A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967
by Rachel Cohen
Friends By Chance
A review by Christopher Benfey
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 skill.
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 Pléiade. 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. 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 divulgation."
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 père "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 Expressionists.
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 simultaneously."
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?"
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