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A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967by Rachel Cohen
"Rachel Cohen, in her cunningly crafted and meticulously written book...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." Christopher Benfey, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
"The easy familiarity Cohen developed with her subjects has enabled her to evoke them with engaging vigour. She is good at capturing the look and feel of the period she covers....Despite its defects, A Chance Meeting is a spirited and lively book. At her best, Rachel Cohen brings to her subject — or subjects — an appealing verve and grace. Even so, one has to ask whether biographers should have a licence to make it up." James Atlas, The Times Literary Supplement (read the entire Times Literary Supplement review)
Synopses & Reviews
"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 of 1967. 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.
"I can't think of any book that would give more raw pleasure to a book-reading person than A Chance Meeting. Our sense of the continuum of literary community is strengthened and shaded by these stories, which are told with a strange alchemy of grace, restraint, humor and passion." Dave Eggers
"As original and impressive a work of cultural history as I have encountered in years." Diane McWhorter, Pulitzer-prize winning author of Carry Me Home
"It can sometimes seem as if all American artists and writers are, and always have been, lone figures who go about their business without any contact with others of their kind. Rachel Cohen has written a lively and fascinating book that turns this idea on its head. Through the captivating device of what the French call 'the magic of the unlikely encounter,' she traces a tradition of meeting, sharing, and encouragement among individual writers, painters, and photographers that has enriched American arts and letters in ways that could never have been foreseen. Cohen offers the reader the gift of interconnected portraits, tightly drawn and cleverly told, then stands aside and allows the stories of these encounters — good as any fiction — to work their magic. Compelling and delightful." Thad Carhart, author of The Piano Shop on the Left Bank
"A wonderful, absorbing book in which information, anecdote, literary understanding and gossip take fire and are transformed into insight. Rachel Cohen's wit and learning, conjoined, are a marvel. The writing of A Chance Meeting, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, is at a rare level of grace. This is a book worth returning to, immensely distinguished and pleasurable." Robert Pinsky
"These moments add up to a fresh if sidelong look at American letters, and to a work that culturally minded readers will greatly enjoy." Kirkus Reviews
"Cohen, in her book debut, provides an engrossing, if simplistic, cavalcade of American arts from the Civil War period through the 1960s." Publishers Weekly
"Innovative...faultless...[Cohen] gives us a more intimate sense of these people in a few pages than one sometimes gleans from entire biographies." The New Yorker
"Enthralling...The 36 essays, as they progress...constitute something of a new genre... What is being divined is nothing less than a century or so of American taste." Richard Howard, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Captivating...While carving a set of brilliant miniatures, Cohen is also indirectly telling a story of sex, race, political protest, and celebrity culture in America, from the Victorian era to the 1960s." The Boston Globe
"Rachel Cohen has created a masterpiece of variety and balance in her first book.... Fascinating." The Economist
"Dazzling... A book that's as addictive as popcorn, as guiltless as cruciferous vegetables....A Chance Meeting heralds an auspicious beginning to an already thrilling career." San Francisco Chronicle
This unique American cultural history defines relationships among writers and artists who knew and influenced each other over the course of a century: 1854-1967.
Includes bibliographical references (p. -346) and index.
About 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.
Table of Contents
Henry James and Mathew Brady — William Dean Howells and Annie Adams Fields and Walt Whitman — Mathew Brady and Ulysses S. Grant — William Dean Howells and Henry James — Walt Whitman and Mathew Brady — Mark Twain and William Dean Howells — Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant — W.E.B. Du Bois and William James — Gertrude Stein and William James — Henry James and Annie Adams Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett — Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz — Willa Cather and Mark Twain — Willa Cather and Annie Adams Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett — Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz and Gertrude Stein — Carl Van Vechten and Gertrude Stein — Marcel Duchamp and Alfred Steiglitz — Willa Cather and Edward Steichen and Katherine Anne Porter — Alfred Stieglitz and Hart Crane — Hart Crane and Charlie Chaplin — Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston — Beauford Delaney and W.E.B. Du Bois — Hart Crane and Katherine Anne Porter — Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Morore — Zora Neale Hurston and Carl Van Vechten — Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp — Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin — Joseph Cornell and Marianne Moore — James Baldwin and Norman Mailer — Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop — John Cage and Richard Avedon — W.E.B. Du Bois and Charlie Chaplin — Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten and Richard Avedon — Richard Avedon and James Baldwin — Marianne Moore and Norman Mailer — John Cage and Marcel Duchamp — Norman Mailer and Robert Lowell.
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