Imaginative expeditions into America's cultural history
For years, side by side with a photograph of my best dog ever, I've kept on my office mantelpiece Mathew Brady's portrait of the 11-year-old Henry James and his father. The boy wears a tight-fitting jacket with a line of brass buttons running up the front. His right hand rests on his father's left shoulder in a delicate gesture of intimacy and trust. His eyes are fixed in the spectral stare that the long exposure time of daguerreotype photography required of subjects with their heads clamped in Brady's vise. But I like to think that we can see even then the eyes of the great novelist who dedicated himself to being (in his words) "one of the people on whom nothing is lost."
Brady's eloquent double portrait catches inner-ness on the fly, just as he was to do in his pictures of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant. James used it at the front of his autobiography, A Small Boy and Others, and it is now the lead picture in a thoroughly engaging new book, A Chance Meeting, subtitled Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967.
The author is Rachel Cohen, a Brooklyn resident and contributor to the New Yorker, Threepenny Review, and other publications who teaches in the nonfiction Master of Fine Arts program at Sarah Lawrence. The starting point for each chapter in A Chance Meeting is an authentic episode in the lives of her writers and artists. For example, at two o'clock one morning in October 1923, Charlie Chaplin pays a surprise visit to the poet Hart Crane ("I was smiling into one of the most beautiful faces I ever expect to see," Crane wrote) and they talk for hours. Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston meet at a 1926 awards banquet for Harlem's newest literary magazine, Opportunity. In February 1965, George Plimpton takes Marianne Moore, wearing one of her tricorne hats, to the fights at Madison Square Garden. Afterwards they go to Toots Shor's smoky saloon, where she sits at Norman Mailer's table. Cohen encloses such encounters within a largely invented narrative frame, a prelude and postlude, that sets the scene and finally ties off the story.
She describes her method as "imaginative nonfiction" and explains that she "wanted to offer the reader the pleasure of moving back and forth between what is known to us and what can only be imagined." To signal a "change in register" between the "real material" the ineluctable, historical facts of time and place and the frames that she provides, she falls back, maybe a little too often, on candid warnings about the conditional, the guessed-at, and the imagined in her story: "perhaps," "could have," "may have thought," and the like. And once in a while, her bid for an emphatically casual entrance to a highly charged central narrative may seem a bit arch. "John Cage was worried about Marcel Duchamp," for example (Cage "realized that Duchamp was old"), and, "Norman Mailer was in just the right mood" (arm in arm with Robert Lowell, he was about to march on the Pentagon). But such flickerings of control can be easily overlooked in an excursion into cultural history that is richly informed and consistently entertaining.
Willa Cather, John Cage, Elizabeth Bishop, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Katherine Anne Porter, the artists Joseph Cornell and Bradford Delaney, the photographers Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, and Richard Avedon: these are among the braided or paired figures readers will meet up with in the course of Cohen's 36 chapters of chance but meaningful encounters. Henry James and Mathew Brady make frequent and significant appearances throughout and may be called the presiding, truth-seeking spirits of her stories. Had she chosen to do so, she could undoubtedly have developed illuminating "chance meetings" in the lives of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, or Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov, and I would be eager to read whatever she does. In any case, I was relieved to see that she gave the Ernest Hemingway/ Scott Fitzgerald dyad a pass, it having been already ploughed down to bedrock.
Many of the writers and artists in A Chance Meeting have been fairly well documented in biographies and memoirs, and Cohen is scrupulous in giving her sources. (In the service of full disclosure, I here gratefully acknowledge her generosity in acknowledging my own work.) She writes beautifully, with clarity, firmness, and steady command of her materials, and she places her characters in dramatic, often emotionally charged encounters with one another. Henry James's phrase for such encounters is "discriminated occasions."
In one familiar but now freshly retold episode, Mark Twain and William Dean Howells meet in the offices of the Atlantic Monthly in 1869. As Cohen develops her story, this encounter is the beginning of a friendship, at first formal and slightly edgy but eventually both personal and editorial, that ends four decades later with Howells paying tribute to his old friend, dead and lying in his coffin, as "sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature." In a later chapter Cohen shows Professor William James and an undergraduate psychology student, Gertrude Stein, walking together in Harvard Yard, with James, presumably, initiating the conversation. "When asked to describe his vision of heaven," Cohen writes, William James "once said he imagined it would look a great deal like Harvard Yard."
