three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
11-July-Aug-2004
user_rating: 
0

Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967

A-ChanceMeetingIn this sweeping cultural history of America between the Civil War and the Civil Rights era, Cohen links the lives of 30 seminal artists, composers, and writers. Starting with Matthew Brady photographing a young Henry James, she pairs unlikely figures through chance meetings or musings that might—or might not have—occurred. William Dean Howells and Walt Whitman, Willa Cather and Gertrude Stein, Norman Mailer and Robert Lowell were each, in some way, intimately connected. "I often thought about the way Hart Crane had addressed Walt Whitman in The Bridge," Cohen writes. "’Not greatest, thou… but near.’" In this bio-fiction, giants separated by time and distance come closer to a larger, cross-fertilized community.
Random House. 384 pages. $25.95.

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Cohen shifts forward and backward in time, and her subjects change in tone and shading with each encounter, a Proustian approach to biography that views personality as more fluid and contextual than fixed." Richard B. Woodward

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"The grand and provocative idea that we can know, and perhaps be known by, people to whom we will never speak, and whose physical bodies we will never touch, is a governing idea of A Chance Meeting. … It is as glorious as it is challenging, this idea." Emily Bernard

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[W]hat is being divined is nothing less than a century or so of American taste, the nature of modern literary and artistic tangency in the United States." Richard Howard

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"An innovative hybrid of biography, cultural history, ‘imaginative nonfiction’ and gossipy anecdote. … And behind every word lies a depth of research and breathtaking intelligence." Dan Cryer

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"When it works, which is often, the effect can be dazzling." David Kipen

Seattle Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Cohen’s approach is so artfully planned with repeat appearances, echoed phrases and encounters, that it is in danger of being arty, that is, forced, strained and pretentious. … For those in search of meatier insights grounded in more than ‘chance meetings,’ the book will be frustrating and unsatisfying." Matthew Kangas

Critical Summary

The title "chance meeting" comes from an essay by Willa Cather, just one of many writers who appears in various combinations in the 36 vignettes in Chance Meeting. Calling her work "imaginative nonfiction," Cohen blends together scholarly research, speculation, and colorful gossip to paint a broad swath of American cultural history. Critics generally agree that her "six degrees of separation" approach produces an intelligent and inspired vision. Discussions of figures with existing biographies, such as Twain and Howells, fare better than those based more on imaginative largesse. Similarly, critics praised encounters that remained fixed on a moment, rather than flashing back and forth. Despite some flaws, what Cohen captures is immense: a fluid group portrait of America’s artistic and literary giants.