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In the Kingdom of Coincidence

Sometimes, without knowing why, we suddenly find ourselves living in the land of coincidence. It happened to me for a few weeks beginning in mid-August. And then, just as mysteriously, the coincidences stopped.

Over the summer, I was working on an article for The New York Review about Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. I was happy to learn, along the way, that Masters’s daughter was, for a time, my beloved teacher Stanley Cavell’s mother-in-law, not a coincidence exactly but rather a detail that brought Masters closer to me. Then I opened an e-mail, on August 27, from an old friend, the fiction writer John Rolfe Gardiner. “A random thought I wanted to bounce off you,” he began. “Have you ever written anything about Edgar Lee Masters, that old standby in high school English classes, whom I assume produces a wide yawn in college English departments?” I told myself that Spoon River isn’t the most obscure of books. And yet, what an odd coincidence.  

A week earlier, on August 18, I had received another email out of the blue, from a writer I didn’t know, Augustine Sedgewick. Sedgewick was reading my book If, about Rudyard Kipling’s American years, and asked if he could send me his own book, Coffeeland, a history of the baleful codependency of El Salvador and the United States as producer and consumer. On August 21, I wrote to say I’d be delighted to have it, and gave him my mailing address in Amherst. On September 1, I drove up to the shores of Lake Dunmore, in Vermont, to participate in an adult chamber music camp called Point CounterPoint. I had been assigned the viola part in two ensembles, playing quintets by Johannes Brahms and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Five days later, feeling buoyant from my time at sleepaway camp, I returned to find Coffeeland in the mail. Inside the book was an old postcard with a note of dedication. The scene on the postcard looked familiar. I checked the caption. “Aerial View of Lake Dunmore Hotel.” Wait, I thought to myself. My music camp was on Lake Dunmore. I checked my sole email to Sedgewick. No mention of my music camp. No mention that I was going to Vermont anytime soon. I notified him of the coincidence. He, too, was stunned: “I chose the postcard out of my box of old ones as a nod to Kipling in Vermont and was actually disappointed I didn’t have any Western Massachusetts scenes to offer.”

What does one do with such coincidences? Where does one put them? In a file with others, like a box of old postcards? “Take what you have gathered from coincidence,” Bob Dylan sang. Okay, but what exactly are we supposed to gather from them?

Coincidences clearly appeal to me since my own books often revolve around them. Kate Chopin’s husband worked in a cotton office next to the one Edgar Degas painted in 1873, a connective thread in my Degas in New Orleans (1997). The hummingbird painter Martin Johnson Heade visited Mabel Loomis Todd in Amherst just before Emily Dickinson gave Todd a poem about a hummingbird, hence A Summer of Hummingbirds (2008). Herman Melville and a Japanese sea drifter named Nakahama Manjiro crossed paths in Hawaii and again in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, one strand in The Great Wave (2003). Out of such shared destinies, I like to spin my yarns.

I don’t have a theory of coincidences. I don’t see them as part of a divine plan, or as dictated by the stars. But I am strongly drawn to other writers who savor them. On one of Robert Walser’s long walks with a friend, the name Paul Klee came up, and almost immediately he saw a sign on a shop window: Paul Klee—Carver of Wooden Candlesticks. “Are they rebuses of memory, delusions of the self and of the senses,” W. G. Sebald wrote of coincidences in his essay on Walser, “or rather the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead?”

The French novelist Patrick Modiano (Dylan’s fellow Nobel laureate) discovered that a scene from Les Misérables intersected oddly with his search for Dora Bruder, a sixteen-year-old runaway who had vanished during one of the roundups of French Jews during the Occupation. Cosette and Jean Valjean eluded the police by slipping into the garden of a convent at precisely the same address, Modiano notes, as the school that Dora attended. “Like many writers before me, I believe in coincidence,” Modiano writes. I find that I do, too.

I can’t help noticing that these two connoisseurs of coincidence, Sebald and Modiano, are preoccupied with the disasters of the World War II era, returning often to the ways in which their own young fathers were caught up (as mine was) in the horrors of the time. Is it possible that coincidences can offer some slight consolation in the midst of calamity, a small pocket of seeming order amid the consuming chaos around us? One more bizarre coincidence from the shores of Lake Dunmore offered to confirm that this might be so.

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“I’ve always loved Brattleboro and environs,” Sedgewick wrote to me after I told him about my connection to his postcard, “but don’t believe I’ve been to Lake Dunmore, and upon further research feel certain that if I had I would not have forgotten Satans Kingdom.” Sedgewick was referring to an unincorporated community—not to be confused with, coincidentally, another unincorporated village of the same name some hundred miles south, just over the border with Massachusetts—right on Lake Dunmore, only a short hike from my chamber music camp. The sinister-sounding locality was “thought to have been named,” according to the book Vermont Place-Names, “by someone who had expected fertile, rolling acres and had received rocks and hills instead.” (I’ve also heard it suggested, by someone I know who lives on Lake Dunmore, that mosquitoes are responsible for the name.)

This Satans Kingdom falls within the township of Leicester, which, I discovered, gave rise to its own amazing story of coincidences reported by Vermont Public Radio’s Nina Keck in January 2020 about how “an accidental pocket-dial in Vermont brought together two parents who had lost their adult children.”

One day, Kris Francoeur of Leicester accidentally dialed the canceled phone number of her son, who had died of a drug overdose the previous year. She received a text from one Peggy Sumner asking who she was. Her son’s number, Francoeur learned, had been randomly assigned to Sumner, whose daughter had died in a car accident. And then, as they talked, the surprises kept coming:

Keck: The two moms found out both their kids were named Sam F. They were nearly the same age and had grown up less than thirty miles from each other. Both Sams had a younger sibling they were especially close to. Both loved the same music and hiked the same trails. Even the way Sumner and Francoeur described their kids sounded similar.
Sumner: It was weird (laughter), you know? I mean, it was such a coincidence.
Keck: Strangest of all, they realized Sam and Samantha had known each other.

“The fact is,” Modiano writes near the end of Dora Bruder, “there are flukes, encounters, coincidences, and we shall never take advantage of them.” But these two grieving mothers, who found solace in their uncannily twinned fates, knew how to take advantage of them. They had indeed stumbled upon Sebald’s “symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead.” You might say that they had learned what to gather from coincidence.

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