James Atlas is a writer and the founding editor of the Lipper/Viking Penguin Lives series. He is the author of two biographies; the first, on the poet Delmore Schwartz, was published in 1977 and nominated for a National Book Award. His second, a biography of novelist and Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, published in 2000, was the product of more than decade of research and the unprecedented cooperation of the subject.
For many years Atlas served as an editor at The New York Times Magazine and Book Review. He has also contributed articles and essays to numerous publications including The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic, and is the author of a memoir, My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor’s Tale.
We spoke to Atlas about his latest book, The Shadow in the Garden, a meditation on the art of biography and the relationship between a biographer and his subjects.
How did this project come about?
This project came about because of a remarkable day – biographers are very attached to exact dates – April 21, 1995. I was halfway through my biography of Saul Bellow, and I had spent another weird, stimulating day with him, and he said, “You should really write a book about writing this book.”
Which is something I had been thinking of for some time, being an assiduous student of Boswell and his Life of Johnson, in which Boswell becomes a character, perhaps the major character of his book – not at the expense of his subject and certainly not in competition with his subject, but as a way of seeing his subject whole. I didn’t do that at the time, but I kept thinking about it and thinking about it and some fifteen years later I realized this was what I wanted to do.
The Shadow in the Garden is how Bellow described a biographer. He said the biographer is “the shadow of a tombstone in the garden.” In other words the harbinger of death, but I left the tombstone part out because it was more felicitous.
How would you describe the art of biography from the point of view of the biographer? What makes biography different from other genres of nonfiction writing?
It’s really an effort to see your subject from within. That is, we imagine the biographer as an objective figure, standing outside his subject and recording and investigating what can be learned and known, but what I discovered after a lifetime of this is that the biographer is utterly emmeshed in the subject and can’t separate himself out. So the only way you can really write biography – whether the biographer’s presence is explicitly in the text or not – is to be aware of this relationship. You can be “correct,” you can be “accurate,” but you cannot be “objective.”
In terms of the second part of your question, when you think of writing history, it is possible to remove yourself from the story you are trying to tell – well, except in the deepest psychoanalytic sense. But in biography, there is one central figure, and you have established a human relationship with the subject, and you have to mediate somehow this illusion of objectivity. Which, again, is not to absolve the biographer of responsibility for accuracy. But what you have there is a relationship, like any other relationship – a marriage or a friendship. You’re in it, whether you want to be or not.
Your book is partly about the relationship between a biographer and his subjects, and how strong that relationship can be even in cases, as with Delmore Schwartz, when the subject is dead before you begin writing. What would you say drew you to your subjects, Schwartz and Saul Bellow?
I have a distinction I make in the book between “overt” and “covert” biography. For whatever reasons I seem to be a writer of overt biographies, in which the connection between subject and biographer is quite explicit in the biographical sense.
In the case of Delmore, I was a young poet, and he was born the same year as my father, and he came from the same Jewish immigrant background, and he went to the same colleges, and he knew my teacher at Harvard, Robert Lowell, and all of this conspired to make him a very intriguing figure to me and someone in whose life I could perhaps find certain keys to my own.
This was even more the case with Bellow. I’m from Chicago, and his life intersected my family’s life in tangential, not significant, ways. Nonetheless it was a way of thinking about, writing and researching about, a world I knew about secondhand and wanted to know firsthand.
There is that old adage that cautions against meeting your heroes, because you’ll inevitably be disappointed. Do you think that’s true?
Yes. I feel quite definitively I understood Delmore better than I understood Bellow because I was able to write about Delmore without my perspective being adulterated, as it were, by familiarity. Whereas with Bellow, as great as he was – a Nobel laureate and the greatest writer of English prose at that time – he was also a person, and unfortunately a rather annoying person. And I was probably annoying too, so we got rather entangled there.
I remember Scott Turow, my friend and writer colleague from the North Shore of Chicago, wrote a piece in The Atlantic where he said he didn’t want to meet Bellow. And he never did. Because Bellow was his hero too, but he thought, wisely, that he would just keep his distance. I don’t think he has any regrets about that.
This is a book in which you are partly the subject, but that doesn’t mean you just sat down and wrote; you clearly did a lot of digging, just as you would when doing a biography of someone else. What kind of research did you do, and how does one go about researching one’s own life?
How does one do this kind of research? I wish I did more. But I did write down everything Bellow said to me, for a decade. I had the sense to just do that, without knowing why. And I had other scattered notes, and so on. But what I would say is, if you want to write about your life in any way, you need to keep a journal. Alfred Kazin fanatically kept a journal for every day of his life. And then he would quarry them for a book like New York Jew. All the material was there. That made his books very vivid, that one in particular. You just can’t remember otherwise. You have to write it down.
One of the settings that your book conveys very vividly is this lost world of New York intellectuals – a time and place when someone could live in New York on the income of a poet or a literary critic and have a decent standard of living. That world seems so far gone. Is it?
When I got to New York in 1977 it was already over. I didn’t know anyone who lived like that. Me and my friends were all professionals. We had careers. My first job was a corporate job at Time Magazine and I was paid lots of money by those standards. But I couldn’t have lived in the Village like these people did. The ones that I interviewed and knew – Kazin and Rahv and all these Partisan Review intellectuals – were harking back to the 1940s, to the postwar period. My book is not only an elegy for a lost period, but an elegy for a period I didn’t even know.
Now, of course, it’s worse. Even the life I led when I first came to New York you couldn’t lead now; those magazines are dead or dying. Well, there are people who do – staff writers in their 40s and 50s who work for magazines like The New Yorker and so on. They seem to be making their way. But they aren’t writing for little magazines and they aren’t living on Horatio Street.
What is your next project?
Alas, I can’t talk about it. I just can’t. I am even further from realizing what I am trying to do with this one than with my last book. One thing I don’t think people understand is that when you start a book you have no idea what you’re doing. I would say: if I have a really good proposal a year from now I will be happy. That’s how that works.
Interview by J. Oliver Conroy
Photo by Michael Lionstar