Writing Lives: James Atlas on the Art of Biography

By John TytellJanuary 3, 2018

Writing Lives: James Atlas on the Art of Biography

The Shadow in the Garden by James Atlas

The History of the World is but the Biography of Great Men.

— Thomas Carlyle


SOMETIMES, as Holden Caulfield innocently observes in The Catcher in the Rye, there are times when you like a book so much that you want to call up the author. For me, this is one of those rare times. I admit my impulse to call James Atlas is partly an instance of six degrees of separation: we seem to have so many common literary and cultural interests — from Anaïs Nin to Baron Corvo, from the pugnacious journalist Seymour Krim to the old Partisan Review crowd, from critics like Alfred Kazin and Leon Edel to disappeared haunts like the Hotel Earle on Washington Square or the Gotham Book Mart on 47th Street in Manhattan.

Atlas’s book is about the craft of literary biography. When I was coming of age in the literary world of New York, I was taught to suspect biography as the product of a disreputable marriage between history and journalism. Henry James feared the biographer as a predator, James Joyce ridiculed what he called “biografiends,” Nabokov dismissed the species as mere “Tom-peepers,” and Saul Bellow compared biographers to coffin-makers. Janet Malcolm, in her adept evaluation of books about Sylvia Plath, claimed that the biographer resembles a “professional burglar.” Stacy Schiff has pointed out that the business of biography might seem obsessional, parasitic, and perhaps pathological, or at best the distasteful result of “peering unapologetically into other people’s medicine cabinets.”

Those who most detest the biographer’s intrusiveness associate the craft with vampirism. Atlas himself, considering Boswell’s famously relentless pursuit of Samuel Johnson, offers the novelist John Wain’s harsh reflection: “It was as if he [Boswell] couldn’t establish a stable identity without the validation of another. On his own, he was nothing, a person without a self, an empty vessel waiting to be filled.” Boswell had insisted that no one could write a life “but those who have eat and drunk and lived in social intercourse” with the subject, which would restrict biography to the recording of contemporaries. Of course, his biography of Johnson endures as perhaps the most entertaining and lively example of the genre.

Like any successful novelist, the biographer needs the skill to spin a story, and Boswell had it. Unlike the novelist, however, the biographer is necessarily grounded in the actual. The biographer’s work is contextual, his inquiry assuming that matters like personal belief, psychology, or the history of a particular moment can have artistic consequence. Sometimes, tempted to make the boring quotidian livelier, in the hope of what Atlas terms “virtual resuscitation,” the biographer may invent or distort beyond what circumstances dictate.

Of course, as the author of two excellent and acclaimed biographical studies — of the relatively unknown but explosive poet Delmore Schwartz and of the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Saul Bellow — Atlas knows all this. His book is written with a keen sense of the modesty of most literary endeavor. Atlas has read widely and deeply, and has developed a persuasive sense of literary history. His book is leavened with shrewd discussions of previous biographers, from Plutarch to Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann (with whom he studied at Cambridge). His intriguing title, The Shadow in the Garden, may be influenced by Richard Holmes, perhaps the most eminent practitioner of the craft today, who argued that his goal was to “produce the living effect” of a subject who might ultimately prove as fugitive and evasive as memory — only a blurred shadow of the original.

That fleeting shadow evokes a certain biographical anxiety. Did the fragments gleaned help the biographer to get the story right, did he or she project too imaginatively, is the drama inherent in the situation or a function of his or her subsequent excitement? For Holmes, the success of biography is always compromised because the picture presented is necessarily incomplete, partial, to be resumed or revised when new archival discoveries become possible or new testimonies surface.

As the reader might expect, much of The Shadow in the Garden follows the arc of Atlas’s own career, beginning with his immersion in the life of Delmore Schwartz — that “pillar of agony,” as Alfred Kazin once called him. As a poet and author of the haunting story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” about the collapse of his parent’s marriage, Schwartz received early recognition. The writer Cynthia Ozick, introducing a new edition of his work in 2004, captured the details of his “catastrophic life — turbulent, demanding, importuning, drinking, pill-swallowing, competitive, suspicious, litigious.” Schwartz’s self-destructiveness, his lethal mix of alcohol, amphetamines, and paranoia, his outbursts and mad diatribes in restaurants, were the painful signposts of decline and early death, the precipitously “steep downward slide,” as Atlas puts it.

The structure of The Shadow in the Garden — and much of its value — has to do with the process of Atlas’s investigations. Besides the archival labor of going through old journals, letters, manuscripts, and revisions, the biographer often relies on the observations and recollections of a subject’s contemporaries. Interviews could last for hours: “For every anecdote about Delmore, I had to listen to the story of someone’s life.” One of the first figures Atlas interviewed was Kazin, the leading literary critic of the Partisan Review circle, a group who often saw themselves as, in Atlas’s words, a collection of “intellectual exiles.” Famous for his brilliant analysis of American literature On Native Grounds (1942), Kazin was often rude, peremptory, and dismissive. The vignette Atlas provides is full of vitality: “cut the crap,” is Kazin’s parting wisdom to him.

