Imagine a dinner party with 30 literary and visual arts luminaries and you are the fly on the wall or perhaps in the soup doing the backstroke listening to them jabbering away.
From mid-century 19th to mid-century 20th Rachel Cohen in her book, A Chance Meeting brings these poets and writers and photographers and artists alive on the page. After enormous research from diaries, memoirs and biographies she has found connective threads that became the tapestry of the American literary landscape.
We are treated to a stream of numinous moments such as Helen Keller remarking how she felt, in Mark Twain's handshake, the twinkle in his eye. We tag along with W.E.B. Dubois and his professor, William James on their visit to Helen Keller.
Small gestures are carefully observed as Charlie Chaplin ducks into a Hungarian restaurant to avoid a crowd and stays for four hours studying a violinist whose body movements he will later use in a film. Joseph Cornell is arrested for loitering outside a movie theater. He was entranced by the lit booth of the ticket seller on an otherwise dark street.
We are brought along with Henry James Sr. and his eight year old son, Henry as they have their daguerreotype taken by Matthew Brady. We learn that the self-conscious look on young Henry's face may be accounted for by a remark made a few days before by William Makepeace Thackeray concerning his nine button coat shown in the portrait.
We come to learn of the centrality certain figures played in gathering and supporting their contemporaries. William Dean Howells was such a man of letters. He edited the Atlantic Monthly and lent encouragement to Mark Twain, Henry James and Willa Cather.
Another person to whom his peers flocked was Alfred Stieglitz. His early pictures were seminal in elevating photography to an art form and his gallery in the first decade of the century was the first to show Matisse and Picasso in this country. Stieglitz could talk for eight hours at a stretch. Some visitors to the second-floor gallery would purposely come when he went to lunch just to see in quietude what hung on his walls. This juicy anecdote comes from his elevator operator who also revealed that the door was always kept open. After a Picasso exhibit in which 2 of 85 pieces were sold Stieglitz offered the Metropolitan Museum of Art the remaining 83 for $2,000. They refused.
From Whitman to the Harlem Renaissance we get an inside peek at the passing parade; the same sex loving relationships known as Boston marriages, the father-son affection between unlikely people to the grudging support, jealousies and rivalries. I come away from the banquet satiated and thank Rachel Cohen for the invitation.
Indeed there is a generative body of poets, writers and artists who together can be heard as an authentic American voice, a noisy conversation across the century, unique in its struggle to articulate the inclusive yawp of the newly-arrived, the blues of the underclass, the untamed frontier and urbane East. It’s the hum and the hum-drum, the air we breathe.