seems to require
periodic rediscovery.)

Rachel Cohen, in her cunningly crafted and meticulously written
book, has drawn on both these strands of biographical vitality, the
Bloomsbury line and the Jamesian line, and has produced, in her
first book, something fresh and unexpected and promising. What
Cohen has written is not so much a group biography as a sort of
evocative matrix of writers and artists over time, with
exhilarating overlap and cross-reference.

The thirty people gathered here 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 saw each other first in a photography studio, or a magazine
office, and they talked for a few hours or for forty years. Later
it felt to them, as it often does, entirely by chance that they had
met and yet impossible that they could have missed each other.

Cohen's title comes from an appealing bit of memoir by Willa Cather,
in which Cather recounts her chance encounter, in 1930 in a hotel
in the South of France, with the eighty-four-year-old niece of
Gustave Flaubert. For the deeply reactionary Cather, Madame Grout
is the embodiment of everything she admires in European culture,
and a reminder of all those "absent things" that James, in his book
on Hawthorne, lamented in crass America:

She was not an idealist; she had lived through two wars. She was one
of the least visionary and sentimental persons I have ever met. She
knew that conditions and circumstances, not their own wishes,
dictate the actions of men. In her mind there was a kind of large
enlightenment, like that of the many- windowed workroom [of
Flaubert] at Croisset, with the cool, tempered northern light
pouring into it.

With her thirty characters and thirty-six "chance meetings," Rachel
Cohen is in search of a kindred many-windowed enlightenment.

At first glance, the reader might mistake Cohen's book for a more
casual and upbeat and politically correct version of Edmund
Wilson's The Shock of Recognition, a documentary literary history,
first published sixty years ago. In both books, the march of
American writing is presented as a series of encounters among
writers, though Cohen's writers met at parties or offices while
Wilson's writers "met" by reading one another's books. (When
Emerson actually met Whitman, he somewhat regretted his initial
enthusiasm about Leaves of Grass.) Inevitably, many of the same
writers figure in both books--Whitman, Mark Twain, Howells, the
Jameses. Neither book tries very hard to unsettle the established
canon of American literature, though Cohen's is the updated canon
that now includes more women (Wilson's book is subtitled "The
Development of Literature in the United States Recorded by the Men
Who Made It") and people of color (there are none in Wilson). Even
in this regard, however, Cohen does not stray far from Wilson's
narrative. She introduces both W.E.B. Du Bois and Gertrude Stein
(absent in The Shock of Recognition) as students of William James,
and James Baldwin as an admirer of Henry James. Ulysses S. Grant,
about whom Cohen writes well, owes much of his contemporary
reputation as a writer to Wilson's championing of Grant's memoirs
in Patriotic Gore.

So A Chance Meeting is not really an attempt to redraw the map of
American literature. Except for a few conversations with the
photographer Richard Avedon, it is not based on original research;
Cohen has gone where good literary biographies could take her. She
is not in the business of burnishing the reputations of neglected
figures. Her choices of twentieth-century American poets--Hart
Crane, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop--will
antagonize nobody. Her slightly more idiosyncratic choice of prose
writers from the same period--Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Zora
Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer--is almost as safe.
There are a couple of surprises, such as Carl Van Vechten and
Katherine Anne Porter, but you cannot write about the social
landscape of the Harlem Renaissance without including Van Vechten,
whose writings, in any case, interest Cohen less than his
photographs. And Porter, who hosted Hart Crane during a rough patch
in Mexico and came late to admire Cather, whom she never met,
provides a useful thread for Cohen's "intertwining." Cohen's
selection of "artists," mainly portrait photographers with a
handful of oddball others (Duchamp, John Cage, Joseph Cornell) mixed
in, is surprising in other ways--no Sargent or Saint-Gaudens, no
Abstract Expressionists, no Fairfield Porter or Larry Rivers.

Cohen offers some beguilingly arbitrary rules for inclusion or
exclusion. Her writers and artists "were born in America," they
"lived in cities," they "spent quite a lot of their time visiting
and talking." So no Faulkner, or any other writers based in the
South, and no Frost or Dickinson, holed up in Amherst. Henry Adams
and Edith Wharton are excluded for the dubious reason that "the
people in this book were interested in social reality, but by and
large they did not document it." (If Du Bois and Mailer did not
document social reality, what exactly were they up to?) Cohen's
true and perfectly defensible criterion is the one she offers last:
"Finally, and fundamentally, I wrote about people whose company I
felt I had an instinct for."; As one reads A Chance Meeting, one
comes to trust Cohen's instincts.

