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This many years of theory later, it’s still not clear how relevant artists’ lives ought to be to an understanding of their work—but we’ll continue to be curious. The 30 19th- and 20th-century American writers and artists in Rachel Cohen’s A Chance Meeting seem to know that: As they pursue their ambitions and each other, and mythologize themselves, they leave a self-conscious paper trail.

Cohen is more impressionistic portraitist than historian, and relies almost entirely on secondary sources. Each of the essays focuses on a friendship between two figures located in a larger network, sketching their day-to-day connections and improvising a larger artistic arc. She begins with Henry James and Mathew Brady, and moves on to Robert Lowell and Norman Mailer, via Stein, Stieglitz, Crane, and the Harlem Renaissance.

The lightly fictionalizing hybrid set pieces Cohen uses can occasionally be repetitive, and her digressions on, say, photographic theory are hardly original. Nostalgia seems unavoidable—her subjects are charismatic and beloved. Nevertheless, when her portraits are of figures that are clearly dear to either her or me, as the case may be, she can be very sympathetic and illuminating indeed. As Henry James once wrote to Sarah Orne Jewett, “The ‘historic’ novel is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labor as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness. . . . You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like—the real thing is almost impossible to do.” Similarly, these delicately wrought essays can be read as a kind of extended, irresistible People for the literary set.

The best things in this book, then, are the tidbits of gossip. We are eager to know that Zora Neale Hurston seems to have had an unrequited crush on Langston Hughes, that Lowell apparently confessed his love to Elizabeth Bishop in a letter to which she did not respond, that Marianne Moore praised Muhammad Ali’s sense of prosody, “particularly his alliteration, his use of antithesis, and his sense of the comic,” in her liner notes to his 1963 spoken-word album, and that a young John Cage played chess regularly with Teeny Duchamp while Marcel smoked his pipe, looked on, and said, “You are playing very badly.”

Interestingly, the most poignant chapters delineate what might have been or almost was. Take Joseph Cornell and Marianne Moore: 10 years apart, both masters of beauty and bricolage, both living with their mothers and reticent in romance, they sent each other longing, charged letters and died within months of each other without managing to tryst. The history of art, Cohen reminds us, is the history of almost fulfilled desire.

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