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Alone Together

June 2024
1min read

A Common Life
Four Generations of literary Friendship and Influence

by David Laskin, Simon & Schuster, 460 pages, $27.50. CODE: SAS-11

Edith Wharton touched on the contradictory nature of writing in an observation she made of Henry James, calling him “a solitary who could not live alone.” A Common Life , David Laskin’s chronicle of the friendships of four pairs of legendary American literary figures—Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, Henry James and Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter, and Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop—is a deftly written exploration of the professional and personal dynamics that accompanied these relationships and of the necessity of these ties. Laskin delves deep into the eight lives, and his book’s success lies equally with his graceful writing and his excellent research.

For Hawthorne and Melville, their first meeting at a rain-drenched picnic in the Berkshires in 1850, when America’s history was short and its communities cared little about literature, was quite a substantial mutual discovery. Though Melville played the role of the suitor in their friendship, once expressing a wish for an endless roll of paper between his and Hawthorne’s desks and watching with pain and joy as Hawthorne far surpassed him in popularity, it is clear that Hawthorne, too, was encouraged by knowing a fellow serious writer in an otherwise barren environment. Edith Wharton, who started her career late in life, courted the already established Henry James for support, and the genteel James experienced both “dread and relish” during his visits with her. She upset his delicately balanced life, and for that he was both grateful and resentful.

The plain and shy Eudora Welty seems an odd companion for the glamorous, flighty Katherine Porter, who thrived on attention and could be infuriatingly unreliable, but the two admired each other’s work and boosted each other, however clumsily. Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop had the most destructive of all these friendships. These two alcoholic poets—Lowell also a borderline psychotic—came perilously close to what would certainly have been a disastrous marriage. Their union, one friend noted, would have left the world with “two fewer poets.” Still, even after they kept a purposeful distance, their influence on each other was marked and powerful. The same can be said of every one of these absorbing pairs.

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