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Some scholarly ideas are so good, they shouldn’t be entrusted to an academic.
Rachel Cohen’s new A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967 is a case in point. Cohen is a Harvard grad and a Sarah Lawrence prof, and, without a doubt, her book’s premise is promising: Take a look at points of intersection in the lives of certain greats of American literature, detail what is known about their meetings, then spice up the history with a bit of “imaginative nonfiction” about what else might have been. A great idea, no?
A great idea, yes. And what’s more, a quick glance at the book’s table of contents is likely to set aflutter the hearts of American-literature buffs everywhere. Among many others, Cohen tackles meetings between the likes of Willa Cather and Mark Twain, Hart Crane and Katherine Anne Porter, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Extraliterary figures appear in her pages, as well. Charlie Chaplin makes a couple of cameos here; the photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Richard Avedon show up, too. And in one of the book’s later (and better) chapters, everyone’s favorite iconoclastic composer, John Cage, meets up with dada kingpin
Yet be still your heart: Despite a handful of memorable entries, the table of contents is the most thrilling thing about A Chance Meeting. Cohen’s prose isn’t arid, exactly, but it does suffer from a certain kind of voicelessness, a sterile quality endemic to the pages of academic literary journals which, in a long-running effort to “scientize” the study of literature, usually succeed only in draining it of anything that would contribute to the reason one actually reads: pleasure.
Even Cohen’s creative bits seem overcautious and pinched, hedged according to a formula that she outlines in the book’s introduction. Allowing that she “wanted to be very clear about the distinction,” Cohen writes that her
guesses are at the beginnings and endings of the chapters; otherwise I have written “perhaps” or “could” to indicate the change in register. I have included endnotes in which I have delineated research from conjecture, and recorded the sources of certain ideas and elements of atmosphere; a large part of my reading is documented in the bibliography.
And so it is that a potentially ingenious hybrid form—call it academic fiction—turns out to be merely academic instead.
Nothing wrong with rigorous scholarship, of course. Plenty of people are obsessive readers of endnotes, and woe unto junior faculty members who fail to, ahem, delineate research from conjecture or indicate a change in register. That way, one suspects, lies tenure-track derailment, if not being drummed out of the professoriat entirely.
Trouble is, as literary scholarship goes, A Chance Meeting is pretty slight stuff. The book’s 36 chapters offer only cameo-ish snapshots of the figures’ real encounters, bite-sized vignettes that, as Cohen’s notes and bibliography make clear, are reasonably well-documented to begin with. So she’s not unearthing much that’s new here, and though her affectionate focus can be engaging, she isn’t exactly taking the material in fresh directions either.
As a result, the book’s best details are the seemingly marginal ones, discarded gems that Cohen’s flexible mandate allows her to snap up and display with impunity. Willa Cather, for example, is shown attending a vainglorious Mark Twain’s 70th birthday celebration. When the party is over, Cather, like all the other guests, is presented with a foot-high statue of the writer as a lovely parting gift. Elsewhere, accompanied by a mutual friend, Charlie Chaplin arrives at Hart Crane’s Greenwich Village apartment after 2 in the morning, and a sleepy but star-struck Crane is easily persuaded to head out into the Manhattan night. Over in Maine, notorious philanderer Robert Lowell tries in his spastic, fitful way to woo Elizabeth Bishop. He fails, naturally, but Cohen, donning her lit-crit hat, shows persuasively how the occasion seeped into the poetry of both writers.
The Lowell-Bishop chapter is perhaps the most successful of the book. Cohen brings real literary insight to bear on the event, examining letters and explicating verse in light of the correspondence. The chapter concludes with Cohen’s best piece of creative writing, too. Using language that approximates the understated, economical style that Bishop favored, Cohen speculates that on
[t]hat glorious day in August, when Truman was president and North & South was a new book, they got up and they ate breakfast and they decided to go swimming. And in the afternoon, when the sun was really overhead and the water was as warm as it was likely to be, they went down to the ocean. It was summer again. They stood thigh-deep in ice cold water until their toes got numb, and they talked.
Reading that particular passage, one thinks, Now that’s more like it! It is, of course. Even the cadence is exactly right. But plunked down amid pages that read alternately like literary gossip columns and fussed-over Norton Anthology introductions, Cohen’s most evocative “guess” just makes the rest of her book seem that much more wrong.CP