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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, August 29, 2004

Chance Meetings Provide Literary Certainty

A recent survey of the reading tastes of Americans concluded that literature is a dying art form in our country. Less than half of the U.S. population reads literary fiction, poetry or plays. If this trend continues, 50 years will mark the end of literature as we now know it.

This would be a shame, because literature excels at exploring and explaining the mysteries of the human heart and of existence itself. It can accomplish these lofty goals, furthermore, without being difficult to read.

A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967 by Rachel Cohen (Random House, 2004).

Cohen is a young academic who has obviously lived intimately in her mind with some of the great artists of the last century. The result is she writes as though she knew them personally.

She uses photographs by master photographers to record these "chance" meetings of artists. For example, the great Civil War photographer Mathew Brady captures Henry James as a mature 10-year old with his arm on the shoulder of his impractical but proud father.

She also shows how Brady captures the relentless personality of Ulysses S. Grant during the Wilderness Campaign and the cosmic gaze of Walt Whitman shortly after the war's end.

These and the 30 remaining photographs serve as centerpieces for the author's anecdotes of the American family of artists.

Twenty Days With Julian & Little Bunny by Papa by Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York Review of Books, 2003).

One chance meeting not mentioned in Cohen's book is that between Nathaniel Haw-thorne and Herman Melville in the summer of 1851. Hawthorne found himself alone with his 5-year-old son, Julian, and his rabbit while his wife, Sophie, was away visiting relatives.

As Hawthorne tells it in this little-known gem, previously hidden in his American Notebooks, a cavalier on horseback passed father and son one dusty and dry July day and greeted them in Spanish. On closer inspection, the rider turned out to be author Melville, who was taking a break from writing Moby Dick.

Melville swooped up Julian and let him ride the mile or more back to the Hawthorne homestead. Melville and Hawthorne drank a cup of tea, but Melville refused a second cup because he was afraid it might keep him awake.

Nevertheless, the two of them stayed up late into the night anyway, smoking cigars and discussing "time and eternity, and things of this world and of the next."

Writer Paul Auster has written the introduction to this little book, as well as narrated the audio version. If you were unaware of who wrote it, you might think it a modern work.

Hawthorne brings a scientific sensibility to his observations of his "little old man," Julian. Regrettably, the bunny's role in this domestic drama is a tragic one.

The Master by Colm Toibin (Scribner, 2004).

Henry James was later to write a critical study of Hawthorne. I am not sure whether these two great writers met. When Hawthorne wrote his notes on Julian and the bunny, James was only 8 years old.

Toibin is an Irish writer who has been short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize. His fictional exploration of James, known to all believers as "the Master," is brilliant and undoubtedly one of the finest novels of the season.

In order for James to dedicate his life to literature and art, he made certain sacrifices. He was never to marry, and he turned away from the two most important women in his life, when they most needed him.

Minny Temple, the luminous model for Isabel Archer in James' early masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady, begged James to meet her in Italy. The sunshine might have retarded the consumption that quickly killed her. He chose the solitude required for his art.

Likewise, he might have prevented his friend and fellow writer Constance Woolson from jumping out of a second-story window in Venice if he had been there. His only memorial to her was an unfavorable portrait in "The Aspern Papers."

Toibin explores these missed chances and judges James' life to have been emotionally hollow. Whether he is right about this does not take away from the achievement of this superb and, on the whole, sympathetic "literary" novel.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.