In a way, Rachel Cohen's absorbing book, A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967, is a highbrow version of the popular parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, where players try to figure out (and then marvel over) the interrelationships between various celebrated and accomplished people. In a series of 36 interlaced essays, Cohen writes of encounters between 30 American and American-based writers and artists, and in doing so, traces an often surprising continuum of intellectual thought in America. Could there really be a link between Ulysses S. Grant and Marcel Duchamp? Between Mark Twain and Charlie Chaplin? Yes, indeed, and the connections are not tenuous ones. "Chance" here means fortuitous or serendipitous rather than random, for while a handful of the meetings were unplanned, most of the encounters that Cohen recounts were arranged or the result of social connections. Elizabeth Bishop's lifelong friendship with Marianne Moore, for instance, began when a librarian at Vassar set up a meeting between the undergraduate and the renowned poet. Richard Avedon and James Baldwin were co-editors of their high school literary magazine. Willa Cather's first tea with her idol and influence Sarah Orne Jewett was orchestrated by Annie Adams Fields, widow of Atlantic Monthly publisher James T. Fields (whose protege, William Dean Howells, was indispensable editor and dear friend to both Mark Twain and Henry James). Some of the meetings were brief; others led to lifelong friendships.
The first meeting chronicled, between the photographer Mathew Brady and the then 11-year-old Henry James, takes place in 1854. The last is between Norman Mailer and Robert Lowell, at a peace rally in 1967. It is no accident that Cohen has chosen to bracket her book with these two fractious eras, with the Civil War brewing on one end, the conflagrations over Vietnam and civil rights blazing at the other. For taken as a whole, A Chance Meeting provides a sweeping cultural history of the United States as the nation moved from forging its own identity and to its eventual ascendancy as an imperial power.
Here's just one connection that unfolds in the book Henry James' older brother, the psychologist William James, was Gertrude Stein's teacher at Harvard. Stein, one of the 20th century's great collectors of modern art, met photographer and fellow collector Alfred Stieglitz in Paris in 1909, and a few years later Stieglitz was one of Marcel Duchamp's co-conspirators over the infamous "Fountain" a urinal that Duchamp signed and proclaimed as a work of art. It was Duchamp who answered the phone in Peggy Guggenheim's apartment when artist Joseph Cornell finally mustered the courage to call the great patron. We learn that Joseph Cornell may have harbored a great love for Marianne Moore (they both lived at home with their mothers), and that years later Moore met Norman Mailer at a boxing match in Madison Square Garden.
Of course the strength of A Chance Meeting is not merely that Cohen documents all of these interesting close encounters, it is the deeper inferences she draws. Out of necessity she often must imagine what transpired between these people, but she has clearly done her research. Working from letters, diaries, memoirs and biographical accounts, she makes some solid assumptions.
For the reader (or at least this reader), A Chance Meeting works a reverse magic. It inspires me to return to writers I want to read again Cather, Jewett, Bishop, Lowell, Katherine Anne Porter and even arouses an interest in a work such as Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Memoirs (whose first publisher, we learn, was Mark Twain), a book I never before cared much about. Can a book of literary essays serve a higher purpose than that?