By Vera John-Steiner


Copyright © 2000 Vera John-Steiner. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-19-506794-0


1  Joined Lives and Shared Work.....................................11
2  Partnerships in Science..........................................39
3  Patterns of Collaboration among Artists..........................63
4  A Chorus of Voices: Women in Collaboration.......................97
5  Felt Knowledge: Emotional Dynamics of Collaboration.............123
6  Collaboration across Generations................................151
7  Thought Communities.............................................187
Appendix: Collaboration Q-Sort.....................................205
Index of Subjects..................................................239

Chapter One


The varied ways in which we share and realize our intentions are powerfully embodied in collaborative endeavors. What are the dynamics of collaboration among intimates, between partners who share their work as well as their lives? Simone de Beauvoir's description of thinking together with Jean-Paul Sartre, her lifelong collaborator, captured many features of intimate partnerships:

A woman friend has said that each of us listens to the other with great attention. Yet so assiduously have we always criticized, corrected and ratified each other's thoughts that we might almost be said to think in common. We have a common store of memories, knowledge and images behind us; our attempts to grasp the world are undertaken with the same tools, set within the same framework, guided by the same touchstones. Very often one of us begins a sentence and the other finishes it; if someone asks us a question, we have been known to produce identical answers. The stimulus of a word, a sensation, a shadow, sends us traveling along the same inner path, and we arrive simultaneously at a conclusion, a memory, an association completely inexplicable to a third person.

    Joint endeavors between intimates reveal a variety of patterns. In the pages that follow, I examine variations in mutual support, roles and responsibilities, shared values and objectives, and overt and covert forms of rivalry among partners and family members. These analyses are based on interviews as well as on published biographical accounts.


Philosopher Will Durant met his wife when she was his student at a libertarian high school in New York. The young Ariel was raised in a family of Russian Jewish immigrants. Will was of Canadian Catholic background. His family had hoped that he would become a priest. Although he studied and later taught in a seminary, he eventually shifted to philosophy and became an enormously successful writer and lecturer. The Durants differed in age by thirteen years, and they had different educational experiences and temperaments. Ariel was a lively urban creature who loved the Bohemian life of Greenwich Village. Her husband, a more contemplative person, preferred the quiet beauty of the country.

    Through the first twenty years of their marriage, Will Durant did most of the writing and lecturing. Slowly his wife became interested in some of his activities. At first she lectured on women's issues and Jewish themes, but after a joint trip to Russia in 1932, they both began lecturing on their experiences. In Dual Autobiography, they quoted their letters (mostly Will's) and reconstructed their shared lives. In 1933, Ariel wrote:

Wherever he [Will] went, in these years, he continued to prepare The Story of Civilization. I did not take part in providing material for the early volumes, but, so far as my duties and my few amusements allowed, I shared gladly in classifying the heaps of notes that Will had been gathering for Our Oriental Heritage and the Life of Greece. I gave up my Greenwich Village diversions and obligations.... I learned to love my home and my work.... It took me some time to realize how important a role was played in a book by the organization of material, and how the same contents less wisely arranged might have led to repetition, confusion, and failure. The mere organization (as distinct from gathering) of the material was the most back-breaking part of the total operation. Will undertook the original part.

She further described how her husband divided his books into chapters and how he marked "each of the thirty thousand slips that had been gathered for Volume 1, according to the chapter that it belonged.... Our task was to read each slip and to number it according to the heading under which we judged it to belong."

    Thus, in the early stages of their joint work, Ariel, together with their daughter, helped with the organizational work. But more important, she presented him with alternative ideas and challenged some of his formulations or concepts. As he continued to travel and write, he occasionally asked her to take a more active role. At this stage, the pattern of their interactions can be thought of as cooperative. The participants in cooperative endeavors each make specific contributions to a shared task. However, their level of involvement may differ, as well as their sense of intellectual ownership of the resulting product. In the case of the Durants, at this early stage of their joint work, Will had the primary control over the text, and he made most of the basic decisions concerning the first volumes of The Story of Civilization. There can be a more fully realized equality in roles and responsibilities in collaborative activities in which the participants see themselves engaged in a joint task. I rely upon this distinction between cooperative and collaborative activities, developed by psychologists Damon and Phelps, in analyzing different stages of joint endeavors and different dynamics in intellectual and artistic partnerships.

