A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967

A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967

by Rachel Cohen

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“They met in ordinary ways,” writes Rachel Cohen in her introduction, “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


“They met in ordinary ways,” writes Rachel Cohen in her introduction, “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.”

Each chapter of this inventive consideration of American culture evokes an actual meeting between two historical figures. In 1854, Henry James, as a boy, goes with his father to have a daguerreotype made by Mathew Brady and is captured in a moment of self-consciousness about being American. Brady returns to photograph Walt Whitman and, later, at City Point in the midst of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant. Meanwhile, Henry James begins a lasting friendship with William Dean Howells, and also meets Sarah Orne Jewett, who in turn is a mentor to Willa Cather. Mark Twain publishes Grant’s memoirs; W.E.B. Du Bois and his professor William James visit the young Helen Keller; and Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz argue about photography. Later, Carl Van Vechten and Gertrude Stein, who was also a student of William James’s, attend a performance of The Rite of Spring; Hart Crane goes out on the town with Charlie Chaplin; Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston write a play together; Elizabeth Bishop takes Marianne Moore, who was photographed by both Van Vechten and Richard Avedon, to the circus; Avedon and James Baldwin collaborate on a book; John Cage and Marcel Duchamp play chess; and Norman Mailer and Robert Lowell march on the Pentagon in the anti–Vietnam War demonstration of1967. The accumulation of these pairings draws the reader into the mysterious process through which creativity has been sparked and passed on among iconoclastic American writers and artists.

Ultimately, Rachel Cohen reveals a long chain of friendship, rebellion, and influence stretching from the moment just before the Civil War through a century that had a profound effect on our own time. Drawing on a decade of research, A Chance Meeting makes its own illuminating contribution to the tradition of which Cohen writes.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
A Chance Meeting is a creative social history, comprising three dozen fascinating, interrelated essays chronicling the friendships, animosities, jealousies, and mutual encouragement that influenced the lives of a colorful spectrum of deeply talented American writers, photographers, and painters.

Traveling in time from the Civil War to the civil rights movement, Cohen retraces the important relationships formed by those who would influence our artistic landscape. From Henry James to Mark Twain and from Alfred Steiglitz to Richard Avedon and beyond, Cohen captures unique moments in the interaction of writers and artists with their peers. Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes meet during the heady days of the burgeoning Harlem Renaissance. Charlie Chaplin, beloved Little Tramp of the silent film era, exhibits an entirely different persona in the presence of W.E.B. Du Bois and Hart Crane. Sarah Orne Jewett offers advice to a young Willa Cather: "[Y]ou must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up. Otherwise what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness, and what might be insightful is only observation…."

Cohen's essays speak both to what has changed in modern American society and, strangely, to what has not. To read them is to see the evolution of a country, and a unique mapping of the American cultural landscape. (Summer 2004 Selection)

