The secret history of American literature

Mark Twain, meet Ulysses S. Grant! Hart Crane, meet Charlie Chaplin! Rachel Cohen talks about the most intriguing encounters in U.S. history.

Topics: Nonfiction, Books,

The secret history of American literature

Many of us are fascinated by the personal lives of our favorite artists and writers: their love lives, their bouts with depression, their troubled or (less often, it seems) sunny childhoods. Even the smaller details — how they dressed or where they took long walks — seems, to us readers, to say something about their genius. In many ways, we’re trying to understand how these singular minds happened to produce important works of art, in between the menial tasks of everyday life. And there’s something especially magical about who they spent time with, especially when it’s other artists: the crusty glamour of writers and painters sharing drinks at the local bar, exchanging ideas and phone numbers, tumbling into bed together at night. What did they talk about, this painter, that poet? What did that conversation mean to them?

So it makes sense that author Rachel Cohen, in her book “A Chance Meeting” — in which she chronicles encounters and friendships between American artists from the Civil War to the civil rights era — makes the risky decision to imagine, here and there, what her subjects were thinking or how their relationships might have affected them. Although Cohen read more than 400 books for her project and most of “A Chance Meeting” is well documented, each chapter also includes a fictionalized paragraph or two. Sometimes Cohen suggests the impact another artist had on one’s work; in other cases, she hints at romance or deep personal disappointment. Her writing is comfortably intimate and heartfelt, her respect and passion for each of her subjects almost quiet and assuring in its ease.

She writes not as a fan or critic, but almost as a kind of peer. Reading the book, one feels as though Cohen has managed to land a place in the carriage between W.E.B. DuBois and William James, or snagged a corner in Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, where she sipped a cocktail and eavesdropped on Hart Crane or Edward Steichen. When she writes about Katherine Anne Porter lying out in the Mexican sun, you almost believe Cohen had the spot right next to her.

Salon spoke to Cohen from her home in Brooklyn about Mark Twain’s relationship with Ulysses S. Grant, James Baldwin’s lifelong friendship with Richard Avedon (they worked on their high school literary magazine together), and how Norman Mailer reacted when she called.

You wrote this book over the course of 10 years. Where did the idea come from?

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I was driving around the country and I was trying to figure something out about America and American writers and about myself as a writer, and I wasn’t having very much luck. It was a lot harder than I thought; I had a kind of 20-year-old optimism about “Travels With Charley,” not realizing that Steinbeck was not 20 when he wrote that book. I was reading a lot and I was trying to make up for various lacks in my education, which everybody feels when they graduate from college. I went to a lot of monuments around the U.S. — I went to Vicksburg [Miss.] and a lot of other Civil War battlefields. I went to civil rights monuments and Willa Cather’s house.

When I was at Vicksburg, I bought Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs and was literally standing in the gift shop and paging through and saw that they’d been published by Mark Twain. I was so surprised. It was such a shock — I don’t know why — that those two enormous figures, who were so mythic, were friends and had this complex, competitive, generous relationship. It was incredibly engaging for me. It actually took me about three years to write a piece about their relationship.

Really? Why?

It was hard. I was learning a lot of things about writing all at once.

And Civil War history is daunting.

It is. There’s a lot to read, and it’s hard to sift through it. A lot of it is beautifully written, so you get caught up in the details of the battles.

Twain fought on the Confederate side, right?

Yes, briefly, for two or three weeks or whatever it was. He was in Missouri and a lot of people were for secession. He joined up with a ragtag bunch of people who thought the whole thing was a lark. As young men do when war starts, they thought, “Oh, hooray, let’s go, it will be over next week!” And he almost immediately realized it was a terrible mistake for him, deserted, and escaped to Nevada and didn’t come back until the war was over.

Did he and Grant talk about that much?

I don’t know how much that’s on record. Twain thought about that a lot when he was with Grant and then when he was writing about their relationship and when he wrote that essay, “A Private History of a Campaign That Failed.” It was something that he was always trying to come to terms with.

And Grant ended up in poverty, right?

Yes, a weird kind of poverty because lots of things were given to him and taken care of for him by people who admired what he had done and felt patriotically about him. But at the same time there were no jobs for him to have. No one did anything constructive so that he could live a life that he enjoyed. He ended up a little trapped by his own fame. It’s hard to figure out how to follow being general of all the armies and president. He also had a bad head for business and chose corrupt associates.

At what point did he write those memoirs?

At the very end. He died two weeks after he finished them. He lived to finish them.

Did Twain edit them or just publish them?

He edited them a little bit and gave encouragement. But as far as I know — and I haven’t made a close textual study of it — it wasn’t a close edit.

