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A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967 Hardcover – March 9, 2004


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (March 9, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400061644
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400061648
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.6 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,340,221 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From 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."
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From 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.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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Customer Reviews

It is written with exceptional grace: each chapter can be read separately without loss in pleasure or comprehension.
David Keymer
The blending of fact and supposition is deftly handled and the reader can tell what the author postulates and what is known to have happened.
Audrey from Philly
There is so much to learn about artists who even today are on the periphery as well as the giants we all 'think' we know!
Grady Harp

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Panopticonman on March 10, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Welcome to an astonishing new literary form -- an interlocking "family tree" of American writers, poets, photographers, musicians, editors, and critics that is part literary gossip, part biography, part cultural history, history of ideas, and, finally an unexpectedly moving elegy of a vanished era whose echoes still sound in our own.
A CHANCE MEETING recounts, elaborates and meditates upon the personal connectedness of some of America's greatest artists, connections which range from correspondences and friendships that last more than 40 years (William Dean Howells with Mark Twain and Henry James) or chance meetings which go no further (William Dean Howells and Walt Whitman's meeting at Pfaff's on Broadway in 1850s and once more during Whitman's last years). Starting with its headwaters in Whitman and Hawthorne, Cohen takes us on a voyage down the grand stream of American artistic and literary life, down thickening tributaries unleashed by Henry James and Twain, the shifting crosscurrents of activist W.E.B. DuBois and modernist Gertrude Stein (both students of William James), down new streams from Sarah Orne Jewett and contemporaries Hart Crane, Hurston, Hughes, and Baldwin. She brings in also the rich poetic and artistic contributions of Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Joseph Cornell, Elizabeth Bishop. Key networkers and artists include photographers Matthew Brady, Stieglitz, Steichen, and Avedon, the insightful and supportive critic from the New York Times, Carl Van Vechten, the brilliant Marcel Duchamp - and this list is nowhere near exhaustive.
Henry James once said there is not one but a million windows in the house of fiction.
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Rachel Cohen has created a diversion in A CHANCE MEETING: INTERTWINED LIVES OF AMERICAN ARTISTS, 1854 - 1967 that is more a series of illuminated daydreams than it is a sourcebook for biographical data on the important artists in American over a century spanning 1860s through 1960s. No, this is not a code of secretive encounters between unlikely and disparate writers, photograpahers, and artists, nor is it a professed series of inside stories meant to reveal the truths about those we deem as gifted. Cohen writes splendidly, and though she documents with copious bibliography and chapter notes the instances she encountered in her survey of 'chance meetings ' by a diversity of disparate artists, she seems more intent on using fact as springboard to create cadenzas of intricately woven possibilities to stimulate the reader to enter the wonderful world of 'what if?' than in declaring new-found discoveries of data/gossip.
Here in short and terse chapters we meet Matthew Brady, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Marcel Duchamp, Langston Hughes, Hart Crane, Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Alfred Steiglitz with and without Georgia O'Keefe, Charlie Chaplin, Richard Avedon, Gertrude Stein with and without Alice B. Toklas, etc., etc. - you get the picture. The joy of Cohen's writing is the possibilities created by perseverating on the conversations that might have occurred among these people, whether in duet or in orchestrated outcome. My bet is that if the casts of characters here discussed were to read these informative and provocative pages, they doubtless would smile, swoon, curse, or laugh, but in some way react to the vision and imagination of Rachel Cohen. This is a delightful book for devout readers and lovers of artistic history. There is so much to learn about artists who even today are on the periphery as well as the giants we all 'think' we know! This wonderful book is for relaxation and diversion and the rewards are many.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By G. Donahue on June 14, 2010
Format: Paperback
If you have even the slightest curiosity of the lives of famous American writers, poets, artists, or otherwise cultural icons--this book is for you. How would you like to visit Mathew Brady in his studio in New York City when he photographs Walt Whitman? How about walking alongside Mark Twain in Boston as he enters the publishing office of William Dean Howells to thank him for a great review? Or witness the intersection between the lives of writer Katherine Anne Porter and tragic poet Hart Crane in Mexico in the early 1930s. Each chapter introduces a meeting between two or three famous figures ranging in time from the Civil War Era to the Civil Rights Era, over a period of 100 years. Alfred Stieglitz pops up in three different "meetings" as a central figure of importance to the avant-garde at the turn of the century. I also enjoyed the chance meetings between younger figures and their older mentors such as Willa Cather and her mentor Sarah Orne Jewett, or Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. For humor, the story of the genesis of Marcel Duchamp's urinal "the Fountain" was well worth it; or Zora Neale Hurston's anthropological measuring of heads in New York City streets that made me chuckle. It turns icons into people and gives us a glimpse of what might have been. If you are looking for biography, this is not it; but you will end up a little richer in your who's who in American culture list. Each `meeting' is the spark which brings the `chance meeting', then the author interweaves short histories of the characters involved, to return again to the original spark of the `chance meeting' in the first place. Each visit or encounter has notes in the back of the book, which explain where the idea germinated.Read more ›
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