The New York Times
Taken together, these engaging and generously detailed essays reveal the necessity of friendship, in all its forms and phases -- the rush of infatuation, the sustenance of a lifelong correspondence, the bitter embers of a falling out -- to the creative life. — Kate Bolick
The New Yorker
In a manner that half recalls the friezes behind Barnes & Noble coffee bars of literary notables hobnobbing in an idealized café, Cohen’s innovative study examines a century of American culture by describing historical encounters between such figures as Henry James, William Dean Howells, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, and Richard Avedon. Purists may quibble that Cohen varnishes her accounts with a layer of imaginative license, but her instincts are faultless; she gives a more intimate sense of these people in a few pages than one sometimes gleans from entire biographies. Anatomizing relationships based on love, admiration, envy, dislike—and, most often, a mixture of these—Cohen advances no thesis. But her effects are cumulative, as later writers and photographers, preoccupied with the sense of themselves as American artists, anxiously measure themselves against forebears we have already met.
Publishers Weekly
Though writers are notorious loners, they often form bonds with their peers. By focusing on these irregular alliances, Cohen, in her book debut, provides an engrossing, if simplistic, cavalcade of American arts from the Civil War period through the 1960s. She has selected 30 American artists (mostly writers) and produced admirably vivid portraits of their friendships with their fellow artists. The picturesque and piquant are paramount in Cohen's method-Marianne Moore sports a tricorn hat, Elizabeth Bishop sips coffee in Brazil. Though her anecdotes will be familiar to cognoscenti, Cohen does a fair job of digesting and recapitulating Leon Edel's Henry James, Arnold Rampersad's Langston Hughes, Justin Kaplan's Twain et al. into pointillist chunks that have their own febrile charm. The visual arts are represented largely by portrait photographers such as Steichen, Van Vechten and Richard Avedon. Since their circles of acquaintance were larger, the gregarious and extroverted get more space in Cohen's presentation. This has the effect of skewing the big picture of American letters into a continuous cocktail party. And while Cohen shines at description-taking the reader into the streets and into the parlors of a dozen different eras-the book as a whole suffers from a persistent use of what Cohen calls "guesswork," including imagined conversations and invented characters that lend a novelistic sheen to the proceedings. Never less than readable, this book bears the same relation to history as Irving Stone's once-celebrated treatments of notable lives (Lust for Life, The Agony and the Ecstasy)-only he called his fantasias "novels." (Mar.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Cohen, who teaches in the Sarah Lawrence nonfiction M.F.A. program, won the 2003 PEN/Jerard Fund Award for emerging women nonfiction writers for the manuscript of this book. Entertaining and accessible, A Chance Meeting shows how the lives of various prominent figures (e.g., Alfred Stieglitz and Hart Crane, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore and Norman Mailer) have intertwined to produce some distinctly American forms of expression. Considering the years between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, Cohen evokes the relationships of some 30 writers and artists, focusing on those moments in their lives when they became aware of what it meant to be American (as when a young Henry James posed for Civil War photographer Mathew Brady in his studio). Cohen begins and ends each chapter with fictionalized re-creations of the meetings and then fills in the accounts with facts gleaned from her extensive research and quotes from correspondence and other sources. The fictionalization of these encounters will put off some academics, as will the lack of detailed references. There is an impressive bibliography, but the chapter notes at the end of the book refer to the sources only generally. In the end, alas, the book seems too popular for the academic market and too academic for the popular market. An optional purchase for academic libraries or public libraries with strong literature collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/03.]-Alison M. Lewis, Drexel Univ. Lib., Philadelphia Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Or, six degrees of Walt Whitman: a lively work of American cultural history that follows trails of acquaintanceship and influence across the generations. Back when the world was larger but the numbers of people within it smaller, it was possible for men and women of culture to seek one another out and, by the mere act of meeting, constitute a movement of sorts that could have all manner of strange reverberations. Consider that William James once suffered an attack of angina while walking through the streets of Vienna with Sigmund Freud, at about the time Leo Stein was wandering through the hills of Tuscany with Bernard Berenson; having just read James's Principles of Psychology, Stein was well armed with arguments to berate his sister Gertrude for "writing only on the surface and . . . lacking psychological depth," a charge Gertrude would later level at Ernest Hemingway. Or consider the poet Marianne Moore's meetings with the artist Joseph Cornell, who took time out from his infatuations with Marcel Duchamp and Marlene Dietrich to court her, later ruefully remarking to his sister, "You know, I was thinking, I wish I hadn't been so reserved"; Moore turned away Cornell's offer of marriage, but, late in life, developed crushes on Norman Mailer and Muhammad Ali, casually introduced to both by George Plimpton. Cohen (MFA program/Sarah Lawrence), a young scholar, peppers all this with dozens of chance encounters, some of them history-making (Mark Twain's friendship with Ulysses S. Grant, Henry James's with Willa Cather) and some of them mere, if sometimes elegant, moments (Charlie Chaplin's encounter with W.E.B. Dubois at the Swiss hotel where Henry James had set Daisy Miller, Peggy Cowley andHart Crane's drunken viewing of a Chaplin film in Mexico City). These moments add up to a fresh if sidelong look at American letters, and to a work that culturally minded readers will greatly enjoy. Agent: Eric Simonoff/Janklow & Nesbit

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Random House Publishing Group
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6.62(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.28(d)

Read an Excerpt


Henry James and Mathew Brady

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 divulgation.”