Fifty pages on we meet Gertrude Stein again, this time with Alice B. Toklas in the near-rioting Paris audience that in 1913 greeted Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring. "People screamed and whistled, ladies slapped men's faces, canes crashed down on top hats, men exchanged cards for fights later in dark streets, and people leaned out of balconies and cheered their approval. It was an unmitigated success and failure." Stein and Toklas are joined in their box by novelist, photographer, champion of negritude, dance critic, swell dresser, and bon vivant Carl Van Vechten, a man who "barked to show enthusiasm, claimed to be the first person in New York to wear a wristwatch in public, and had been known to bite people whom he liked and didn't like." The instant friendship that bound this odd-couple-plus-one together eventually sprouted a private language. "Dearest Papa Woojums," Toklas cabled Van Vechten when Gertrude died in 1946, "Baby Woojums passed suddenly today." She signed herself, "Your loving Mama Woojums."
The Rite of Spring premiere, as Cohen describes it, was as colorful a cultural episode as the arrival, as an entry in a New York exhibition of modern art in 1917, of a porcelain urinal bought at a showroom of plumbing fixtures on lower Fifth Avenue. "A lovely form has been revealed, freed from its functional purposes," said a spokesman for Marcel Duchamp. "Therefore a man has clearly made an aesthetic contribution." Titled Fountain, the famous urinal joined company with others of Duchamp's "ready-mades," including a shovel, In Advance of the Broken Arm, and an empty, sealed glass ampoule supposedly containing, as its title announced, Paris Air. Now vanished, Duchamp's urinal, a humble object transformed by "a new thought," survives in a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz.
At one point in Cohen's narratives we see Richard Avedon's mother punching out the elevator man in her East Side apartment house because he had made James Baldwin use the service stairs. Wearing a sort of sailor blouse with a little dark tie, Willa Cather arrives at the Beaux Arts Studio at 80 West Fortieth Street to sit for a portrait by Edward Steichen. It will appear in Vogue and become her best-known image. There are many other such encounters in A Chance Meeting.
To my mind one of the tenderest and most delicious of them begins with a nervous young poet, Elizabeth Bishop, riding into Manhattan on the train from Vassar to meet her idol, Marianne Moore, for the first time. The place is the hall outside the main reading room of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. After a while, with Moore doing almost all the talking, Bishop "was visited by an inspiration," Cohen writes, "and asked Moore if she'd like to go to the circus, not knowing that Marianne Moore never missed the circus." To which Moore said yes, and next time they were together she "arrived with two large paper bags containing brown bread to feed the elephants; they were fond of brown bread, she explained.... Her plan was that Bishop would give some of the bread to the adult elephants, while Moore went to feed the babies and got them to bend over so that she could cut a few hairs off their heads" to mend her elephant-hair bracelet. For years the two women addressed each other as "Miss Moore" and "Miss Bishop." Moore became Bishop's "earliest advocate and one of the most staunch," Cohen writes, "placing nearly all her early poems for publication in magazines and writing an introduction for her work, one of remarkable understanding." Over the years, separated at first by the river between Manhattan and Brooklyn, and then by the miles between Brooklyn and Florida, and finally the many more miles between Brooklyn and Brazil, where Bishop had settled with her lover, they exchanged hundreds of letters: about poems, articles, and books, art shows, movies and landscapes, places and animals, and they tried to include something special in each one. "I had a letter from Elizabeth a day or two ago," Moore told a friend, "which I am thinking of having tattooed on me."
Justin Kaplan '45, G '47, is the author of Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for biography, Walt Whitman: A Life, and Lincoln Steffens: A Biography. He edited the most recent edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. He and his wife, novelist Anne Bernays, collaborated on a memoir, Back Then: Two Lives in 1950s New York.
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