As one reads A Chance Meeting, one comes to trust Cohen's instincts.
Her book preserves a delicate balance between the apparently random
(the "chance" of her title) and the obsessive. One also comes to
see that her real subject is not "American literature" or "American
culture," or some implied argument about the period bookended by
the Civil War and the civil rights movement. It is true that she
goes into the Harlem Renaissance in some depth, but here her choice
of figures invites closer scrutiny. She rightly chides Van Vechten,
in his unfortunately named novel Nigger Heaven and elsewhere, for
his patronizing preference for "primitive" themes in black writing
and art. (She might have added Sherwood Anderson's Dark Laughter,
and the whole genre of such novels that celebrated the
happy-go-lucky "Negro life.") But Cohen seems to lean in the same
direction when she celebrates Zora Neale Hurston's brand of
zaniness (itself a pose), as dramatized in such books as Hurston's
collection of African American folklore Mules and Men, and she
scolds Jessie Fauset--an admirable novelist--for her primness and
dull parties: "these were formal and less fun ... and besides there
was never much to drink." She seems not to grasp that Fauset and Du
Bois embraced formality and sobriety in order to counter precisely
the kinds of stereotypes of happy, hard-drinking black people
perpetuated by the likes of Van Vechten and Anderson.

Cohen's true subject is a more private hoard of concerns, artfully
arrayed across the whole canvas of the book. One of these is the
nature of collectors and collecting--the processes by which we
gather the objects and people we "have an instinct for." She is a
physiognomist of sorts--a "collector of people, " as she calls
Avedon--with an overriding interest in the variety and meaning of
human faces. And finally she is a student of the nature of
friendship. A poignant admission in her introduction records the
genesis of A Chance Meeting: "a solitary year spent driving around
the United States" with a trunk full of books by Henry James, Willa
Cather, and the rest. And what did she want to learn from these
writers during her solitary Wanderjahr? "I cared most to know how
they felt about friendship."

Cohen's opening "chance meeting," not really by chance and not
exactly a meeting, takes place on the August day in 1854 when Henry
James's father decided to have a daguerreotype taken of himself and
his eleven-year-old son in the studio of the photographer Mathew
Brady on lower Broadway in New York.

They had come in from the country. It was August, the attractions of
the summer house had begun to wane, and Henry James, Sr., had
discovered that he had a bit of business at the New York
Tribune--that he had, pressingly, to see a gentleman about an idea.
He had kissed his wife and collected his small son, Henry, Jr., and
they had taken the ferry. Once they were under way, the senior
James had been seized with the happy thought of presenting Mrs.
James with a surprise, a daguerreotype of the two of them. When
Henry James, Jr., wrote about that day years later, he couldn't
quite remember but was affectionately certain that his father would
have given away the secret the moment they returned: "He moved in a
cloud, if not rather in a high radiance, of precipitation and

This handsomely deployed opening paragraph starts many of the hares
in Cohen's hunt. There is at the outset the idea of the attractions
of the city. There is the hovering question about what really
happened, and how memory has its own claims to reality: "he
couldn't quite remember but was affectionately certain." There is
the countervailing kind of evidence of the past provided by the
photograph, a "fragile enterprise," according to Cohen, in which
Brady's soft voice and gentle movements coaxed something special
from his sitters-- exposed them, you might say. "His presence
calmed his subjects and allowed them, as they waited for the
exposure, to settle into themselves, so that the depth of their
experience was evident on their faces." (Cohen's own prose, an
unlikely hybrid of Cather's restrained clarity and Stein's slightly
wayward accretions, is itself calming and patient of exposure.) And
there is the theme of collecting, both in Brady's outrageously
ambitious and nearly successful project of "photographing every
well-known or influential American of his day" and in Cohen's own
culling of scenes and quotations--that "high radiance of
precipitation and divulgation"--from this calm moment when James pre
"collected his small son" before the war.

When we see Brady again in A Chance Meeting, he is photographing
General Grant in 1864. Still a "completist," according to Cohen,
Brady is assembling the other great collection for which he is
known: his photographs, and those by his gifted assistants, of
Civil War soldiers and battlefields. "Always driven, he became a
recording fury, pushing, pushing, pushing to get people into his
collection before they went to the grave." It is characteristic of
Cohen's eye for coincidence that Grant, as captured by Brady's
camera, "wore a long coat with nine buttons running down each side"
and that Henry James, Jr., sitting for the same camera ten years
earlier, had worn "a narrowly cut coat with a long row of nine
bright buttons." The buttons were an embarrassment for James.
Thackeray had scrutinized the nine buttons on a visit to the James
family and remarked that were James to go to England, he would
surely be addressed as "Buttons."