The literary flaws of a young writer are evident in the more sustained encounter with Dwight Macdonald, another cultural giant of the Partisan Review crowd. Macdonald had been a close friend of Schwartz’s and would become a crucial confidant for Atlas, even agreeing to edit Atlas’s manuscript as it evolved. The chapters Atlas submitted came back defaced with Macdonald’s “challenges, objurgations, rebukes,” full of stinging condescension (“You sound like a Victorian moralist on the perils of drink”) and critiques of Atlas’s tendency toward repetition (“wandering back to the old boneyard like a dog that’s forgotten just where he buried that bone”). For Macdonald, Atlas’s approach lacked the courage of his own perspective and seemed too academic, indirect, and impersonal, “using passive, circumlocutory syntax as if you were looking over your shoulder at a PhD committee and were afraid they’d catch you with your feelings and ideas too nakedly exposed.” Instead of being a mere “research mouse” accumulating facts — “kick those Facts around” if necessary, Macdonald exhorted — he should learn to be a stylist. It was potent advice, but it could only be understood in the doing.

At one point, Atlas describes the peril of drowning in a sheer accumulation of data:

Manuscripts, clippings, transcriptions of interviews, and Xeroxed articles lay strewn about the floor. I crawled around amid the notecards laid out as if for some immense game of Solitaire until I developed rug burns on my knees. […] [F]ive-by-seven notecards were arranged in little piles; books were scattered everywhere.

His study looked like it had been ransacked. The mess included manila folders containing Schwartz’s typed journals, handwritten letters, articles clipped from yellowing magazines. The organizational issue for any biographer is to create some coherent order for the sake of a fluent narrative, but the chaos in the room is itself bewildering, destabilizing, hardly a landscape that assists clarity.

The novelist Saul Bellow had been another friend of Schwartz’s. Bellow had based the character of Von Humboldt Fleisher in Humboldt’s Gift (1975) — a “Mozart of conversation,” a “grand, erratic, handsome” poet — on Schwartz. A dapper, “small man with sad, liquid eyes,” Bellow agreed to be interviewed, though he could be cautious and circumspect. Atlas was drawn to him as a possible subject for a future biography, but Bellow was ambivalent, elusive, and noncommittal, aware of the potential betrayals, oversimplifications, and distortions of biography. Atlas had read Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man (1944), when he was 14 and admits that he had been obsessed with him afterward. His fascination was connected to their shared Chicago backgrounds and Russian-Jewish immigrant origins. In one sense, by choosing Bellow as his subject, he was “retrieving my own past.” He had been 24 when he began his book on Delmore Schwartz but 40 when he commenced his biography on Bellow.

He had stayed in touch over the years, interviewing Bellow for a profile in Vanity Fair in 1986. The living can be more querulous than the dead, and most biographers — notwithstanding Boswell’s admonitions — take comfort in chronicling the lives of the safely deceased, subjects who can’t talk back or dispute interpretations of events. Five years later, Atlas returned to Chicago to interview Bellow, who could twist facts or lie about extramarital affairs, “going over the same ground again and again in an effort to get the story straight.” Atlas interviewed everyone he could find who had known Bellow and continued interviewing Bellow for another five years. The responses often seemed both “random and rehearsed.” Bellow could be evasive, taciturn, prickly, snappy, derisive, caustic, or explosively angry.

The book took Atlas on a 10-year journey, and there were problems on the way. Bellow, for example, had been reluctant to allow access to his letters to friends, family, and literary companions like Ralph Ellison, John Berryman, Philip Roth, and Bernard Malamud. Eventually, Atlas was allowed to read them, finding them to be “laced with comic flourishes, rhetorical bombast, malice, tenderness, rage, self-justification […] and operatic notes.” These “fossils of feeling” — as Janet Malcolm once characterized personal letters — helped to reveal the essentials.

When the biography appeared in 2000, Atlas was disappointed by what he considered “splenetic reviews,” dismissals that he attributes in some part to Bellow’s notorious political incorrectness. While any biographer needs the intuition and sensitivity of a hummingbird, an even more valuable prerequisite is the skin of a rhinoceros. While Atlas deserves much praise for his fortitude and persistence, the wry wit often expressed in footnotes or asides, and his penetrating command of detail, his own prose certainly shows vulnerabilities, particularly with similes that often seem too facile. Once, excited about seeing Bellow at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, he compares himself to a birder in Central Park “spotting a rare painted bunting.” A few pages later, visiting Bellow in Chicago, he is like “a deep-sea diver poised to go under in search of tropical fish.” Such images are stale, lacking the remarkable pungency of Bellow’s own evocations — such as his complaint about a photograph in The New York Times Book Review making him look like “a herring that’s been left out in the rain too long.” There are some grounds on which the biographer should not compete with his subject.

Near the end of The Shadow in the Garden, Atlas describes two separate meetings with Bellow’s sons. One claimed that Atlas, in his biography, had gotten “carried away by [his] admiration for Saul.” It is true that, several times in The Shadow in the Garden, Atlas claims Bellow was the greatest writer in the United States — always a dangerous and perhaps a foolishly self-justifying remark for a biographer to make. To be sure, Bellow believed he was the greatest, but canon formation occurs in the more deliberate measurements of critics and literary historians. In the second meeting, Atlas confessed to Adam Bellow, himself an editor of some distinction, that he never felt he really knew his father: “I never felt that I got him.” It is a poignant admission, but one that reminds us of Holmes’s evocation of the shadow: fugitive, evasive, blurred in the mists of memory.


John Tytell completed a dissertation on Henry James under Leon Edel’s direction in 1968. He has written several biographical studies, including Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation (1976) and Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano (1987). His most recent book is Beat Transnationalism (2017).

LARB Contributor

John Tytell is best known for Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano and Naked Angels, an early history of the Beats. He had two new books appear in 2014: Writing Beat and Other Occasions of Literary Mayhem and The Beat Interviews.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!