    With each new volume of The Story of Civilization, Ariel's role grew and changed. She described her approach while working on Volume 4:

Back in Los Angeles [in 1946-47] I went to work, five hours a day, classifying some thirty thousand slips of material gathered for The Age of Faith. As I proceeded, my interest in the Middle Ages grew. I, who had not had the slightest preparation, in heritage, schooling, or character, for understanding medieval Christianity, which I knew chiefly as the theory and practice of anti-Semitism, I discovered a dozen bright faces in those centuries of groping through darkness to dawn.... Will approached this task almost in a mood of dislike and despair. I, the neophyte, finding gems in that pile of clips, reminded him that those centuries included the wandering scholars, the love-warbling troubadours, the Gothic cathedrals, the story of Abelard and Heloise, the Divine Comedy, and the beginnings of Parliament; and I pleaded with him to do justice to the medieval Jews. Gradually his antipathy to the subject faded, his interest grew....

    Preparing their next volume on the Renaissance, Will acknowledged a growing division of labor when he wrote in 1951:

In some measure Ariel and I divided the European Renaissance between us. I buried myself in Petrarch, Boccacio, Alexander VI, Leonardo, Leo X, Raphael, Julius II, Michelangelo, and Machievelli, while she consumed with delight every extant word of Montaigne, and spread her love to that gourmet of women, Henry of Navarre and IV [sic] of France.

Having taken a greater role in researching The Renaissance than in the previous four volumes, Ariel also became a stronger critical voice in her responses to the written product. Her husband wrote in 1953:

Ariel, however, was not content with the book, and submitted certain criticisms that had much basis and force. It began well enough, she said, with an interesting chapter on Petrarch and Boccacio ... but then I wandered from city to city, like another Baedeker, describing picture after picture until the result was a blur in the reader's memory; and like an unregenerate Catholic, I whitewashed those scandalous Renaissance popes; this, Ariel felt, was a let-down from The Age of Faith. I mourned, but such dissent kept me from quite forgetting my place in the perspective of astronomic and literary galaxies.

These recollections are interesting because they highlight the role of multiple perspectives in approaching these large themes. They also reveal a slowly shifting balance between the two partners. The Durants were able to productively use their differences in age and education. They were not stymied by their unequal status at the start of their relationship. Ariel, as the younger, less educated female partner, could have remained frozen in a subservient role throughout their long marriage. The position of an unpaid secretary or a devoted editor is quite common in the family lives of male writers, philosophers, and social scientists. One can only speculate as to why Will responded positively to his wife's growing intellectual maturity and wisdom, and was willing to establish a more mutual and equal partnership. Possibly, it is because both husband and wife were somewhat alienated from their communities of origin due to their unconventional marriage. Thus, they were emotionally dependent upon each other to a greater extent than are many married partners. When their interdependence was threatened by Will's frequent absences during his long, arduous lecture tours, Ariel was at first rebellious and resentful. But with the passage of time and their move to California from their native East Coast, she realized that she could assume a fuller role in their lives if she shared his work and "gave up [her] Greenwich Village diversions and obligations." She decided to assist her husband as a way to reconnect with him, and Will was grateful.

    They continued to argue about the relative importance of certain historical figures (for instance, Luther versus Erasmus). These dialogues were important to the man who held the pen, In 1956, Will wrote: "The Reformation will be too long for the reader, but it will be as good a job as any I have done; and as you and I have fought over every page ... you shared mightily in producing it." And later that same year, Will continued, "My hand moves the pen in [the first few volumes of] The Story of Civilization, but the spirit is ours, and the work is a life-long collaboration." At this stage of the Durants's shared efforts, their relationship shifted from cooperation to full collaboration. The change in Ariel's roles from helpmate and occasional commentator to a fully engaged partner, with responsibility for the central ideas in the latter volumes, illustrates this shift. Even more important was Will's decision in 1957 to coauthor the series:

As The Age of Reason Begins progressed, I saw that it was a cooperative labor, and that simple justice required that the title page should bear both of our names. Ariel has never asked for this. When she learned of it, she vowed to dedicate herself to the work. Now we proceeded hand in hand, topic by topic, volume by volume, united as we had never been before. It was as if our marriage had received a second consummation.

Thus the Durants moved from being partners in dialogue who cooperated with each other to full-fledged collaborators. Their shared autobiography provides an important documentation of these changes. While they depended primarily on each other, their daughter assisted them in editorial work. Other family members also shared a variety of daily responsibilities with them. For stimulation, they relied on travel and books rather than on intense conversation with others, although they treasured personal friendships. In this they differed from other twentieth-century intellectuals who, particularly before the onset of the Second World War, were nourished by "conversational communities" (the term is borrowed from Lisa Tickner as cited in Chadwick and de Courtivron).

    Few accounts of spousal collaboration are as complete as that of the Durants. Most of them are reconstructions by biographers rather than ongoing records by the participants. The partnership of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir is recounted in her autobiographical volumes, in their letters, and in the interviews she conducted with Sartre at the end of his life when he started to lose his sight. Between periods of reading to him, de Beauvoir taped his comments on a variety of subjects. Some of these comments provide important insights into their relationship. Axel Madsen's book, Hearts and Minds: The Common Journey of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, is another important document of these celebrated partners.