So you read 400 books or so for this book. Were they mostly secondary sources? What did you read?

I read at least one serious biography for each of the figures, but usually two or three. There were lots I didn’t read — there are probably 400 Mark Twain biographies, for example. I read a lot of letters and journals and memoirs, but all published material, not archival material. I read the works of the people, which was a lot because many of these people wrote 30 or 40 books.

Were you reading up until you finished the book?

It was a continual process. There’s always another novel by Henry James. Zora Neale Hurston’s letters were published fairly late in my project. But I tried to read a critical mass of material before I started writing, enough that I had a clear sense of the person, that I felt I understood the details that should be prominent, and that I felt I had the story I wanted to tell. But not so much that I felt obliged to every detail. There’s a point at which you’re oversaturated. I tried not to get to that point before I started writing.

As I got deeper into your book I discovered all of these small and large connections you were making between these artists. Were there any last-minute surprise connections that you made when you were far into the writing process?

The set of people I was working with was pretty solid for the last year or so of the project. But before that there were certainly lots of changes. I remember discovering fairly late that Elizabeth Bishop had considered editing an edition of Sarah Orne Jewett’s stories and then decided that Willa Cather’s edition was better and she didn’t need to do it. That was sort of magical, because I had been associating Bishop with Jewett and Cather — thinking that they all had a sense of landscape that was related — so to discover that Bishop really cared about Jewett’s work and knew of Cather’s edition was a nice line to be able to draw.

There were even smaller ones: In an early chapter, a 24-year-old W.E.B. DuBois and his then professor, William James, visit Helen Keller. Then, in one of the later chapters, involving a visit between Charlie Chaplin and DuBois, Keller sends DuBois a 90th birthday greeting, remembering their visit from long ago. Did I get that right?

That I knew about early and that was always my intention. But in an earlier version, those greetings came early in the book, and then as that developed it became clear that it made more sense to have it later. So Keller could return. I was always interested in the pleasures of return. It was nice for me to see people come back again and again.

Why did you zero in on this group of people in particular? Were they just artists whose work interested you?

I really wanted a variety of relationships, so I was interested in people who knew and edited each other for 40 years and people who only met once. I was interested in relationships that were nurturing and supportive and ones that broke down. Then I made a time division — I wanted to start around the time of the Civil War and go through to the 1960s, the country’s second schism and moment of turmoil. There were people who didn’t fit within that framework. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville — they really were earlier. Then there were people who seemed to me not right to approach in this manner, like someone like Emily Dickinson, whose work I love, but I wasn’t interested in getting at her as a person. She wasn’t running around and writing lots of letters and making herself available in that way, so it felt inappropriate to pull her into this.

And some of the others you left out — Fitzgerald and Hemingway, for example?

It was partly just that a lot had already been said about their personal relationships. I didn’t feel that I had anything new or exciting to bring to that. Also they didn’t really fit with the lines that I was interested in — like the influence of Mark Twain or Henry James or Walt Whitman or Sarah Orne Jewett, and what they generated.

One of the questions that seems to come up a lot is that these artists were actively defining themselves as American artists and asking what that meant. It seems as though that was something you were after.

There were a lot of different approaches. For Walt Whitman there was something about capaciousness and encompassing — his sense of America as a place that was endlessly open and accepting. There were people who had a feeling that there was a rebelliousness to American art. Certainly Mark Twain had that thing of thumbing his nose at European convention, which was something that John Cage had, and Marcel Duchamp loved and gravitated to when he came here. And then there are certain feelings about American landscapes and how to talk about the actual country itself — those you find in Sarah Orne Jewett and Willa Cather and Elizabeth Bishop.

I noticed that you seemed to be particularly interested in photographers and their connections with people through these images. Why?

I was interested in making portraits and how you do that, so portrait photographers were a way for me to think about that. Also, in meetings between photographers and their subjects, there is an artifact. There’s a photograph, so there’s something that allows you to see what the photographer saw of that person. That was helpful to me in reconstructing these situations. A final important reason was that a lot of these portrait photographers were collectors. They were establishing collections of those that they felt to be illustrious Americans. Mathew Brady, Edward Steichen, Carl Van Vechten, Richard Avedon — collecting was a serious motivation for them.

I noticed in your notes in the back of the book that you spoke to Richard Avedon. Was there anyone else you spoke to?

I talked to Norman Mailer and Avedon, the only two central figures who are still living. Mailer I talked to on the phone and he kindly read the chapters I had written about him and gave me his responses. Some of those I incorporated and some of those I didn’t. He was able to correct some minor factual points and give me a sense of his perspective.

Was he nice?

