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

4.1 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews

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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."
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (March 9, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400061644
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400061648
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,225,703 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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Format: Paperback
Everything the editorial reviews say about "A Chance Meeting" is all true. Rachel Cohen has placed 30 major American cultural figures--writers and artists--in 36 intertwined encounters ranging more than a century (1854-1967) that reads like a cross of a gossipy letter home (back when we did that) and carefully thought-out commentary and conjecture.

This book is not only an informative, fun, and thought-provoking read--for artists and writers, it is a well of companionship. Have you ever been lonely in your studio or study as you created? Have you ever been broke, searching for that next fellowship or contract? Have you ever been inspired by a chance meeting of a fellow/sister artist and writer? Did you ever wonder what pleasures and problems fame might bring? These and many other questions are answered in these rich encounters.

Authors and artists I've studied are presented here as human beings working to remain human while they create their work. This is a tremendous guidebook not only for lovers of cultural history, but also for current makers of culture.

--Janet Grace Riehl, author Sightlines: A Poet's Diary
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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Format: Paperback
Rachel Cohen's A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists 1854-1967 is an exceptional work of literary detection and interpretation. In thirty-six chapters, Cohen narrates a set of encounters of distinguished American literati and artists across the span of 113 years, laying out changes in the preoccupations and sensibilities of American writers and artists in the century that followed the Civil War.

Some meetings are brief, even one-time, and peripheral to the protagonists' lives as, for instance, the Henry James, still a child, sitting with his father for a photograph by Matthew Brady, or William Dean Howells' one-time meeting with Walt Whitman, or Richard Avedon's photo shoot of modernists Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Robert Rauschenberg. The meeting of James and Brady is also a "might have been" meeting, for Cohen takes a daring chance to capture and describe James's literary and intellectual sensibility on the brink of radical change. Other chapters describe longer standing relationships -Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant, Edward Steichen and Alfred Steiglitz, Joseph Cornell and Marianne Moore, Hart Crane's disastrous stay in Mexico with Katherine Anne Porter, the complicated father and son relationship of W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes, the advance-retreat relationship between Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.

This is not a book of strict factual history (although nothing in it runs counter to what can be proved using historical methods) but rather a book of rich historical sensitivity that illuminates a critical period in the maturing of our country's literature and art. It is written with exceptional grace: each chapter can be read separately without loss in pleasure or comprehension. This is a bold venture that deserves a wide readership.

The reader who enjoys A Chance Meeting may also enjoy Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club: A History of Ideas in America.
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