(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Each of the thirty-six chapters in Rachel Cohen's book A Chance Meeting is an account of an association between two individuals, occasionally among three, all of them important figures in American cultural history. The title of the book is borrowed from an essay by one of these figures, Willa Cather: In “A Chance Meeting,” the Nebraskan novelist recalled meeting a niece of the French writer Gustave Flaubert in Provence. Impulsively, Cather took the lady's hand and kissed it, as if, she later wrote, thereby she could express her admiration for Flaubert and his era.

Some of the meetings Cohen describes were, like that episode, merely single events, significant only because of some association. The first chapter of A Chance Meeting is titled “Henry James and Mathew Brady,” and, like many of the encounters in the book, the meeting between the future novelist and the famous photographer was, in fact, not strictly a chance meeting. Henry James, Sr., had made an appointment to have his picture taken with his son. The episode was important to young Henry not because he paid much attention to Brady, but because he was photographed in a jacket that the English writer William Makepeace Thackeray had recently ridiculed for having too many buttons. James later wrote about his embarrassment because he had to wear the offending jacket in the photograph. In chapter 23 of A Chance Meeting, Cohen uses the jacket to link James with the poet Marianne Moore, who was born four decades after James, and through her to a poet of a still later generation, Moore's friend Elizabeth Bishop. Cohen hypothesizes that while writing her essay about Henry James, Moore might have spoken to Bishop about James and the button-laden jacket, which, he had written, made him feel like an outsider. Cohen concludes that because Moore herself often expressed such feelings, she would have identified with him.

The reference to James's jacket, which appears in three different chapters of A Chance Meeting, is a good example of Cohen's use of repetition as a way of unifying a work which could so easily have become confusing and fragmentary. Another source of unity is a persistent theme, the value of friendship. The epigraph of A Chance Meeting is a passage from James's travel book The American Scene (1906). It is a very long but tightly controlled sentence, in which James muses on how a seemingly aimless walk with the right friend could evoke such imaginings as to become a sort of personal history, significant in its effects upon the two friends but difficult to explain to those who had not shared the experience.

Some of the most fascinating chapters in A Chance Meeting describe rather unlikely friendships. For instance, Ulysses S. Grant, the Union general, politician, and United States president would seem to be an odd companion for the author and humorist Mark Twain, who unceremoniously left his Confederate unit to sit out the Civil War in America's Far West. Cohen repeats Twain's story of his first brief meeting with Grant, then president, and of a subsequent occasion in Chicago when Grant had to laugh at Twain's irreverent toast, which, as it turned out, certainly did not further Grant's campaign for reelection.

What is not generally known, however, is that the two men later became friends. Twain often visited Grant in New York City and later at Mount McGregor, near Saratoga Springs, New York. Writing with the honesty of a good historian, as she does throughout A Chance Meeting, Cohen points out the source of the financial problems that beset both Grant and Twain: They were both in the clutches of their era's besetting sin, greed. Though both of them were fine writers, they had decided to devote their lives to becoming millionaires, like those famous robber barons of the period. Though Grant was long tainted in history by the corruption of his administration, and though even the most ardent of Twain's admirers feel he did not live up to the attacks on materialism in his works, no one could disapprove of the business venture that came about as a result of the friendship between the two. Even though Twain was himself in dire financial straits, he knew that Grant was even worse off. The ex-president had terminal throat cancer, and he feared that he would leave his family penniless when he died. For once, Twain made a wise...

(The entire section is 1788 words.)