When they got off the ferry perhaps they went home first. It was 1854, the year Henry James turned eleven, and the James family was living on Fourteenth Street, off Union Square. The little boy and his father used to spend a great deal of time walking around lower Manhattan. Henry James, Sr., liked to walk -- though he had lost a leg in a fire when he was thirteen and had a wooden leg, and later a cork one -- and Henry James, Jr., liked very much to have his father to himself, away from the overshadowing presence of his always-more-brilliant older brother, William. When they came to Union Square, they used to pause to read the playbills with the details of the latest theatricals. Then they would wander down Broadway to Fourth Street, where they stopped in to talk with Mrs. Cannon, who ran the welcoming downstairs shop of items necessary to gentlemen -- pocket handkerchiefs, collars, neckties, and straw-covered bottles of cologne -- and finally they descended to the lower reaches of Broadway, to the Bookstore, whose friendly British proprietor sometimes came to dinner at their house. At the Bookstore they always asked for the latest issue of The Charm, a yellow periodical from England to which the father subscribed on behalf of his son, and which never came often enough.

The two Henry Jameses almost certainly walked to Mathew Brady’s studio at 359 Broadway, somewhat north of P. T. Barnum’s Museum. The studio was on the second floor, above Thompson’s Dining Saloon, where the James family very often went for ice cream, in those days a great delicacy, though the Jameses were known to eat it weekly. James remembered in his autobiography A Small Boy & Others that they frequented two ice-cream parlors,Thompson’s and Taylor’s: “the former, I perfectly recall, grave and immemorial, the latter upstart but dazzling.”

Brady’s studio was admirably placed, next to a piano store, among dressmakers and other portrait studios, in the midst of the heaviest traffic of the wealthiest residents. In 1854, there were well over one hundred daguerreotype shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn -- Brady’s was among the most luxurious. His studio had velvet carpets, fine lace curtains, satin and gold on the walls, an immense chandelier, waiting areas with little couches and marble-topped tables, great brilliant skylights that Brady had designed himself, and, hanging on the walls, daguerreotypes of generals and presidents, kings, queens, and nobility.

Brady, whose origins in upstate New York were somewhat obscure, seems to have arrived in Manhattan in 1839 or 1840; Louis Daguerre’s new process of exposing silver-plated copper to make an image was announced in Paris in January of 1839. Like many photographers, Brady was also an inventor.Two years after the Jameses’ sitting, Brady introduced his signature photographs, printed according to his own method on salted paper. The large and impressive “Brady Imperials” further established the photographer as the American equivalent of a court painter. Over the course of his career, Brady photographed Zachary Taylor, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, the Prince of Wales, Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, Abraham Lincoln many times, and, with considerably more respect than they were often given, the delegations from the Sioux and Ute nations when they came east to sign a treaty in Washington in 1868. The small Henry James, who waited for the curtain to rise at the theater with “the sacred thrill,” would have cared more that Brady also photographed Edwin Forrest, Edwin Booth, Jenny Lind, and Charlotte Cushman.