    Sartre and de Beauvoir never coauthored any books. They jointly established a philosophy that governed their writings (which included fiction, nonfiction, and drama). They first met at the Ecole Normale in Paris, where she joined him and his friends who were cramming for their final exams. De Beauvoir was invited as the expert on philosopher-scientist Gottlab Leibnitz. Thus they start their relationship at a more equal level than did the Durants—sharing a similar education and an equal commitment to the life of the mind.

    They treasured their equality as well as their freedom. Although each of them had other intimate relationships, they did not allow any of these to threaten their primary commitment to each other. Sartre remarked during one of his interviews with de Beauvoir: "I had one special reader and that was you. When you said to me, `I agree; it is all right,' then it was all right. I published the book and I didn't give a damn for the critics. You did me a great service. You gave me a confidence in myself that I shouldn't have had alone."

    De Beauvoir's description of their joint thinking reveals that their perceptions of the importance of the "other" was quite similar. Her account of finishing each other's sentences and of arriving at the same conclusions is of particular interest in light of Vygotsky's notion of the completeness of understanding between two individuals who may communicate using condensed verbal means. The example Vygotsky chose in Thought and Language to illustrate linguistic condensation and "living in the other's mind" is drawn from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: the declaration of love between Kitty and Levin where they use only initial letters to convey their thoughts and desires to each other. De Beauvoir evoked a similar process of "thinking in common" with Sartre.

    The development of a new philosophy requires not only a powerful sense of self but also an ability to step back, to view one's notions from the perspective of the critic, and to know where one develops new ground and where one is borrowing or imitating. From the very beginning of their relationship, de Beauvoir was able and willing to support Sartre when he was formulating novel ideas. She was also a consistent and thoughtful critic, one whom Sartre trusted. Some of his key ideas, such as the concepts of freedom and action, ethics and praxis, and the pursuit of meaning were developed in his philosophical essays. They were given concrete shape in their shared political activities and in fiction and drama written by each of them.

    There are many more examples of close collaboration among intimates where mutual support and criticism contribute greatly to each partner's success, or to the success of a single endeavor valued by both partners. The importance of such interdependence is particularly well chronicled by the members of the famous literary and artistic group known as the Bloomsbury group. Painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were part of that community, their lives entwined with Vanessa's sister Virginia Woolf, her husband Leonard, and with many other members of this group. Their daughter described their relationship in the following way: "Where Vanessa was timid and tentative Duncan would be audacious, and when he was disoriented she would be authoritative. She would straighten out his muddles, laugh at his perplexities, and when, as so often happened, her self-confidence failed her, he would support and reassure her."

    A fierce belief in the work of one's "significant other" as well as a willingness to criticize it characterizes most accounts of artistic and intellectual partnerships. Whether the two people actually paint, write, or choreograph together, or are engaged in each other's work less directly, their joint commitment and the ability to sustain a generative dialogue are crucial to successful partnerships.

    Interviews with collaborators are useful in providing a specific account of living-working partnerships beyond those constructed from personal documents. Psychologists Howard Gruber and Doris Wallace talked to me in their New York City apartment in 1994 about their collaboration. Gruber's case-study approach to creativity is influential in psychology and among historians of science; he and his wife have expanded this theoretical framework in their coedited volume Creative People at Work.

    Their collaborative trajectory has some features in common with the Durants as well as with Sartre and de Beauvoir. They first met when Wallace returned to graduate school after a career in editing and Gruber was one of her professors. As in the case of the Durants, there was a difference in status between the two of them when they first got to know one another, but only within the sphere of academic psychology. Both Wallace and Gruber had full lives behind them, including previous marriages and children. Their common work on Creative People at Work started when they were members of a larger group of individuals; all the participants were committed to the case-study approach. Gruber recalled: "For about five years, once a month we had a Sunday meeting at my house. About half the people were students doing dissertations, others included sociologists of science, psychologists interested in a variety of topics." Wallace added: "There was a woman who worked with dying children who came. So there were people who would come who were working with individuals. Maybe all of them were interested in creative processes but in very different settings, very different contexts. That was really one of the things that made the group so stimulating."

    As a result of the interaction between the members of this broader discourse community, Wallace and Gruber conceived of the idea to edit a book of case studies focusing on creative individuals. By the time the idea of the book took shape, they were also planning their joint personal lives. In the contexts of their shared work and their personal relationship, they made some of the decisions about the book. One important decision had to do with the order in which the editors' names were to be listed. Gruber explained their reasoning: "We made a clear-cut agreement that Doris would be the main editor and in compensation for that she would be listed first, so it is Wallace and Gruber. And that was a very definite decision that we made. She wrote the proposal. I had input to everything, but she basically wrote it. And it was a beautiful proposal, and it worked." In talking about authorship and division of labor, some additional issues emerged. Wallace explained:

I have edited books before, so I have quite a lot of experience as an editor. And it meant that I did an enormous amount of the scut work which appealed to him.... I would find a publisher. I would see the book through the process and all sorts of drudgery stuff, and at the same time also be a contributor, as we both wanted to be. And, because of that, I asked that I go first.