Yes, he was incredibly pleasant and helpful. And Avedon was even more participatory. He was very excited about the project and read the whole book right away and then allowed me to use a lot of the photographs and was part of the endeavor of choosing the photographs. He also offered a lot more material — stories he thought would be valuable.

I was fascinated by his relationship with James Baldwin. They went to high school together and worked on the school literary magazine and stayed friends. But in the ’60s, there was tension between them. Was it because it was such a traumatic and volatile moment in time, or were there problems between them as individuals?

Probably both. It was a really traumatic time and Baldwin was experiencing it all in his body, which makes sense. The violence being done to African-Americans was incredibly physical. It was a dangerous feeling just to be walking around on the streets. People he knew were being assassinated. I think he was quivering with that all the time, and a lot of people who were dealing with him at that time felt that he was really quick to anger and easily upset. That seems a condition of that time; to be a sensitive person in that moment would almost necessitate that kind of response. Then, also, there were all the things that happen between friends when you’re young and optimistic together and then grow and make different decisions and start to feel that you’re not the people you were. You get irritable with each other.

Did Norman Mailer talk to you about your chapter in which you explore his envy of Robert Lowell?

He didn’t talk about that with me, but he talks about it a lot in “Armies of the Night.” So that stuff comes straight out of there, which is a nice thing about Mailer’s journalism. He’s so personally available and so conscious of using himself as a character in his own work.

Why was he envious of Lowell?

Mailer was, as he said, a Jew from Brooklyn, and he was trying to make it in a literary world that he felt was dominated by people who were not Jews from Brooklyn. People who were Boston Brahmins, or Protestants, at least. So he started with a rebellious feeling about people he felt had been given honorable positions in society without having done anything. He felt that Robert Lowell was from this very respectable family, many generations at Harvard, whereas Mailer had been the first in his family to go to Harvard, and struggled up in his own. He envied Lowell his “great Puritan slouch,” his ease and authority.

It’s lovely how that comes full circle. That’s the last chapter of your book, and the book begins with a young William Dean Howells, in 1860, trying to fit into the famous Boston literary crowd.

Absolutely. Lowell was a descendant of the people who were initially the people William Dean Howells was worried about, the people who passed judgment on Mark Twain. That Boston sense of itself continued. On the other hand, it really broke down. By the time Lowell and Mailer are marching on Washington, the center of culture is not Boston anymore. And although the judgments of a Robert Lowell are important, they’re not as important.

Another prominent place in the book is Harlem. There was an interesting schism between Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois.

It was an intermingling of the political and the artistic. DuBois felt that art should be respectable, or that the art of African-Americans should be respectable, because he was hoping to expand the presence of African-Americans in the middle class. At least that was one of his initial political impulses — he became more Marxist in his thinking later. He wasn’t really interested in the kind of art that had a lot of sex in it, or that was folk art. He wanted to prove that African-Americans could create a kind of higher art. On the other hand, he was one of the very first people to recognize that spirituals were an important art form, and he quoted a lot of spirituals in “The Souls of Black Folk” — he wasn’t immune to the artistic accomplishments of working and enslaved black people.

But Langston Hughes was really interested in folk art and the voice of the people and so the magazine he created with Zora Neale Hurston and other people — Fire! — was really all about the edge and the new and the down and dirty.

You have a great chapter about Hurston and Hughes. Was she in love with him?

I don’t know. I think she loved him, and that she probably wondered about it herself, how she felt about him.

And he was incredibly private about his sex life.

He was very private. It seems now that he was mostly interested in men, but at the time people really felt that they didn’t know. Carl Van Vechten, who slept with whoever he felt like and made no judgments about sexuality and was certainly someone you’d feel comfortable confiding in, felt that Langston Hughes had no sexuality. It was hard to tell.

Carl Van Vechten appears in this book quite a bit. He was like William Dean Howells, in the sense that he functioned as a supporter of and connector between people who are more famous to us today.

That’s always the case in history — the supporting figures are not the ones that go down. I absolutely thought there was a similarity there, and although his name did go down and he was a great artist in his own right, I think Alfred Stieglitz is another person like that, who really inspired a lot of people, and made a space where people could go and study and learn and grow.

In each chapter you imagine your subjects’ thoughts and sometimes even their actions. Did you wrestle with that? How much anxiety did you feel about fictionalizing some of these people’s lives?

I thought about it a lot. I redid a lot of details in the more imagined sentences because I felt I hadn’t gotten it quite right. Or I read another book and realized that a nuance was too far in one direction, or felt I left out something crucial. And I was trying to remain true to what I thought was the integrity of the different people I was writing about. It seemed like a big responsibility.

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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