Or, six degrees of Walt Whitman: a lively work of American cultural history that follows trails of acquaintanceship and influence across the generations.
Back when the world was larger but the numbers of people within it smaller, it was possible for men and women of culture to seek one another out and, by the mere act of meeting, constitute a movement of sorts that could have all manner of strange reverberations. Consider that William James once suffered an attack of angina while walking through the streets of Vienna with Sigmund Freud, at about the time Leo Stein was wandering through the hills of Tuscany with Bernard Berenson; having just read James’s Principles of Psychology, Stein was well armed with arguments to berate his sister Gertrude for “writing only on the surface and . . . lacking psychological depth,” a charge Gertrude would later level at Ernest Hemingway. Or consider the poet Marianne Moore’s meetings with the artist Joseph Cornell, who took time out from his infatuations with Marcel Duchamp and Marlene Dietrich to court her, later ruefully remarking to his sister, “You know, I was thinking, I wish I hadn’t been so reserved”; Moore turned away Cornell’s offer of marriage, but, late in life, developed crushes on Norman Mailer and Muhammad Ali, casually introduced to both by George Plimpton. Cohen (MFA program/Sarah Lawrence), a young scholar, peppers all this with dozens of chance encounters, some of them history-making (Mark Twain’s friendship with Ulysses S. Grant, Henry James’s with Willa Cather) and some of them mere, if sometimes elegant, moments (Charlie Chaplin’s encounter with W.E.B. Dubois at the Swiss hotel where Henry James had set Daisy Miller, Peggy Cowley and Hart Crane’s drunken viewing of a Chaplin film in Mexico City).
These moments add up to a fresh if sidelong look at American letters, and to a work that culturally minded readers will greatly enjoy.