Before he became a photographer, Brady made cases for jewelry and daguerreotypes; he had small, nimble hands and a great facility for arranging things. One of his friends described Brady as “felicitously prehensile. He knows how to seize upon opportunity and how to handle it afterward.” In the New York of that day, wealth had not the age or assurance that it had in Boston, and the colossal fortunes that were to be amassed by the denizens of Manhattan in the decades immediately after the Civil War were only incipient in 1854. Still, there were many ladies and gentlemen of great ease -- much greater than that guaranteed by the independent but fluctuating means of the James family -- and when these ladies and gentlemen considered where to have their photographs taken, they were reminded by Brady’s appealing advertisements that he had won medals at many international competitions, including the recent Great Exhibition in London sponsored by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. At the exhibition, Americans had proved themselves unusually skilled, as their proud compatriots noted. “In daguerreotypes,” wrote newspaperman Horace Greeley, a Brady subject, “we beat the world.” It was fashionable, and it was American, to sit for Brady.

In 1850, Brady’s daguerreotypes had been the basis of a book of printed reproductions called A Gallery of Illustrious Americans; Brady was embarked on a project, at which he would very nearly succeed, of photographing every well-known or influential American of his day.

Mathew Brady was married and had children of his own, but he thought his collection, not his descendants, would carry his name into history. Henry James, Sr., who was quite invested in his descendants, and who kept track of greatness with an avidity that was to seriously complicate his two eldest sons’ sense of accomplishment throughout their lives, cannot possibly have avoided knowing and communicating to the younger Henry what it meant to be photographed by Brady.

Brady himself might have made an impression on the future novelist, later so sensitive to masculine beauty. Brady had curly dark hair, a handsome profile, a goatee -- he once went to a costume party dressed as the painter Van Dyck -- and spectacles that corrected for nearsightedness. Brady was too myopic to take his own photographs. For the actual photographing he maintained a staff of artists, operators, and assistants that, at the time of the James daguerreotype, numbered twenty-six. And yet there was no question that Brady photographs felt distinctively like Brady’s work -- the Jameses would have concurred with the general opinion that Brady’s subjects consistently seemed more like themselves than did people in other photographs. People said that looking at a Brady picture one felt as if one had been properly introduced. Brady’s success in this fragile enterprise may have had to do with the softness of his voice, his gentle, unhurried movements as he arranged his sitters, and the sureness with which he directed his assistants. 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. The photographs had style, a quality to which Henry James, Jr., was very nearly slave; he sought it abroad all his life, and in America, whenever he returned, he deplored its lack.

When the two Henry Jameses sat for their picture, the camera operator saw a delicate-featured little boy wearing a narrowly cut coat with a long row of nine bright buttons. His back was very straight; he held his shoulders well. In his left hand he carried a white broad-brimmed hat, and he stood on a box so that he could rest his right arm on the shoulder of his father, who was seated. His father had a bald head and a beard; he grasped the head of a cane with both hands. The little boy looked directly at the camera, but there was something inward-turning and reflective in his eyes.

Nearly sixty years later, James remembered that, while posing, he was thinking about a visit that his family had recently had from the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray; the initial moment of this encounter seems to have been burned into James’s memory. James stood in the hallway. The honored guest had been installed in the parlor and from there called out to him, “Come here, little boy, and show me your extraordinary jacket!” James’s coat, the one he always wore, had, apparently, more buttons than the English jacket of the day. James wrote that Thackeray, “though he laid on my shoulder the hand of benevolence, bent on my native costume the spectacles of wonder.” The James family gathered around their distinguished visitor,watching the older man, the great novelist, bending and scrutinizing buttons. Thackeray lifted his eyebrows and remarked that “in England,were I to go there, I should be addressed as ‘Buttons.’ ” In his memoir James added, “My sense of the jacket became from that hour a heavy one.”

This would have been particularly painful, as, at that time, Henry James longed for nothing so much as to go to England. His parents talked endlessly of Europe as the paragon of culture. The children’s books were exclusively English; the smell of new ink on freshly cut pages, a smell to which Henry James was addicted as to “a vital tonic,” was referred to in the family as “the English smell.” Henry James had become convinced that in Europe he, who at school had so little of William’s assurance and success, would finally be at ease, and he lived in a state of fevered anticipation, dreaming of the journey they were to make there. Perhaps the small Henry lay in bed the night after Thackeray’s arrival, feeling his usual self-scrutiny intensify, considering his clothes, his too-numerous buttons, sensing fearfully that perhaps he would not, after all, find himself at home in England, even in sleep still vaguely troubled.

