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A Chance Meeting

A Chance Meeting

American Encounters

by Rachel Cohen, foreword by Vijay Seshadri, with a new afterword by the author

Regular price $19.95
Regular price Sale price $19.95

The March 2024 selection of the NYRB Classics Book Club

Rachel Cohen’s A Chance Meeting is a dazzling group portrait that offers a striking new vision of the making and remaking of the American mind and imagination from the Civil War to the Vietnam War. How does the happenstance of daily life become history? Cohen shows us, describing a series of, now boldly, now subtly, transformative encounters between a wide and surprising range of Americans. A young Henry James has his portrait taken by the photographer Mathew Brady—Brady, who will receive Walt Whitman in his studio and depict General Grant on the battlefield. Later, W.E.B. Du Bois and his professor William James visit Helen Keller; Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz argue about photography; and Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston write a play together. Throughout, Cohen’s narrative loops back and leaps forward with supreme agility, connecting, among others, Willa Cather, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Beauford Delaney, James Baldwin, and Richard Avedon. In A Chance Meeting, Rachel Cohen offers an abiding account of the continuing challenges and the astonishing achievements of American life.

Additional Book Information

Series: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 9781681378107
Pages: 416
Publication Date:


Strange, beautiful and unclassifiable. . . . The portraits, or sketches, which [Cohen] offers are subtle, intimate, and persuasive . . . not only a significant study of a century of American culture, but a fascinating entertainment.
—John Banville, The Guardian

Cohen is besotted with the cross-pollination of talent, with the way creative people flit in and out of each other's orbits . . . like a portraitist, Cohen turns her subjects this way and that, refracting a moment until the light catches it just right . . . the effect can be dazzling.
—David Kipen, NPR

Dazzling . . . a book that’s as addictive as popcorn . . . It elevates name dropping to an art, and transforms literary criticism into a party.
San Francisco Chronicle

Innovative . . . faultless . . . [Cohen] gives us a more intimate sense of these people in a few pages than one sometimes gleans from entire biographies.
The New Yorker

A masterpiece . . . A Chance Meeting takes thirty American writers and artists from Henry James to Robert Lowell, and braids them together in thirty-six encounters. Each person comes round two or three times, and every meeting, friendship and collaboration has a resonance that can be heard down the ages until what you have before you is an immense chain of artistic consequences.
The Economist

Symphonic . . . elegant and elegiac . . . [A Chance Meeting] answers hungers you did not even know you had. . . . At book’s end, the world to which Cohen returns you is more vivid, peopled with new acquaintances. . . . Outstanding.
—Emily Bernard, Chicago Tribune

Enthralling. . . . The 36 essays, as they progress . . . from the Civil War to the civil rights movement, constitute something of a new genre, rare in our period. . . . 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. . . . I know of no remotely analogous cultural articulation — not even Alfred Kazin's richly rehearsed An American Procession — that ventures so explicitly, and so readily, into the American briar patch of racial and sexual encounters. . . . Rachel Cohen's vision of the life of art in her chosen century, and the effect of that vision upon her reader, is one of an astonishing gladness.
—Richard Howard, Los Angeles Times Book Review

Captivating . . . like an elaborate fugue . . . [Cohen’s] prose is elegant yet plain, and her judgments sound and generous. . . . While carving a set of brilliant miniatures, Cohen is also indirectly telling a story of sex, race, political protest and celebrity culture in America, from the Victorian era to the 1960s.
The Boston Globe

Cunningly crafted and meticulously written. . . . What Cohen has written is not so much a group biography as a sort of evocative matrix of writers and artists over time, with exhilarating overlap and cross-reference.
The New Republic

Stylish . . . A Chance Meeting explores the imaginative enlargement that results from an encounter with an inventive (and kindred) mind. . . . Cohen writes like a fiction writer . . . [and] deftly evokes character through eccentric detail.
—Meghan O’Rourke, Slate

An innovative hybrid of biography, cultural history, ‘imaginative nonfiction,’ and gossipy anecdote. In Cohen’s great chain of being, one brilliant creator is linked to another and another, so that American culture is seen as the vibrant organic whole it truly is.

The book’s collisions take place in restaurants and libraries, publisher’s offices and crowded parties. … All prove memorable. … Ms. Cohen, with discernment and infectious enthusiasm, connects these characters, their work and their influence, leaving us with a volume that provokes the desire to share it with a friend.
—Alex Belth, The Wall Street Journal

Grounded in research, seasoned with mild speculation, Cohen writes about real meetings and encounters between American literary, artistic, and public figures from 1854 through 1967. To mention a few names: Matthew Brady, Willa Cather, James Baldwin, Richard Avedon. Her deftly written essays interlock in fascinating ways.
—Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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