The impact of the Civil War on participants and non-combatants runs
through the first ten or so chapters of Cohen's book and remains a
leitmotif throughout. Among her best chapters is the one titled
"William Dean Howells and Annie Adams Fields and Walt Whitman." The
point of the chapter is that Howells, about whom Cohen writes
affectionately, somehow missed the great drama of his age. (In this
regard, the theme of the chapter resembles Henry James's great
stories "The Beast in the Jungle" and "The Jolly Corner.") In his
strenuous efforts to make his way as a literary man, Howells, a
bright boy from Ohio, cultivated Boston literary insiders such as
the publisher James Fields and his wife, Annie. Howells got his
wish and became the consummate Boston insider himself, turning down
Whitman's poetry for The Atlantic Monthly and reviewing Leaves of
Grass as a nightmare: the reader "goes through his book, like one
in an ill-conditioned dream, perfectly nude, with his clothes over
his arm." When Howells actually met Whitman, by chance, at Pfaff's
saloon on lower Broadway in August 1860, he didn't know what to
say--and Cohen finds in this missed opportunity a key to Howells's
career and a turning point in American literary history:

It was the moment before the cataclysm that was to divide the age of
Lowell and Holmes from that of Whitman. But for William Dean
Howells, his encounter with Whitman was somewhat less thrilling
than it had been to stand in the Fieldses' library and talk of
writers "whose names were dear to me from my love of their work."
For Whitman, it was likely another night at Pfaff's.

Howells managed to miss the "cataclysm" as well, having cashed in a
campaign biography he had written for Lincoln for an appointment as
vice consul in Venice. While Lincoln directed the Army of the
Republic and Whitman visited its wounded soldiers in temporary
hospital beds in Washington, Howells pushed papers. He could have
met Lincoln twice--to interview him for the biography and to thank
him for the appointment--and he avoided both opportunities ("the
greatest chance of my life in its kind"). When Howells returned from
Venice, Lincoln was dead, and the best Howells could do was to
attend one of Whitman's popular lectures on the dead president.
Cohen's conclusion is shattering: "Whitman and Lincoln are now
twined together, possibly the two greatest missed opportunities of
Howells's life, the two hands he could have taken hold of had he
wished, as he later did, for a life more connected with the
suffering of his own time."

As Cohen's map of interconnectedness enters the twentieth century,
another criterion for inclusion in the book emerges more clearly.
Under Mathew Brady's scrutiny, the eleven-year-old Henry James with
his nine buttons had had the feeling that he and his family were
"somehow queer." Cohen interprets James's unease to mean that
beyond their obvious idiosyncrasies (Irish descent, Swedenborgian
persuasion, rootless wanderings), the James family "were different
because they were American," and that James's uneasiness "presaged
his lifelong struggle to define a place for an American artist in a
world where history and taste belonged to Europe." Since, as she
puts it, Henry James "did in fact grow up to be rather more queer
than otherwise," Cohen allows herself a bit of linguistic sleight
of hand; like the young Henry James, she associates being
queer--though not in the way he meant it--with being American.

One could make a plausible argument that much of mainstream American
literature is the legacy of gay and lesbian writers. It is an
argument that Cohen makes only by implication. Even leaving aside
the giants whom Cohen does not include (Melville at one end; Frank
O'Hara, Merrill, and Ashbery at the other), she is able to marshal
a forceful parade beginning with Henry James and Whitman and moving
on to Jewett, Stein, Cather, Hughes, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop,
John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and
James Baldwin. But she is less interested in some alchemical
affinity between same-sex inclinations and artistic creativity than
she is in the webs of friendship and family spun among her mainly
childless writers and artists. Cohen has a nuanced sympathy for
these hard-to-name alliances: the "Boston marriage" of Annie Fields
and Sarah Orne Jewett; the father-and-son bond between the Harlem
Renaissance painter Beauford Delaney and the fatherless James
Baldwin; the mother-daughter bond between Marianne Moore and the
motherless Elizabeth Bishop; the oddly configured Woojums family,
established during Gertrude Stein's triumphant lecture tour of the
United States in 1935, in which "Van Vechten was Papa Woojums,
Stein was Baby Woojums, and Toklas was Mama Woojums." She is alert
to the ways in which such relationships constituted safety nets for
vulnerable psyches. Katherine Anne Porter, surely the least
"nurturing" of women, provided a safe haven for Crane during his
crack-up in Mexico, and Baldwin sheltered Delaney during Delaney's
escalating paranoia.

