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. What A CHANCE MEETING remarkably gives us at the end of the journey is the news of the goings on inside that great house, the rivalries, the disagreements, the love affairs, broken friendships, feuds, reconciliations, but most importantly and persistently, the long, looping intimate conversation that flows through and binds together these generations of American artistic life. In so doing, Cohen examines obliquely the alterations in the reportage on the American character, the re-examination of the American character in each generation, revisions which never lose sight of the conversations that have gone before. Profound and playful, Cohen takes some imaginative risks that might unsettle those with strict ideas of what is acceptably told as history. In this regard, Cohen quoting James' insight that Americans have trouble "seeing through to the reality of others" is appropriate: Cohen can and does see through to the reality of these most remarkable others, and we are much the richer for her wise and stylish audacity.