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 methodMarianne 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 descriptiontaking the reader into the streets and into the parlors of a dozen different erasthe 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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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.
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