When, some weeks later, following the whim of Henry James, Sr., they went to have the daguerreotype made, it happened completely on the spur of the moment, so that Henry James, Jr., distinctly recollected arriving at Brady’s studio without having had a chance to change the offending jacket. The young James stood looking at Brady and his camera and all the assistants watching him and his father. He waited for a long time, three or four minutes, with his head in the clamp that was used to keep subjects perfectly still while the exposure took, and, as he stood, Henry James had a moment of excruciating self-consciousness. It’s perhaps not surprising that he remembered, all those years later, that he had thought about his buttons. And that he had felt with almost crushing clarity, standing there “in Mr. Brady’s vise,” that he and his family were “somehow queer.”

Henry James did in fact grow up to be rather more queer than otherwise, but at the time he meant that his family was different, and the James family was different. The Jameses had money, but they were of Irish descent, when all the “good” American families of their acquaintance could trace English origins. Henry James, Sr., could be cruelly demanding of his children and later was constantly taking them out of school and moving them all to Europe and finding fault with their lives and teachers and ambitions. The elder James had been raised a Protestant, but soon he would place his faith in the mystical religious philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg. Henry James, Sr., was a man of confusing philosophical persuasions, more interested in vitality than consistency, who self-published a range of pamphlets and books, including one called The Secret of Swedenborg. Of this particular secret the novelist and editor William Dean Howells, a close friend of the younger Henry James, was supposed to have remarked, “He kept it.”

But it wasn’t these distinctions, or not only these, that disturbed the small Henry James as he leaned against his father’s shoulder. In the moment of the photograph, he seems to have felt that they were different because they were American. And in this sense his self-consciousness presaged his lifelong struggle to define a place for an American artist in a world where history and taste belonged to Europe, a pursuit that would endear him to many of the American writers who followed him. When, in 1934, eighty years after the daguerreotype, the poet Marianne Moore wrote her essay “Henry James as a Characteristic American,” it was to the moment of the photograph that she returned, and it was to this sense that Henry James had of himself as an American writer that she was attached and from which she drew strength.

Henry James would live in England for nearly forty years. Finally, during World War I, out of his despair at American isolationism in what he felt was a crisis of humanity, he became an English citizen. But he seems never to have ceased thinking of himself as an American novelist. After his parents died, he kept the image of that moment of realization -- a silver daguerreotype, disturbing in the ghostly aliveness of its subjects. He had a reproduction of the cherished picture published with his memoirs, which meant that the reader had, for an instant, almost the same view as that seen by Brady’s assistant, standing with his head under a black velvet cloth, while Mathew Brady murmured in his low, amiable voice, “Quiet now, that’s it, just a moment more.”

After the exposure had taken, the Jameses strolled around Brady’s gallery, commenting on the people in the pictures. Brady’s assistants packed the daguerreotype into its red velvet lining and dark leather case, the whole shortly to be deposited in the elder James’s breast pocket. Then the Henry Jameses, father and son, walked up Broadway toward home. But perhaps they stopped first for an ice cream at grave, immemorial Thompson’s downstairs. And the small Henry James sat, in his stiff little coat with the nine bright buttons, thoughtfully licking ice cream off his spoon, and wondering at their own strangeness. The two sensations would have mingled together: the taste of the sweet, cold ice cream and a faint, persistent uneasiness.

Meet the Author

RACHEL COHEN grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and graduated from Harvard. She has written for The New Yorker, The Threepenny Review, McSweeney’s, and other publications. Her essays appeared in Best American Essays 2003 and the 2003 Pushcart Anthology. Cohen has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the MacDowell Colony, and won the 2003 PEN/Jerard Fund Award for the manuscript of A Chance Meeting. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn.

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