    Gruber interjected, "I don't think you had to ask."

    Wallace continued, "Wait, wait. There is absolutely no problem about that. But you know at that time, Howard had a lot more publications out than I did. It was a very smooth, warm and easily reached decision, behind which there is something of the gender stuff."

    The two of them discussed their decisions about the division of their efforts and the way in which status and gender related to these matters. The issues they touched on are of particular importance to collaboration between intimates, including the need to achieve a balance between personal commitments, concerns about the work, and each partner's individual career. Gruber reviewed some of these connections:

Let me put it in a slightly different way. I wanted to push Doris; I wanted her ... [Wallace interjects, "Yes, and he has always done that"] to have a chance to be the senior author on papers.... And I also did not want the labor involved, and I thought it was a fair exchange for her to do all that work and to be the first author. And then there was also this other feeling I had, that I had nothing to lose, because it was going to be the Gruber approach that was going to be expounded.... [At the same time] the fact that we were very close and there was no struggle over particular ideas we might argue about, but it was not as though you had two people with different approaches contending with each other.

Gruber likes to collaborate both with his wife and with his students. His commitment to the full professional development of those with less experience has been important to Wallace from the earliest stages of her contact with him. She also appreciates the way they share ideas now that they have achieved greater professional equality: "Everything I write, he reads, and everything he writes, I read. And in-between we are discussing things from early on."

    Criticism is a central feature of good collaboration but it requires careful timing. During my interview with Wallace and Gruber, Wallace described how Gruber sometimes gave her what he had written and asked her not to edit it—"not to worry about the commas"—just to respond to the general direction. Gruber and Wallace further described areas where negotiations and compromises were helpful. Some of these were about finely tuned criticism; others involved effective division of labor and the issues of intellectual property. As they have somewhat different backgrounds in the arts and sciences, each of them focused on those chapters which best correspond to his or her interests. Another example of their division of labor relates to work on demanding chapters: "Something that I found difficult, I would have discarded," Gruber recalled. "If she found [something] difficult, she would have discarded it. Between the two of us, we rescued difficult chapters, but that meant it was a lot more work for both of us."

    Compromises have to be made in other areas as well including career decisions. But negotiations can be successful in a good partnership, because, as Gruber put it: "What a collaboration does for you is, by spreading the risk a little bit, it encourages you to take more chances."

    A similar observation was made by the authors of Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust, whom I interviewed in their home outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. Gay Block is a photographer and her partner, Malka Drucker, is a children's story writer. They build well on their complementarity in training and temperament. Their joint project, Rescuers, consists of narratives by and photographs of rescuers of Jews during World War II. It was a large project initiated by Drucker who recalled: "The project took place in so many stages that each of us pushed the other one through." While they were looking for a publisher Drucker continued to work on some of her contracted children's books. They had written a prospectus and collected the interviews, and Block had taken pictures of the rescuers and started to show them. Block recalled this time as difficult: "When the rejections started coming in, I just started doing the exhibition. While showing some slides one night in Los Angeles, somebody asked if they could show this work [as an exhibition]. It was not yet in any kind of form to show, but I figured out the form to show it and did it. And it was by working on the exhibition that the form of the book came to us."

    The visual format of their highly praised book combines the past and the present. It includes black-and-white pictures of the rescuers and the people whom they rescued dating back to the forties. These images are placed next to the rescuers' first-person narratives. In addition, the book contains large, full-color portraits of each rescuer taken at the time of the interview. "The latter," Block wrote in the book, is "to represent the rescuers with as much reality as possible." Drucker did the interviews, and she developed a strong relationship with each of the individuals in the book. She explained, "If I am asking people, especially in the case of this subject, to open their hearts to me, the only way I know how to do that is to do the same to them. ... With all these rescuers we became friends." The writing of the book's introduction was an example of how these two partners supported and expanded each other's work. The publishers wanted a comprehensive introduction, which was a new form of writing for Drucker since her previous work consisted of children's books. She started by writing eight pages, but the editor wanted it expanded. Drucker did not know how to do that; one of the reasons that she had difficulty in writing this text was that she usually did not read introductions: "Why read the introduction? I'll read the book." Block responded: "Because you know that you can read a book and understand what they are trying to say, but a lot of people need the introduction. Like me. I need to know what I am getting ready to read so I'll pay attention when I am supposed to."