A Chance Meeting

by Rachel Cohen

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1788

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 business decision: He took over the responsibility of publishing his friend's memoirs, which Grant finished just twelve days before his death. So many subscriptions were sold even before the book appeared that Twain could reassure Grant as to its success, thus enabling him to die in peace.

The chapter on Twain and Grant demonstrates how thoroughly Cohen researched her subjects. As she points out in her introduction, A Chance Meeting was ten years in the making. Not only did the author feel compelled to read everything any of her figures had published, but she also studied their unpublished papers. In addition, she examined the portraiture of the four photographers she includes, Mathew Brady, Edward Steichen, Carl Van Vechten, and Richard Avedon. However, as Cohen goes on to explain, she wanted her book to include more than historical facts. Therefore she includes imagined scenes and even imagined thoughts, though she is very careful about these fictional passages, explaining in endnotes why she feels that they are in keeping with her research. She also makes sure that they do not confuse her readers. In fact, it is not at all difficult to spot her fictions. Generally, they can be found at the beginnings and endings of the chapters, and even if they appear elsewhere, they are marked clearly by such tentative words as “could,” “would,” “might,” “probably,” “perhaps,” or “maybe.”

Cohen's decision to employ her imagination in writing her book turned out to be a happy one. These framing fictions turn historical figures into real people. For instance, in chapter 4, “William Dean Howells and Henry James,” she shows Howells alone in his library, pacing the floor and thinking about the conversation he shared with Henry James during a walk earlier that evening. As there is no record of the topics the two covered, Cohen suggests what they might have been. She then proceeds to facts. She provides some biographical information about Howell. Then, neatly rounding off her introduction to the chapter, she quotes a letter that James wrote the following day, mentioning his walk with Howells, noting that they talked about literature and concluding with a prediction that his friend would write what everyone was hoping for, a truly American novel. At the end of the chapter, Cohen goes back to what she supposes happened between the time the walk ended and Howells's solitary musings in the library. The two men would have gone back to Howells's house, she guesses, where his wife, Elinor Mead Howells, would have had dinner waiting. They probably would all have discussed various subjects, including perhaps architecture. After James left, Elinor might have made a comment about him, prompting Howells to retire to his library. While he paced, Cohen believes, he might have been envying his friend his freedom and pondering what James had said about women. This framing scene ends with Elinor's wishing her husband good night, while he remains in the library, and thus the chapter ends.

Another device that Cohen uses to bring her subjects to life is factual, if trivial, detail. For instance, she notes that Twain once took Howells along with him on a visit to Grant in his New York office, where the three men had a modest lunch of beans and bacon. She contrasts the overcoats of William James and W. E. B. Du Bois, the prosperous James's perfectly fitted, that worn by the younger, less well established Du Bois, a bit sloppier and not so warm, and, accurate as always, she adds that Du Bois did not begin carrying a cane until later. She describes the room where Willa Cather and Mrs. Louis Brandeis visit with Annie Adams Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett; she even mentions what Cather later recalled Fields was wearing on that occasion.

Sometimes Cohen reinforces her descriptions with photographs; in chapter 24, “Zora Neale Hurston and Carl Van Vechten,” the portrait of a radiant Hurston, her face framed by a fur collar, a soft, feathered hat perched on her head, appears on the page opposite Cohen's description of that ensemble, which is followed by her fictionalized account of their breakfast together and of Van Vechten's thoughts during the meal as to how he would pose Hurston to make the photograph as dramatic as he wanted it to be.

The thirty-four photographs that appear in A Chance Meeting were not chosen haphazardly. Sometimes the photograph was important to the subject himself, as in the case of Henry James. Sometimes, as with Hurston and Van Vechten, both of whom prized a sense of drama, it united the portraitist and his subject. Sometimes, as in Richard Avedon's photograph of Langston Hughes with Van Vechten, it recorded a deep and long-lasting friendship.

As the subtitle of A Chance Meeting indicates, the encounters Cohen records took place between 1854 and 1967. The first chapter was set before the Civil War; the final one, during the Vietnam War. The author's sense of history dictated that the chapters would appear in chronological order; cumulatively, they would thus chronicle a century of American intellectual and cultural history. However, any historian knows that there is no such thing as a period with a clear beginning and an obvious cut-off date. The “intertwined lives” the subtitle mentions transcend the deaths of individuals; thus in the final analysis, 1854 is linked to 1967, and the activist and writer Norman Mailer feels the presence of the long-dead Walt Whitman when he and another poet, Robert Lowell, are marching to protest the Vietnam War.

Although A Chance Meeting cannot be easily categorized as either history or historical fiction, biography or fictionalized biography, it is a marvelous work that should interest almost every member of the reading public. The author has provided ample details about fields as far apart as photographic art and literary art, publishing and politics; she has included enough thoughtful passages to satisfy the most intellectual readers and enough scandal to delight the rest. Above all, in a cynical age it is no small feat to have proven the importance of friendships, which Cohen has shown provide solace for the solitary and inspiration for the creative spirits.

Review Sources

Booklist 100, no. 14 (March 15, 2004): 1257.

The Economist 370 (March 6, 2004): 73.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 24 (December 15, 2003): 1433.

Library Journal 129, no. 4 (March 1, 2004): 77.

The New Republic 230, no. 9 (March 15, 2004): 23.

The New York Times Book Review 153 (April 25, 2004): 20.

Poetry 183, no. 6 (March, 2004): 354.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 4 (January 26, 2004): 243.

San Francisco Chronicle, March 9, 2004, p. D1.

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