Chance Meetings and the Forming of an Identity

Mark Twain celebrated his seventieth birthday at a fairly elaborate party, organized by the editor of Harper’s Weekly. The crowd of 50 or so guests included many of his close friends. These friends and others offered toasts to the celebrated author, and the evening closed with Twain’s remarks.

Rachel Cohen offers an account of the speech. Twain, who by his own admission had been something of a party animal, said that he had reached his advanced age “in the usual way: by sticking strictly to a scheme of life that would kill anybody else.” But at the age of seventy he found himself resisting invitations to such occasions, put off by the “thought of night, and winter, and the late homecoming from the banquet and the lights and the laughter through the deserted streets.’” He continued,

If you shrink at thought of these things, you need only reply, “Your invitation honors me, and pleases me because you have kept me in your remembrance, but I am seventy; seventy, and would nestle in the chimney corner, and smoke my pipe, and read my book, and take my rest, wishing you well in all affection, and that when you in your turn shall arrive at pier No. 70 you may step aboard your waiting ship with a reconciled spirit, and lay your course toward the sinking sun with a contented heart” (Rachel Cohen, A Chance Meeting: American Encounters, p. 111).

I’ve never smoked a pipe, but long before I turned 70 I was perfectly content to stay at home with a book. Just in case one of my old friends stumbles on this blog someday, I should admit that I didn’t avoid parties altogether, and that I even turned out the lights at a few of them. But more often than not, the lure of quiet alone time draws me. I’m remembering now one such occasion. As a young and untenured assistant professor, I was invited to join my wife and two members of the college’s Board of Trustees for dinner. This invitation came because of my wife, who had a professional connection with one of the board members. There was one awkward moment during what was otherwise a pleasant occasion. Somehow the topic of my preference for quiet time alone came up. One of the board members was intrigued. “John,” he began, “I’ve been anticipating this dinner all week, looking forward to getting to know you, and learning about your work. Are you saying that you’d really be happier if you were sitting at home reading a book?” Keeping in mind my status as an untenured member of the faculty, I tried very hard to avoid answering the question. But he persisted. Finally, I admitted that as much as I was enjoying the conversation, I also regretted the time away from my reading. He was, shall we say, rather surprised. But I think my wife managed to forgive me.

I’ve heard that one of the important distinctions between introverts and extroverts is that extroverts gain energy by being with others, while introverts spend energy in times with others and are refreshed by time alone. I don’t know whether that distinction is accepted by experts in the field, but I do know that even when I’m enjoying time with others, I’m spending considerable energy to maintain the connections. And that I regain this energy best when I have time alone.

All of this comes to mind now as I read the wonderful book mentioned above. Rachel Cohen’s A Chance Meeting: American Encounters is a collection of vignettes about encounters between significant figures in American culture from the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries. The vignettes are rooted in historical research – she’s describing encounters that actually happened, but she embellishes what she’s learned from journals, diaries, and other accounts with speculations about what the people might have said to each other. Describing her approach, she writes “I wanted to offer the reader the pleasure of moving back and forth between what is known to us and what can only be imagined, and I also wanted to be very clear about the distinction” (xviii).

The book has me thinking about the energy flow in my encounters with others because I see how the meetings Cohen describes both reflected and shaped the identities of the characters themselves. On one hand, I find myself thinking about how my relationships with others have shaped me, and I wish that I could capture the gist of how each of those relationships began in what could be called a chance encounter, but then grew into something much deeper. What would I learn, I wonder, if I took the time and energy to describe how a particular encounter with another person has shaped my identity? Moreover, if, as William James says somewhere, I am what I attend to, how might my attending to these encounters that have shaped me shape me yet again?

On the other hand, these reflections are prompted by my time alone with this book. As I read, I find myself drawn into the relationships between Willa Cather and Mark Twain, between William James and Gertrude Stein, between Henry James and William Dean Howells, between W.E.B. Du Bois and Charlie Chaplin, and a host of others. Learning about these relationships and imagining my own encounters with these people also shape the person that I’m becoming. Somewhere in her diaries, Virginia Woolf observes how communities of readers can form around books, even when the participants in those communities live in different times and places. I’m thankful to Rachel Cohen for bringing these people into the community that is my life.