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Original Essays

A Chance Meeting

by Rachel Cohen
  1. A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967
    $4.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "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
Sometimes you stand in a bookstore, a used bookstore, in the back, in a section curiously labeled Literature/Lives and you take down a volume that is a sort of musty green color and has a stain running across the tops of its pages. If you are in New Orleans; the bookstore is under a highway overpass. If you are in Santa Barbara it is just a few steps from your motel, that seems to be mostly for those you heard someone calling "working girls." If you are in Bozeman, Montana, snow is still on the ground.

The book, one you've never heard of, is by Willa Cather. You are not quite sure why you want a book of Willa Cather's essays, though a few weeks before, sore to the point of immobility after an unexpected encounter involving a rented horse and an electric fence, you had sat in a La-Z-Boy recliner in a motel in Austin, Texas, and read My Ántonia — trying to forget the unpleasantness of a thousand Texas high school marching bands parading in honor of the new governor, George Bush — and you had been struck by an elusive clarity in Cather's prose and you had wondered how she did that, exactly.

So that when, by chance, you saw the little stained volume of Not Under Forty, you took it down with the sense that it was a book you had been looking for, and you paged through until you came to the essay "The Novel Demeublé" which has in it the lines: "Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there — that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself." You felt you had your book.

It went into the trunk, with the eighty or so other books that were keeping you company that year — with Huck Finn and the Letters of Elizabeth Bishop and The Fire Next Time — and at night, in motel rooms, you set the green volume on fake wooden tables and leaned over it and read.

It is a mystery how we find the books we need in the moments of our needing and it is a greater mystery still that they will then become lodged in us and choose their neighbors on the shelves of our inner libraries and lead us on toward other books. Sometimes books are arranged by our reading memories, so that Bishop's letters are associated with those of Chekhov because they were for a while stacked together on the beside table. Others are held together by influence — Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas sits next to the Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant that she admired.

But it can happen that a book becomes for its reader not self-contained language on a page, but a record made by a living individual. And then it is not only a book but a portrait and its maker not only an author but a person, and then other books are near it not for reasons of aesthetics or influence but for reasons of friendship. Scouring the bookstores of Portland and Ann Arbor and New York, you will fill the places next to Not Under Forty with the works of Sarah Orne Jewett, Cather's dear friend and mentor, and those of Annie Adams Fields, Jewett's companion and a friend of Cather's, too, and a memoir by Cather's companion Edith Lewis called Willa Cather Living. A portrait of Mark Twain belongs here, as Cather went to his seventieth birthday party and knew him later in New York. From Twain's picture we might come to that of his friend Ulysses S. Grant, whose memoirs he published, or we might move toward Twain's editor, William Dean Howells, and hence to Henry James, also a forty-year friend of Howells. Henry James's brother William brings us to two of William's students, W. E. B. DuBois and Gertrude Stein. Stein once hosted at her home the photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. We might have come to Steichen by a different series of associated portraits. Steichen took Willa Cather's picture, after which Cather gave him a copy of A Lost Lady inscribed "A face for a face."

A portrait gallery is beginning to emerge, and yet you may feel that this metaphor does not quite represent what has been happening in your mind as you have collected together three or four hundred books and stayed up 'til morning reading Armies of the Night. You may find yourself trying to explain that your portrait gallery is not like Edward Steichen's — yours is not just the people you chose, it's the people they chose. Charlie Chaplin hangs next to Hart Crane because Crane wrote a poem for Chaplin and because Crane once spent an evening drinking with Chaplin. Norman Mailer is next to James Baldwin because they knew each other, and loved each other, and had a bitter fight. You realize that what you've done is to arrange your library according to the way you think your authors arranged their own.

If, some ten years later, it should happen that your library became itself a book, it might not be that surprising if you wanted very much to give it the title of one of the essays in that stained green volume. You would think about it for a long while, and then you would name it A Chance Meeting. spacer

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