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Links in a creative chain

A Chance Meeting Intertwined Lives of American Artists and Writers, 1854-1967 Rachel Cohen Random House: 366 pp., $25.95

March 28, 2004|Richard Howard | Richard Howard is a poet and translator; he teaches literature in the writing division of Columbia University's School of the Arts.

It is a truth insufficiently acknowledged that a phenomenon of culture, particularly a book, to be properly enjoyed, is best and properly known for what it is (and not for what it is not).

Rachel Cohen's enthralling "A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Artists and Writers, 1854-1967" is a series of linked explorations of intimacy and amity (including certain failures of intimacy, certain violations of amity) among American writers and artists. The 36 essays, as they progress (if that is the word) from the Civil War to the civil rights movement, constitute something of a new genre, rare in our period: "A Chance Meeting" is a Divination by Affective Nearness, or as I would like to call it, a proximanteia. And what 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.

In some quarters -- Christopher Benfey in the New Republic, for example -- "A Chance Meeting" has been mistaken for literary criticism, which it is not, although there are many pages that will do excellent service as literary criticism:

"Gertrude Stein explained that she had noticed that every American starts over on the project of writing American history or the American novel. She did that. And, at the same time, she had also noticed that each American chooses a tradition, collects, in some sense, his or her own sensibility, and she did that, too."

Cohen has also been mistaken for a biographer, which she is not, although there are many acute insights in the course of her "intertwined" essays that identify and articulate the necessity of biographical intelligence:

"[Hart] Crane sent Chaplin his first book of poems, 'White Buildings,' which included 'Chaplinesque,' and, writing his memoirs thirty years after Crane's death, Chaplin mentioned being glad to receive it. Chaplin was always gracious about the dead."

It is easy as well to mistake the tone of Cohen's essays for the resonance of gossip, which it is not, although her book sports many passages of superior and highly speculative gossip:

"John Cage was worried about Marcel Duchamp. By chance, they had been at the same parties four nights in a row, and he had looked and looked at Duchamp and realized that Duchamp was old. He wanted to be with him; he wondered why he hadn't made an effort to be with him all the time."

And easier still, Cohen's text, always in the light, or the darkness, of the century she has focused upon, may be mistaken for literary history, which it is not, although many cunning corridors of such history are traversed:

"[Robert] Lowell had written 'For the Union Dead,' published three years earlier, thinking that many of the fault lines in the country were very like those that had opened when his distinguished ancestors were serving in the Civil War. The title poem considered the monument of Colonel Shaw, leading the 54th Massachusetts, the colored brigade. 'At the dedication,' Lowell wrote, 'William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.' Lowell found the sculpture a painful reminder of all that had not happened since the city of Boston optimistically gathered to start a new era: 'Their monument sticks like a fishbone / in the city's throat.' "

I grant that there is a good deal of overlap, what I should prefer to call imbrication, in Cohen's book between gossip and biography and criticism and history on the one hand and on the other the work she has actually written, but that is merely a consequence of its genre -- indeed such confusions are in the nature of this genre she has recovered, if not invented.

Yet it is not abruptly or rashly that Cohen has undertaken this manteia, or mode of divination, as I must call it, for not only is the resonance of her inquiry, or rather of her adoration, enunciated in the gentlest, most solicitous terms, but she has limited its scope to the figures -- writers, artists, photographers, poets, even the single most iconic performer of the century (Chaplin) -- who "lived in cities, spent quite a lot of their time visiting and talking, wrote copious letters when they were away, and were, to their friends, never really lost from view."

"[F]undamentally," she remarks, "I wrote about people whose company I felt I had an instinct for. I often thought about the way Hart Crane had addressed Walt Whitman in 'The Bridge': 'Not greatest, thou -- not first, nor last -- but near.' "

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