Tired of bloated biographies? Try A Chance Meeting.

Tired of bloated biographies? Try A Chance Meeting.

Tired of bloated biographies? Try A Chance Meeting.

Reading between the lines.
March 26 2004 1:47 PM

Only Connect

A Chance Meeting and the problems of literary biography. 

Book cover

In 1870, the novelist William Dean Howells, a Midwesterner by birth, returned to Ohio for a visit. He had been living in Boston, America's literary capital, where he'd won a place in the tight-knit Yankee literary establishment. In the town of Hiram, he and his father paid a call on Congressman Garfield; the two sat together on the congressman's veranda into the evening, and Howells began to tell stories about the Boston writers. The congressman excitedly asked him to stop and ran down the lawn to his neighbors' fences. "Come over here," Howells heard him shout to the families. "He's telling about Holmes, and Longfellow, and Lowell, and Whittier!" And the neighbors quickly climbed over the fences and came and listened to Howells talk till midnight.

This story, which Howell told in his memoirs, doesn't appear in Rachel Cohen's A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967, but perhaps it should: It's an apt backdrop for a book that bracingly distills something of the spirit of Howells' era. In 1870, American literature had only started to invent itself, and Howells was eager to satisfy the emerging national appetite for news of its artists—a hunger he knew well. Gossipy biographical reminiscences of writers had just begun to be popularized by his colleague James T. Fields, an enterprising editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who understood the profit in ginning up interest in his writers' lives. What neither man could have anticipated was that only a century later, the breezy accounts of the "Homes and Haunts" of the Boston coterie would have given way to what Joyce Carol Oates has called "pathographies": exhaustive 400-page biographies focusing on the psychological traumas that animate a writer's inner life.

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In an age laden with such books, Cohen has come up with a stylish reminder of the older model, offering a series of telling literary snapshots that capture moments rather than probe dark depths. This book, which chronicles 36 "chance meetings" among 30 writers and artists, is part of a broader move away from the big biographies that came of age in the 1950s and have dominated the genre since. She's riding a current that gathered momentum with Penguin Lives, a series of 200-page evocative portraits launched in 1999, and that has lately brought us Bloomsbury's brisk new "Urban Historicals"—footnoted fictional accounts of historical figures, the first of which was published in 2003. (Like the writers of the Urban Historicals, Cohen freely—if carefully—blends fact and fiction in conjuring up her subjects.) What distinguishes Cohen's book from these is her group approach, which propels her beyond the traditional biographical dilemma—the dichotomy between the artist as disembodied Other and the artist as an ordinary (often unhappy) man. Instead, her intertwined encounters conjure up a holistic vision of the artist as a strange man among many strange men.

Art-making, after all, is not primarily the solitary practice of the neurasthenic but an improvisatory collision of sensibilities at a particular moment, in a conducive setting. A Chance Meeting explores the imaginative enlargement that results from an encounter with an inventive (and kindred) mind. Some of these encounters blossomed into a traditional friendship—as did Marianne Moore's meeting with Elizabeth Bishop at the New York Public Library. Others were simply a thrilling memento vivendi, like Hart Crane's night out with Charlie Chaplin, which led to Crane's wonderful poem "Chaplinesque." But all of the incidents cross-connect over time in a kind of Jacob's Ladder: William James, brother of the seminal Henry, taught psychology to the stocky young Gertrude Stein; as an éminence grise,Stein adopted Carl Van Vechten into her whimsical family of "Woojums." Van Vechten, the Harlem Renaissance supporter who had a producer's eye for talent, later was photographed with Langston Hughes by a young Richard Avedon; Avedon knew John Cage, whom Marcel Duchamp had comforted as a young man when Cage, new to New York, wept after being thrown out of Peggy Guggenheim Ernst's apartment. And so on, in a chain that extends from the Jameses to Robert Lowell and Norman Mailer.

Obviously, Cohen isn't gathering together the meetings that most dramatically influenced American artistic history—there's no Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, no Diane Arbus and John Szarkowski. And she avoids making an argument—she doesn't propose a revision of the American literary canon, nor does she have a point to make about how schools of thought take form. Yet a model of amiable influence emerges from her reading, altogether different from Harold Bloom's vision of agonistic creative struggle. Cohen's impulse to write the book took shape while she was reading Mark Twain and Henry James, who were working at a time of cultural ferment, when American writers were in search of nourishment and contact—a sense of national identity, of solidarity. Artists around the world depend on collegiality, of course, but perhaps there is something particularly American about literary friendship as a pluralistic liberating factor rather than an expected privilege of the artistic elite: In a young country, cohesion was more crucial than criticism—and less regulated by class or social propriety, as even Carl Van Vechten's somewhat patronizing friendship with young black writers like Langston Hughes suggests.

Cohen writes like a fiction writer, and not just because she has nothing analytic to say. She is intent on steering us away from the pathological and back toward the originating thrill of enterprise. As Emerson once noted, the great pleasure of friendship is its power to invigorate. She not only imagines, where documentation fails her, the desultory stroll that William James and Gertrude Stein might have taken in Harvard Yard one afternoon, but she deftly evokes character through eccentric detail: Matthew Brady's "felicitously prehensile" hands, described by a friend; Marcel Duchamp's unusual grace in handling a teacup; Whitman's sensual, rosy-cheeked presence (apparently his blood circulated unusually quickly). These details aren't just ones that Cohen loves, but the very characteristics that made an impression on her subjects' contemporaries. Her model of dramatizing an encounter can reveal as much about a mind as wringing out every ambiguity from the scraps of letters a writer leaves behind: The stress falls on action. Writing about John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns in the 1950s in New York, after they all met at Black Mountain College, she says, "In those days of touring, they all liked leaving New York, and they all liked coming back. … They all liked to see what happened if you set a bunch of things in motion and watched them over time."

Cohen describes the book in her introduction as an "imaginative history." This gets at something important: Even though Cohen doesn't appear in the book anywhere other than the introduction, she emerges as a kind of character in it, mostly in the invented passages at the end of each chapter. Her project began in solitude, as she drove around America alone with a trunk full of books. Discovering that Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs had been published by Mark Twain, she started to seek out these patterns of intersection, eventually reading more than 400 books. As she puts it, she was reading these writers for mention of one another because "I cared most to know how they felt about friendship." A Chance Meeting is quite self-consciously about her meeting with all these writers, as well as their meetings with one another. In the end, the book provides a fascinating formal record of the way that reading is not invisible but a kind of "action" in its own right, during which connections get made and used. (Her book reminds me most of a remarkable collection of photographs by André Kertész of people reading: Sometimes all you see is a bent back in a chair, but you immediately recognize, from the posture of absorbed stillness, exactly what the person is doing—much like Cohen's book.)

The connections made when we read and the traditions we cobble together may be personal, but they are also crucial. The pleasure of discovering that a writer has cited another artist whom you love is a deep one—you never forget it—and when we read, part of the pleasure is recognizing that the author feels the same way about other writers, creating a sort of vicarious chain. This pleasure is perhaps insufficiently dramatized in much of today's biography and postmodern criticism. Cohen's book is not a scholarly excavation of ideas like Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, to which it has been compared. Its accomplishment, instead, is to convey what it might have been like to be Congressman Garfield's neighbors, sitting on the veranda steps till all hours. At another moment, perhaps we'd decry the book for its lack of a larger argument, but at this time, the old-fashioned feels new.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate’s culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at the New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother’s death, is now out in paperback.