I think that there is a utopian dream behind Cohen's family tree of
"intertwined lives." To the idea of literary influence she offers as
a counter- model Gertrude Stein's idea that "each American chooses
a tradition, collects, in some sense, his or her own sensibility."
To the idea--most vigorously advanced by Harold Bloom--that each
writer has to wrestle with precursors, forging an identity from
this Oedipal struggle, she constructs a more benevolent family
romance, where writers establish temporary refuges in which they
can create their work. Temperamentally, Cohen is more Bloomsbury
than Bloom, and her Americans have the kind of "only connect"
multivalence--both sexual and artistic--that we associate with
Carrington and Lytton Strachey and E.M. Forster or, closer to home,
with the cluster of artists and writers at Black Mountain College
(briefly sketched by Cohen) during and after World War II. For the
writers and artists whom she has "collected," I think her model is
largely accurate, and it reveals a world of artistic creation based
more on cooperation than competition. But there is a weakness to
this strength. Cohen is averse to the darker compulsions of artists
and writers; even her shadows are the artfully controlled props of
the photographer's studio. She instinctively shies away from the
patricidal venom directed from Norman Mailer toward Hemingway or
from James Baldwin toward Richard Wright, and she makes a wide
detour around the fiercely competitive and father-killing Abstract

Cohen has another affinity for Bloomsbury in her gingerly crossing
of the line between fact and fiction. For the most part, A Chance
Meeting sticks to the facts--what Virginia Woolf called the
"granite" of biography, as opposed to the "rainbow" of
personality--as established in the biographies that serve as her
sources. But from time to time, especially at the beginning and the
end of chapters, she indulges in fanciful invention. She is
scrupulous about punctuating these sections with little linguistic
flags--"perhaps," "maybe," "might have," "could have been"--and her
interesting endnotes add more warnings of such fictional potholes.

The result can be unsettling for two reasons. First, Cohen implies
by her warnings that the distinction between biographical fact and
fiction is absolute, and that sentences unmarked by maybes and
might have beens are trustworthy beyond a reasonable doubt. Every
biographer knows that this is not the case, that biography involves
a constant reassessment of the "facts" in the light of new evidence
or understanding. Second, Cohen sometimes blurs fact and fiction in
an uneasy composite. Thus she records a moment when Du Bois lifts
his hat to Delaney and says: "Evening, Delaney." Her endnote reads
in part:

In 1941, a friend of Delaney's actually witnessed almost precisely
this interaction, of Du Bois raising his hat to Delaney in
Washington Square Park, though Du Bois said, "Good afternoon,
Delaney," instead of, "Evening, Delaney." This is reported in David
Leeming's biography of Delaney.... I took the liberty of moving the
scene back a decade.

The conflicted phrasing here, "actually witnessed almost precisely,"
is symptomatic. The word "liberty," to characterize a scene moved
ten years earlier and adjusted from evening to afternoon, is meant
to evoke "poetic license," and sound like a modest and pardonable
stretch. Such liberties should leave the reader uneasy. As Virginia
Woolf remarked of a similar fudging of the facts in Harold
Nicolson's Some People (1927), "Let it be fact, one feels, or let
it be fiction; the imagination will not serve under two masters

In almost every case, Cohen's inventions serve her utopian ends by
forging an even tighter web of intimacies than the documentary
record alone would support. A Chance Meeting makes abundantly clear
that Rachel Cohen is herself a "collector." One might say of her
book what Van Vechten said of Stein's Selected Works, "A Collection
is a Collection is a Collection." She has assembled with a fan's
passion her own ideal family of writers and photographers and
artists. Despite her title, she is less an acolyte of chance than
Duchamp or Cage, who collected objects and sounds literally found in
the streets. Her wishful manipulations of the factual record are
more in the spirit of another artist she admires, Joseph Cornell,
who lived on Utopia Parkway in Queens and assembled his boxes,
little shrines to people he wished he had known, with meticulous
care. But then, as Duchamp liked to say, "Your chance is not the
same as mine, is it?"

By Christopher Benfey

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